TECHNOLOGY TRANSFER: BRINGING RESEARCH, DEVELOPMENT, PRODUCTION, AND USERS TOGETHER
Technology transfer is a term widely used to describe several activities that hold the promise of bringing more assistive technology devices to market for individuals with disabilities. Technology transfer is "the process of taking scientific knowledge applied to one device, and applying it to another device." Such transfers can take place between and among different scientific disciplines, professionals, industries, economic sectors, geographic regions, or countries (Reisman, 1989).
Those working in the assistive technology field are well aware of both the need for new devices and the failure of old ones. Successes encourage market entrance, failures discourage them. Existing technologies that may fulfill needs of people with disabilities may not be brought to market because of the gaps between development and resources and perceived and existing consumer needs.
The majority of manufacturers of assistive technology devices are small to medium sized businesses. Larger companies that have sufficient scientific and engineering resources for product development and research are hesitant to enter the assistive technology market due to a perceived smaller return on investment. Smaller companies with an existing presence in the AT market are reluctant as well, due to insufficient resources for product research and development.
According to the Rehabilitation Engineering and Research Center on Technology Evaluation and Transfer (RERC-TEC) at the University of Buffalo in New York, the technology transfer process has several key elements (Lane, 1997). These elements may come together in different order depending upon the nature and origin of the product developed and whether the development was "pulled" by consumer/user demand or "pushed" by suppliers. The five element are the following:
The RERC-TEC has developed a process to increase the successful introduction of new AT products and hopefully reduce the failure rate. Its process emphasizes bringing manufacturers and consumers together so that the assistive technology that is brought to market is what users of AT want and will use.
To facilitate this approach, the RERC-TEC sponsors consumer focus groups, composed of 8-10 "end users" (persons with disabilities), "secondary users" (family members and caregivers), and providers. Participants in the focus group are asked to describe:
Focus groups help identify core product benefits, the "must haves," key product features, and product trade-offs. Similar market research has been conducted for years and is the backbone of successful product development in other industries: find out what the customer wants and deliver it to the market faster and better. These focus groups try to define the essential features and the desired features of an AT product. Consumers or users are asked to judge the concept of "believability," likely performance, market niche or uniqueness when compared to existing products, differences from existing products, likely ability of the product to meet specific needs, and their likelihood of purchase.
Evaluation of the Prototype
The RERC-TEC model of user involvement further calls for customer evaluation of the product prototype in actual conditions, the "test drive." These evaluations supplement laboratory evaluation by the product engineers. Customer evaluation of the prototype can focus the attention of the product engineers on less readily "quantifiable" measures of a potential product's success (i.e., comfort and handling), and even more subjective "feel" of the product. Users doing product prototype evaluations are asked to record their daily use of the product in a journal and compare the prototype with existing products. Finally, users are asked to indicate "likelihood of buying," "price point," and product deficiencies. Several focus groups may meet at different stages of product development. Through this process the RERC-TEC is building a database for potential consumers/users of future products. The RERC-TEC makes these discussions available to manufacturers to help identify gaps in the market for potential new products. These focus groups help manufacturers screen product concepts at the drawing board stage and determine the appropriate allocation of internal resources for product development.
Other Federal Initiatives in Technology Transfer
The Federal Lab Consortium (FLC) is the nationwide network of Federal Laboratories with over 700 member research and development (R & D) laboratories and centers from seventeen different federal agencies and departments. The FLC provides the mechanisms to move government technologies to the marketplace, for the benefit of all consumers.
The Federal Technology Transfer Act of 1986 was the legislation leading to the creation and funding of the Federal Laboratory Consortium. This legislation made technology transfer a responsibility of all federal laboratory scientists and engineers. It further mandated that responsibility for technology transfer be considered in laboratory employee performance evaluations, and allowed laboratories to build on Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAS) and make advance agreements with large and small companies.
Further, the National Technology Transfer Act and Enhancement Act of 1995 (Pub. Law. 104-113), was enacted with the objective of encouraging the Federal Labs to expand national and global industrial competitiveness by promoting public-private partnerships. This legislation amended the Federal Technology Transfer Act in order to create incentives and eliminate barriers to encourage technology commercialization.
The FLC works to create linkages between government-developed technologies and potential users, developers, and manufacturers of these technologies in the private, local, and state government sectors. The extensive resources and expertise of the members labs of FLC are available to promote the development of new assistive technologies. These federal resources, unlike resources in the private sector, are not tied to a bottom line, so that a portion of the lab's efforts can be re-directed towards assistive technology innovations. Most federal labs also have the ability to design, fabricate, and test prototypes in-house at low cost and many labs already have the required legal expertise as well to deal with consumer liability and intellectual property issues related to product development and production.
The work of the Federal Labs in the areas of technologies related to space exploration, national security and defense can and have had an impact on the development of technologies for people with physical, sensory, and cognitive disabilities.
For example, a software program developed to evaluate the physiological and behavioral effects of flight systems on pilots has been adapted to become part of a system that will help educators communicate with significantly disabled students. NASA's Langley Research Center is presently teaming with partners in the private sector and the Montgomery County (Ohio) Board on Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities to find ways to objectively measure what information disabled students are gaining from their environment to assist in developing a specialized educational curriculum.
Until recently, however, the traditional Federal Labs did not collaborate with or understand the research mission of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) funded research centers. The Consumer's Assistive Technology Network (CATN) is funded under a two year supplemental grant from NIDRR to the New Mexico Technology Assistance Program (NMTAP) which is in the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation/ State Department of Education. CATN is in close proximity to prominent national labs including Sandia National Laboratory, Phillips Laboratory, and Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The CATN involves consumers, family members, entrepreneurs, researchers and service providers in AT technology transfer networking and problem solving. Collaborative links are being established with all fifty-six Tech Act Projects, the RERCs and the Federal Labs. The CATN identifies linkages to resources for consumers/users regarding difficult to solve assistive technology needs. The CATN also assists developers, researchers and engineers in identifying resources for development and commercialization of product prototype and technology applications.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is another government agency participating in the technology transfer chain. The Ames Research Center is working with the Tetra Society. The Tetra Society is a non-profit whose purpose is to recruit skilled volunteer engineers and technicians to develop assistive technology devices and to act as a clearinghouse to connect people with disabilities directly with engineers and technicians who can produce adapted devices. Further efforts by NASA labs include the development of a long range plan and national model for the effective transfer and commercialization of technology to benefit people with disabilities.
The Department of Veteran Affairs is also involved in technology transfer and has established a separate Technology Transfer Section (TTS) within the Department's Rehabilitation Research and Development Section. The TTS attempts to bridge the gaps between research, development, and manufacturing by procuring assistive technology product models, evaluating these models to ascertain their ability to meet veterans needs and defining market readiness. TTS also assists in identifying manufacturers. The VA's ultimate goal is the timely transition of products from prototypes to commercialized models for the benefit of disabled veterans or other non-veterans with disabilities.
Technology Transfer Websites
Consumer Assistive Technology Transfer Network:
ABLEDATA - Listing companies developing AT products.
Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer
Tetra Society of Medicine Hat
Jain, A. K., & Usaik, D. J. (1997). Consumer orientation:
Blueprint for action. Proceeding of the RESNA '97 Annual
Conference (17th ed., pp. 136-138). Arlington, VA. RESNA Press.
Lane, J. P. (1997). The technology transfer process: Towards a consensus on terms and elements. Proceedings of the RESNA '97 Annual Conference (17th ed., pp. 130-135). Arlington, VA. RESNA Press.
Reisman, A. (1989). Technology-transfer: A taxonomic view. Journal of Technology Transfer (Summer-Fall), 31-36.