Technology Transfer

For almost a decade, the Archimedes Project has been struggling with the problems of transfering accessibility solutions from the laboratory to the people who need them.

A great deal of collective thought led us to create the Archimedes "Circle of Fulfilment" which shows all of the steps required to get from recognizing accessibility problems to providing practical accessibility solutions. The Circle of Fulfilment is represented by two circular sequences that are read clockwise from the top center (Users). The outer circle describes the people involved in the process and the inner circle describes the problems, processes and solutions required to fulfil the special needs of a user.

Circle of Fulfillment
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The Circle of Fulfillment begins and ends with the user. Every person who uses an IT device has different needs, abilities, preferences and cultural references. These differences are often ignored by the designers of off-the-shelf technologies, forcing each user to learn the "correct" way to use the particular device or software application. This can present insurmountable problems to Individuals who don't have the necessary physical or cognitive skills to learn and use "standard" operational procedures.

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Universities are usually very good at performing studies to learn about the needs of a particular group; analyzing the needs to determine what could be done to alleviate the needs; and developing the necessary innovative raw technologies. What they are almost always not good at doing, is creating practical, reliable solutions that are easy to learn and use. University protoypes are generally obscure, full of bugs and notoriously unreliable. To get a real technology-based solution in a timely manner, it is necessary to prise the invention out of the hands of the inventor as soon as possible and pass it over to professional developers who understand the innovative nature of the research and the actual needs of the potential users, and can translate the inventors work into a proof-of-concept prototype.

In our experience at Stanford University, the transfer worked best when the inventor focused on writing a patent that captures the essence of the technology. The university licensing specialists use the patent as the primary vehicle for passing information to the developers. Where necessary, the inventors are generally able to act as consultants to fill in details that fall outside the scope of the patent. Writing a patent has a beneficial role for the inventor because it provides acknowledgement of individual insights and innovation, provides closure on a project, and frees the mind to get on with the next research challenge.

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Developers play a critical role in the technology transfer process. Inventors have an understandable reluctance to passing their ideas over to someone else for implementation. There is always the fear that someone will steal the intellectual property or not do a good job of interpreting the original concepts. It is not unusual for university "inventors" to have a superiority complex that makes them distrustful of the capabilities of other people who may get involved in the development process. With a few notable exceptions, university researchers have a poor track record for detaching themselves from the spectrum of possibilities created by their invention to an extent that allows them to sort out the must-haves from the nice-to-haves. Professional developers are trained to do this.

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Adequate funding is the critical link for success. While extremely competitive, getting research grants from federal agencies is relatively straightforward if the problem to be solved is real and clearly described, and the proposed research and the potential benefits are clearly stated. Even when highly successful from a research perspective, however, most university research projects do not leave the laboratory. There is a gulch between a successful lab demonstration and a fundable prototype that is incredibly difficult to cross.

The usual funding options include:

  1. Creating a startup company using personal funding from family, friends and fools, often described as 3F funding. Many attempts to commercialize an invention start in this way but few succeed.
  2. Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from one of the major federal agencies. Two percent of the federal research budget is allocated for SBIR grants. They provide ideal support for technology transfer and development of new businesses but they are extremely competitive and currently only about four percent of the applications are funded.
  3. Foundations, while they often support research for causes within their organizational priorities, seldom provide funding for commercialization. The will sometimes fund the development of a proof-of-concept prototype that can be used to convince other funding sources of the viability of an idea.
  4. Development contracts are sometimes obtained from agencies like the air force if an invention clearly meets a particular and urgent need.
  5. Angel funding comes from people with resources who are convinced that the proposed ideas are good and potentially commercial. An angel funder usually takes a strong interest in the company that is formed.
  6. Venture Capital comes from individuals or organizations that manage large investment accounts and gamble on the potential earning capabilities of proposed products. While they do a great deal of due diligence, they usually expect only one in ten of the projects they fund to be successful. Venture capital requires the inventors to give up most of the equity in an idea for the promise that they will still receive a large return on their holdings if the company is successful in going public a few years down the road.

The Archimedes Project has explored all of these funding options without a great deal of success. There is a strong perception within the funding community that products linked to disability and aging are more difficult to manage than normal consumer products because the wide variety of personal needs requires a high level of support. We have been told by VCs on several occasions that our products are too complicated for them to be interested in them. Their basic concept of a product is that it can be described on a single sheet of paper and can be sold in a shrink-wrapped packet to millions of customers with whom they will never have any interaction. There is also a perception that there is no money available to purchase products for disabilities and aging. The Archimedes Project is working to dispel these preconceptions by showing that aging people, for instance, have the major proportion of discretionary spending money.

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The manufacturers of accessibility and augmentative communication products have traditionally been mom 'n pop companies that grew out of personal involvement with making a solution for a family member or friend and then finding that others required the same solution. Over recent years, however there has been a change to much larger manufacturers that specialize in particular products for particular disabilities. With a few notable exceptions, these manufacturers have a very strong "not invented here" bias and they rarely take on products invented somewhere else.

The Archimedes Project is working with manufacturers that have not worked in the disability field before to show that technologies developed for disabled people will open up new market opportunities for them and also provide ways to improve their mainstream products. The goal is to use disability and aging products as a catalyst for establishing new businesses focused on providing better human computer interaction for everyone. Several new companies are currently being set up in Hawaii as joint ventures based on this model.

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Researchers tend to be very suspicious of marketers, naively believing that people will automatically flock to their new product. The reality is that commercial companies often spend much more money on the initial marketing of a product than they spent on the entire research and development. Even companies like IBM have wonderful technologies rusting away in back rooms because it has never been marketed properly. The major cost to a startup is in developing the markets that will sustain the eventual business.

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Accessibility Problems

The accessibility problems experienced by an individual user, or group of users, provide the starting point for the Circle of Fulfillment. These problems can range from inconvenience, through difficult to do, to impossible to do. Many people suffer problems in silence because they are unaware that there may be an alternative way for them to do whatever it is that is causing them difficulties. It is often the caregivers and therapists who recognize the problems and bring them to the attention of people who may be able to provide a solution. While off-the-shelf solutions are available in some cases, there often situations that necessitate new or highly personalized solutions.

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Needs Assessment

To be done properly, needs assessment is best done by a multidisciplinary team that includes the disabled or aging person, caregivers, employers, therapists and medical personnel. While many needs may be identified, only some of them may be critical to achieving a particular goal. Prioritizing the needs is important because there is almost never enough funding available to do everything a person would like to have. It is equally important that needs are categorized into those that can be met by existing products and those for which there are no viable products available. There must be a distinction between personal one-off solutions and solutions that satisfy groups of people with similar needs.

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By nature, researchers are inquisitive people who explore new territories without necessarily being driven by an identified need. In many cases, they discover something new and then go looking for a problem that fits the solution they have discovered. This approach has often led to inappropriate solutions being forced on someone because an inventor thinks they need it rather than knowing they need it. The limited resources available for finding solutions to problems related to disability and aging makes it crucial that research is focused and has realistic goals. It is also crucial that the researchers recognize that they are one of the steps in the overall process described by the Circle of Fulfillment. The research should result in one or more options for solving the identified needs with sufficient detail that a professional developer can create a proof-of-concept prototype. This prototype may be used by the researcher to evaluate and validate the solution or to show that more basic research is required. New technologies or concepts discovered during the research may require the researchers to write patent applications. While tedious, this is crucial for successful licensing and funding because funders are loathe to finance unprotected IP.

there are some situations in which research is required to meet the unique needs of a specific individual. In this situation, the researchers might work closely with developers to create a proof-of-concept prototype that is actually delivered to the end user. It may or may not follow through the rest of the steps in the Circle of Fulfillment, depending on whether other people recognize that it has wider application.

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Licensing Technologies

The normal flow of intellectual property (IP) from a research organization to a commercial organizations is through some form of licensing. At this stage, most of the Archimedes IP is held by, and can be licensed from Stanford University's Office of Technology Licensing (OTL). New IP is being developed in Hawaii and will become available through the University of Hawaii Office of Technology Transfer and Development (OTTD).

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Proof of Concept Prototypes

A proof-of-concept prototype fits between a lab demo and a product prototype. It is generally not pretty and has wires dangling between various functional modules that will eventually be combined into a single purpose-designed unit. It is sufficiently close to the proposed final product that non technical evaluators (funders) can grasp what it does, why it is better than what is already available, what the final system will be like, and what needs to be done to justify their investment. A careful balancing act is required because if the prototype appears to be complete, why would they invest in its development but if it is too crude, they may think the idea is not feasible.

There is a special case in which the proof-of-concept prototype is delivered to an end user if the original intention was to develop a solution specifically to satisfy the special needs of that individual. The Circle of Fulfillment may be rejoined later if other people recognize that the prototype has wider application.

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Product Prototypes

A product prototype is made by the manufacturer and is usually as close as possible to the final product. It may still involve some labor intensive fabrication and assembly, such as stereo lithography in place of the very expensive plastic molds that will be used for the final production, to show that everything fits and that potential users can actually use it.

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A product coming off an assembly line is not a solution until it is in the hands of the user. The physical device is usually only one component is a collection of supporting documentation, training, and support activities. All of the pieces must be in place for commercial introduction of the product. There must be a strategy in place to handle glitches that arise after the product has been introduced. Complex products are usually introduced incrementally with the first products providing only the must-have features. The nice-to-have features are introduced later as the product matures.

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Accessibility Solutions

The Circle of Fulfillment is closed when user is able to purchase the product, receive any necessary training, and begin using it. In the ideal case, the Circle of Fulfillment will result in solutions that are perfectly matched to the assessed the individuals or group needs.

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