If technology transfer came in a kit, everyone would buy it because successful technology transfer is a must-have commodity in today’s knowledge economy. Simply defined, technology transfer is the process of taking a new idea, proving it can work, finding a good way to use it, and then making it commercially available as a product that generates enough profit to justify the expense. Economic benefits to the individuals, organizations, communities, and region increase every time this process is successfully completed.
High potential return with high stakes and high failure rates make technology transfer far more coveted and attempted than successfully achieved-an exercise in achieving potential that isn’t an easy task, nor one that lends itself to an assemble-by-number kit.
Why bother with the process? The long answer is because technology transfer is a must-have commodity in today’s knowledge economy. The short answer is because we-the Peoria area-can.
The USDA National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR Ag Lab) has been an innovator in the evolving technology transfer process since Congress authorized the creation of the lab in 1938 to find new uses for surplus agricultural products. Two of the valuable lessons learned from the Ag Lab’s long history of achieving commercialization success: use every available tool to accomplish the task and upgrade and expand the tools.
The Congressional charter that established NCAUR specifically included the authority to work directly with industry-a unique and powerful tool for government laboratories in 1938. NCAUR leveraged this authority to begin an outstanding legacy of invention and technology transfer, including the methods for mass development of penicillin, dextrans, Xanthan gum, soybean oil processing technologies, enzyme systems for the production of high fructose corn sweeteners, and the super-absorbent technology found in products such as diapers and agricultural seed coatings.
However, many other useful inventions were prevented from being commercialized by existing laws that offered little or no investment protection to industry, rendering promising technologies unattractive in terms of risk. NCAUR urged Congress to make changes to these laws.
As a result, Congress gave federal laboratories the authority to grant exclusive licenses to their patents, which reduced risk by protecting the commercialization investment made by private companies. Later, Congress further reduced the investment risk by permitting these laboratories to enter into confidential, cooperative R&D agreements (CRADAs) with private firms to transfer federal technology. Using these legal incentives as new tools, NCAUR successfully commercialized the innovative food ingredients Oatrim and Fluffy Cellulose, in addition to pest control devices, fermentation technologies, and other inventions.
Still, other commercialization opportunities continued to be hindered by a lack of investment capital. This was especially the case for technologies licensed by small companies without the financial and physical resources to produce enough new material to demonstrate application suitability, commercial viability of the production method, or potential market demand. As a result of a request from NCAUR, Congressman Ray LaHood sponsored legislation that allows NCAUR to make its pilot plant available to CRADA partners for the production and sale of new product to determine the market potential and attract investment capital. The ability to share this resource with partners represented a step of significant impact.
The technologies discussed to this point were market-ready and commercialized with the assistance of a company prepared to single-handedly move the product from the laboratory to the marketplace. However, the dynamics of today’s global marketplace generally require the enhanced power of multiple partnerships to provide the resources, specialized expertise, and risk sharing for rapid and successful technology transfer. This evolution to multiple partners is more than an additional tool; it’s a new model for technology transfer.
Using this new model of technology transfer, NCAUR entered into agreements with zuChem, an R&D startup company with technical expertise, and the Biotechnology Research and Development Corporation (BRDC), an intellectual property management company with research funding resources. This multiple-partner collaboration is speeding development of a new NCAUR bioprocess for the production of mannitol, a specialty chemical for food, drug, and agricultural applications.
Contrary to the old model of technology transfer, R&D companies such as zuChem are positioned to achieve success by selling their entire business to a major corporation-or by sublicensing their now market-ready technology to an industry leader. A number of these companies exist in central Illinois, including ADM and PMP Fermentation, each with production facilities located in Peoria. This fast, agile manner of moving an idea from the lab to the marketplace-and then doing it again and again-demonstrates how competitive advantage is built in today’s knowledge economy.
In spite of NCAUR’s impressive role and achievements in technology transfer, it’s significant that to date, not one commercialized technology has been based in Peoria. NCAUR, along with other institutions in this area, continues to produce new technological ideas. Working together to provide the necessary security, shared resources and enhanced power of multiple partnerships is how we can ensure the Peoria area achieves the must-have commodity of successful technology transfer. IBI