Innovation is widely accepted as a central driver for economic growth and development in developed countries. Like most Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, the UAE is keen on building a secure and sustainable economy for the future, one that is less dependent on natural resources and less exposed to volatile markets. In 2010, the UAE government announced its national growth strategy known as the 'Economic Vision 2021' which aims to transform the economy into a 'knowledge-based, highly productive and competitive economy' built on innovation, research, science and technology. While many countries have translated this to mean more research funding and start-up incubators, building a sustainable knowledge-based economy requires a more holistic approach. Although high quality research and incubation support is important, without proper intellectual property (IP) management and technology transfer processes, as well as access to industry and venture capital to support the adoption of new technology, most of these technologies will fail to reach the market. These elements must come together to create an innovation ecosystem capable of bridging the gap between research, innovation and economic impact.
So what is technology transfer?
Simply put, technology transfer is the process by which research or technology assets are managed and transformed into innovations which reach the market and wider society. Most academic and research institutes establish so called 'technology transfer' offices to facilitate this process. A notable example of successful technology transfer is the Google search engine which is an outcome of Stanford University's technology transfer process. Private companies tend to have innovation management or technology implementation departments which essentially have the same mandate to support the growth of their business by protecting and commercialising their IP and ensuring they have the IP rights and freedom to operate within that commercial space. The model of a centralised technology transfer office has also been discussed as a way to optimise knowledge-sharing between entities and ensure resources are directed towards innovations with the greatest potential. These offices can be designed to focus on supporting specific technology sectors or supporting entities within a geographic location.
Before funding research, invest in an IP landscape analysis!
Before investing in a technology, it's important to understand the industry challenges and the drawbacks of existing solutions on the market. To illustrate let's look at water technology. Most of the GCC region relies on desalination plants to produce drinking water. Following the recent collapse of oil prices, drinking water has become costlier than petrol in the GCC. In fact, Saudi Arabia is classed as one of the most water-scarce nations and responsible for one-fifths of water production in the world. Water desalination is currently a very energy intensive and costly process. In addition, there are environmental concerns around the management of its by-products. There is a need to develop more efficient and sustainable desalination techniques which consume less energy. Research in this area is focused on designing more durable and effective membranes to produce more water per unit of energy, better uses of the resulting brine and its management, and reclaiming waste water and reuse. Rather than funding general water projects, funding should consider developing solutions that can be implemented regionally, which complement existing infrastructure, capabilities, resources and aim to solve global industry problems as this will have greater potential for IP generation and wider commercial application.
An IP landscape analysis can be very helpful in designing a research strategy. An IP landscape is an analysis of the existing patents and patent applications in a technology space to determine who owns core IP and what are the latest technology innovations within that space. This information will identify potential collaborating partners and allow you to map out the IP 'white spaces' or potential areas for IP development. In addition, the analysis will reveal proprietary IP that may be needed in order to commercialise technology. You may want to consider collaborating with these IP holders to license in their background IP or inventing around their IP. If they are commercialising similar products or services, they may be potential licensees for your technology. The analysis will also reveal patent filing trends in that technology space. This is important because a technology which is hot right now might not be in two years because of shifts within that industry, for example, changes in regulatory requirements or other potential technical or commercial barriers that may impede commercialisation. Investing early on in an in-depth IP landscape analysis of the technology space will not only help you prioritise projects for investment but also avoid the risk of patent litigation down the road.
Establish proper IP management and technology transfer practices
IP development and commercialisation is usually a collective effort of research, collaboration, licensing, acquisition and may require expert consulting. Creating an IP policy framework is critical for setting out the organisations' position on IP ownership, protection and commercialisation. It ensures that from the onset regardless who works on a project, IP remains the property of the organisation. It provides external consultants and collaborators with an opportunity to review the organisation's terms and conditions relating to IP before entering into any agreements. It ensures that the organisations IP interests are protected and managed to drive positive social and economic impact for the organisation. Once an IP policy is in place, it is important to have a centralised IP management or technology transfer function be responsible for implementing the policy and setting out clear guidelines and procedures to ensure that all programs and agreements are aligned.
To ensure that IP is captured and managed properly, processes and procedures should be established to ensure that inventions and any technical developments are disclosed to the technology transfer office early on and evaluated for patentability and marketability. Generally speaking, an invention needs to be controllable (i.e. through patents, contracts, trade secrets or a combination), commercially viable and strategically important to incentivise investment in its protection and commercialisation. The patent filing strategy for a technology should consider protection in countries where the technology will be manufactured, commercialised and where competitors may operate. Depending on the industry and the market opportunity, the route to market for a given technology will usually be determined by the type of technology innovation in question. 'Disruptive innovations' which introduce revolutionary products or services and create new markets tend to be better placed in start-ups whereas incremental technology improvements or 'sustaining innovations' get to market faster through licensing to existing companies.
Most inventions will require further development work and testing before a potential licensee will be interested in licensing out the technology. Setting up a technology maturation or proof of concept fund is critical to advance these technologies to a licensable state. If internal funding is limited, another approach is to link these ideas with local incubator programs who can support the technical and market validation of these ideas as well as the business planning phase.
Build the 'innovation' ecosystem
For successful transfer of new technology to the market, it is essential to bring together all of the elements of an innovation ecosystem. A research and development strategy that is closely linked with IP strategy ensures that research funding is directed towards projects that have the highest potential to yield commercialisable IP. Solid IP management and technology transfer processes ensure that innovations with the greatest potential receive the support needed to package them for a potential licensee or start-up. Incubators and accelerators connect potential innovations with industry and investors. And last but not least, to spur the development of tech-based industries which drive economic growth, you need a culture with the appetite for investing in innovation.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.