- Notes from the Field
In “Technology Transition: A Model for Infusion and Commercialization,” Vernotto McMillan proposes that the results of a business process reengineering (BPR) exercise begun in 2000 at the Marshall Space Flight Center be used as the basis for a major reconsideration of how NASA technology development and transfer activities are carried out. McMillan further recommends that the Technology Investment Program (TIP), developed on a pilot scale concurrent with the BPR exercise with support from the NASA Innovation Partnerships Program Office (IPPO), be considered as a model program for development of technologies applicable to both government and commercial markets. The IPPO is housed under the NASA associate administrator and manages major NASA technology development and transfer programs that cut across NASA’s mission directorates and centers. The IPPO programs include the congressionally mandated Technology Transfer program, the SBIR/STTR programs, a venture-capital-investment program called the Enterprise Engine, and the URETI (University Research, Engineering, and Technology Institutes) program.
Up until the time of the launch of the BPR exercise, IPPO efforts were aimed at deploying NASA-developed technologies to the commercial sector. This approach was rooted in the linear model of technological innovation, wherein discoveries from government-sponsored basic research “spin-off” to industry, where they are commercially produced through a sequence of discreet steps including applied research, technology development, and design. The weaknesses of the linear model of technological innovation are now well understood, including its failure to accommodate the intense feedback that occurs between the stages of the process or the overriding emphasis in commercial sectors on rapid incremental improvement to existing technologies. Given this, it is not surprising that less than 5% of technologies developed for NASA missions have ever been commercialized, or that most industry licensing of NASA technologies has been aimed at forestalling competition to existing products from new technologies rather than new technology development, according to McMillan. [End Page 32]
Also reflecting the linear model of technological innovation, NASA technology development projects have traditionally been carried out either by individual NASA units or contractors. Joint technology development involving collaboration between NASA units and private-sector partners, or even spanning multiple NASA units, has been rare, “reinvention of the wheel” is a commonplace, and many promising technologies have never been developed beyond the proof-of-concept or prototype stages. NASA launched its BPR initiative with the dual objectives of simultaneously accelerating the transfer of technologies from its mission programs to commercial markets, and infusing new technologies into its missions (sometimes also referred to as “technology spin-out and spin-in”). The result was creation and adoption of a technology development and transfer model aimed at bringing together industry, government, and commercialization strategies to develop NASA technologies that had at least successfully undergone proof-of-concept and perhaps advanced as far as prototype demonstration, but no further, for infusion into mission programs and commercialization in the private sector.
The BPR exercise identified a set of four key technology development process elements necessary for simultaneous mission agency and commercial adoption of new technologies. These are: 1) a clear link to the technology needs of an agency mission directorate; 2) a written statement of support and financial support from an agency program manager; 3) participation in the form of resources, ideas, and capabilities from an external commercialization partner; and 4) participation by the agency technology licensing office. Concurrent with the BPR activity, TIP was created by the IPPO and provides a model for how the results of the BPR effort might be put into practice. In 2006, 23 TIP projects were funded with approximately $1.7 million from the IPPO, $3 million from participating mission directorates, and $3 million from industry partners. Approximately 10% of the technologies developed were infused into NASA programs and also resulted in new commercial products, and all of these successful technology infusion and commercialization efforts shared the four elements identified through the BPR exercise.
McMillan’s essay makes an important contribution to our field by identifying critical features of a successful mission-science-agency technology infusion and commercialization program. Of course, the concept of simultaneous technology infusion and commercialization by mission science agencies is not new...