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The road to innovation: how tech transfer helped transform our world


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We tend to assume that if a particular technology has been invented, bringing it to market is simply a formality. We take for granted that touchscreens are synonymous with phones and tablets, or that GPS is a natural substitute to roadmaps.


Unfortunately, this is often the exception to the rule. Whether due to bureaucracy or relevant parties not being aware of each other, important R&D findings can remain behind the doors of university laboratories.


As we interact with different technologies on a daily basis, it’s worth stopping every now and again to think about how they were developed. Tech transfer is a wonderful testament to human innovation and collaboration – and when it takes place, it can produce exceptional results.


The iPhone: under the screen

On 29 June, 2007, Steve Jobs took to the stage at the MacWorld conference. Wearing his signature blue jeans and black shirt, he gave a fairly informal presentation that went on to revolutionise our concept of modern technology. He introduced the iPhone, a sleekly designed handheld smartphone that could be operated by touching the screen – it was like something out of science fiction.


Both Jobs and the iPhone made the news worldwide, and was the subject of conversation at every school and place of work. Everywhere, people saw images of the genius inventor with his neat, easy-to-use invention.


While Steve Jobs rightly deserved the attention, the story isn’t so simple. Without counting the hundreds of people who worked directly under him at Apple, much of his technology was due to innovative R&D professionals. For the touchscreen, he can first thank Samuel Hurst, and later Wayne Westerman and John Elias. The CPU was the brainchild of John Atanasoff, John Mauchley and J. Presper Eckert. In fact, each of the six layers of the iPhone can be traced back to separate teams of researchers.


The point isn’t to detract from Job’s success. On the contrary, he deserves credit in identifying and leveraging the collaborative power of tech transfer to produce a product that changed the lives of millions around the world.


Buckle up thanks to tech transfer

Jobs achieved an exceptional, highly complex feat of tech transfer. But moving away from the well-publicised world of Silicon Valley, the effects can also be more subtle, if just as transformational.


The cars we drive today are very different from the one Karl Benz invented in 1886. Over the years, they have become increasingly powerful, reliable and advanced. A huge amount of tech transfer has had to take place to produce modern cars. But perhaps the most important addition was a relatively simple piece of technology: the seat belt.


It was researchers at Cornell University that invented the first modern seat belts in 1957. While they have been refined with the three-point version and their use enforced by governments, this important piece of tech transfer is credited with saving up to 11,000 lives a year in the United States alone.


NASA: Tech transfer that’s out of this world

When we hear about NASA, we automatically think of rocket launches and lunar missions. However, this research powerhouse is also responsible for a huge number of successful tech transfer initiatives. David Miller, NASA’s former chief technologist once said that: ‘Technology transfer is the agency’s oldest continuously operated mission.’ It’s impossible to overstate the impact they’ve had on tech transfer, but there is one in particular we’d like to point out: infrared thermometers.


Infrared thermometers are used for a wide range of applications, from monitoring electrical systems to checking patient temperatures. Apart from the numerous benefits of this technology – especially during the COVID-19 pandemic – the way it was developed speaks to NASA’s commitment to driving innovation.


At NASA, they have a Technology Affiliates Programme specifically designed to develop, and bring to market, emerging technology. Alongside Diatek Corporation, they developed this tool that measures the thermal radiation emitted by the patient’s eardrum, converting infrared radiation into an electric signal through a detector. Because it doesn’t come into contact with the patient’s eardrum, it drastically reduces the risk of infection.


Emerging tech transfer developments

As these initiatives represent the cutting-edge of innovation, current tech transfer projects give us a glimpse into the future. The emergence of smart cities represents a huge step forward in the fight against climate change. Defined by the use of data to manage resources, assets and services, they have the potential to transform our urban environment.


A significant driving factor behind the use of smart cities is 5G, with around $1 trillion expected to be invested over the next five years. This technology represents the true potential of tech transfer, with widespread applications and economic implications. Alongside its application in smart cities, 5G will help doctors better diagnose patients and generate a predicted $3.6 trillion for the economy by 2035.


The Collider: pioneering tech transfer

The Collider is a venture-building programme that works hard to bridge the gap between science, corporates and entrepreneurship. This innovation project encourages tech-transfer initiatives to connect science and entrepreneurial talent and create disruptive, technology-based startups. The Collider is powered by Mobile World Capital Barcelona, a tech-focused initiative that aims to drive the digital transformation of society to help improve people’s lives globally.