Perspective on the art of Technology Transfer
Why would you look into using technology from another sector – like space – as a means for your current innovation? The condensed answer: to do more with less, to take a shortcut towards your new solution.
Just 3 examples of how space technologies have found their way to our earthly lives. In each of them, space technology forms a piece of the puzzle to create new products or services.
Using existing technology and applying it into a new field, such as your sector, can be an efficient way to innovate. It could save you from the risks that need to be mitigated during development, but it can also just save you time. This efficiency is of course valuable and not so easily done as said.
There are many models, methodologies and processes being used by R&D, innovation and development departments. One of the methods we regularly use is the '5 steps to technology transfer'. It's a simple model to understand what needs to be done in order to get to the next 'stage'.
Another useful tool in implementing a foreign technology into your solution, also known as a technology transfer, is the use of TRL (Technology Readiness Level) versus the DRL (Demand Readiness Level). It helps to understand where you stand today, and via which route you plan to reach a transfer. Or when you do get stuck, via which way you can get out.
In this article however, we would like to highlight a few important topics that influence your success but are more 'under the surface'. Probably due the less direct or tangible nature versus the concrete looking process mentioned above.
It's about creating new added value
When you're innovation or developing a solution, you're in the process of creating new value for you organization. This added value is often new financial value, but can also be strategical, employee, tactical or political oriented. In all cases, you create this new value by adding, combining or even inventing new treats to your product or service. This means that you're focusing on the wanted, positive effects that your new solution should create (e.g. lighter, faster, smarter, etc.)
But at the same time, this addition of new elements also creates unwanted (side) effects: in the performance of your product or service, somewhere in the company, in the production chain or with the user, or further down the line with your end-user.
An example is the energy demand which rose dramatically in the beginning of the 1900's. There was a high demand for all sorts of energy to fuel the Industry 1.0. A solution came from new ways to create larger amounts of energy, e.g. using large amounts of coal and oil. These were wanted effects, both for the companies involved and for the end-users (people in the developed parts of the world).
However, simple and sad to conclude afterwards, it planted the seed for unwanted effects like disturbing the Earth's ecosystem, which we currently need to be solving at a huge scale.
And although an assumption, I'm pretty sure the engineers and entrepreneurs in the 1900's weren't yet aware of the real impact of these unwanted effects, neither did they intend to create them. These were a by-product of the 'real' product that seemed unimportant during the development. So when creating new added value, think about the unwanted effects and solve them before they backfire.
Zoom out, before you zoom in
One way to speed up the exploration of opportunities is to start with making your challenge or problem more abstract. E.g. have it explained by a child or try to explain it to them. This reveals what the broader opportunity is about and enables you to think about possible directions or opportunities.
For example: the shipping industry wants to decrease their share of harmful emissions. One way to go is to start thinking which emissions are harmful, like CO2. How are they compiled and generated? Then think of solutions how to reduce them. This immediately asks for specialists, e.g. in the field of engines, air-quality or chemical compositions, in order to get a deeper understanding before starting to solve the problem. A correct approach, by the way.
Another way to look at it, in parallel, is to make it abstract: emissions are created by engines that are needed to propel the vessel. Which other ways of propelling can we imagine?
We could use wind, solar, water, salt, air, current, ion-drive … Or, how could we diminish the amount of vessels? Can we set up an open source logistics platform that enables continents to make more efficient use of trade? This could result in less vessels needed. When you zoom out, you come up with different solutions that require different technologies.
Before you can think of solutions, you need to know the problem or at least the topics that revolve around your challenge. This isn't something to take too lightly, so we encourage our clients to take enough time to understand the problem behind the problem, or the job-to-be-done. Once you get an thorough understanding, you're free to experiment with the detailed problem.
An effective way to do this? Take a short description of existing technologies, e.g. 150 space technologies. With each technology you 'force' yourself to use it somewhere in your challenge. Most of them will be absurd or even impossible, however you'll create a much wider view of your solution potential. Most of the times you find something that could help your innovation. Either directly or as an inspiration for a new idea that creates (part of) your new added value.
It's operation versus innovation
In operational projects and processes you focus on getting the deliverable done, in the way you usually do it (make it manageable). Innovation is focused on learning, exploring and creating new ways. Operational processes can be rigid and this is part of their strength. If people in operations would be creating new ways of working every week, again and again, your company would be operating inefficient.
An innovation process though should actually aim to create unexpected results: new unthinkable answers. It deliberately creates room to experiment, and asks you and your stakeholders to go beyond the topic, to learn as much as you can before choosing the optimal combination of solutions that fit this particular challenge.
An innovation process is meant to create something new, yet an operational process is meant to repeat what we know that works. Don't treat your innovation project as any other project.
Most organizations are setup in various business units, which are connected and tied together in some kind of form (matrix, pyramid …). Sales, growth hacking, marketing, customer service, client satisfaction, asset management, strategy, even innovation can be a separate unit in your organization. All these units are very capable of creating new solutions and realizing them … within their own unit.
It's much more time-consuming and risky when it exceeds multiple units. The natural instinct of such organizations? To push the projects that are within the span of control, and to be cautious with the projects that require multiple units to cooperate. The effect is that the incremental innovations (within a unit) are pushed, but the ones that are able to create new added value are kept at a distance. Not because of a well considered choice, but because of the traditional natural flow of the organization.
New added value requires company holistic thinking and actions.
New added value is always a result of the joint effort between technology, business and user related novelties. It implies that the people behind these topics will need to not only work together, but more importantly they will need to decide together which things to develop and which ones to let go. This requires 'company holistic' thinking and actions, rather than a business unit focus (What's best for our business unit? How will I grow my team? What will create the best KPI's for our division?). It's sometimes the organization itself that can obstruct the creation of new value for the company.
For example, Feadship is one of the large luxury yachts builders in the world. It's a Dutch company with about 600 engineers working on creating the newest, never-done-before ship: because that's the reason why billionaires buy such vessels. So Feadship is very experienced in building new things, that work and don't exceed the total budget.
The analogy with building a space ship is easily made, once you think about it. And the way that ESA is able to build complex, new, reliable, never-done-before ships is by using concurrent design. This methodology is the pinnacle of a multidisciplinary approach. With large and complex questions, ESA gathers all disciplines together in one room: co-create with engineers that normally don't work together, since they only solve part of the problem (f.e. an electrical engineer is usually not involved in the purchasing process). Every challenge and solution is analyzed quickly before receiving a green light by all disciplines.
Using the same methodology when building a complex luxury yacht, Feadship was able to manage their engineering, building and customer service in a quicker and more reliable way, without sacrificing the added value of creating new solutions. It enabled them to involve e.g. all 8 sister companies in the design process. Also the marketing department benefits, because they could even involve their (high value) clients into specific design decisions.
It's a people journey
Technology transfer is just like any other innovation project a 'journey to learn': to learn where the added value lies and how to address it. Learning can be confronting, because it needs you to open up, show your vulnerabilities, except failure and therefore it takes sincere effort. You also need to be more vulnerable than in usual projects, so it takes a bit of courage to do this. But you do it, just like your colleagues. You show all your cards, you're not afraid to make mistakes and be corrected by your employees. And now, you're even doing this together with another company. That's technology transfer.
The people side of working together can easily be underestimated in such a situation. Luckily engineers are more used to work together and find the optimal solution together. But since this is a multidisciplinary process, you need to be aware that not everyone in the team is eager to show their ideas. They might see it as a threat that can influence their careers or their standing in an organization. A sales person can for instance operate very different than a customer service person. They're both needed to understand if the innovation is going in the right direction (on all fronts at the same time) and if all negative side affects are visible and being dealt with.
It isn't a simple challenge. One of the tricks to use co-creating and work sessions? To make sure that even the tough discussions are being understood by the whole team, and therefore will be accepted. So spending time, having respect, being kind, using discussions and creating solutions with your team and the different organizations involved is actually essential. Don't underestimate this and assume that 'the others also know we're all looking for added value, so they need to accept that we're going in this direction'.
It's essential that the different organizations in a technology transfer spend time, have respect, be kind, use discussions and create solutions.
Only start, if you plan to finish
Creating this new value for your organization, in whatever form or shape, means in the end the company will benefit from the result. Even if the result is negative or doesn't create a new solution, it always creates valuable learnings. Consequently this journey isn't a free lunch. It's only started because the organization wants to reach a goal: it wants to have new added value that the company can benefit from. So when you start, plan to finish it.