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"It Came From Outer Space" How Governement Research Can Generate Private Sector Growth
11/11/2009 10:19:20 AM

 

By Lindsey Gilroy and Tammy D'Amato

Who would have imagined that modern wheelchairs owe their design and material construction to NASA’s research on aerodynamics and lightweight metals? When JFK vowed to send a man to the moon, little did he imagine what far-reaching applications would arise out of space exploration research. From memory foam to digital image processing, from firefighting equipment to aerodynamic swimsuits, from artwork restoration to thermometer pills for athletes, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has had a hand in some of the most down-to-Earth innovations in the last half of the 20th century. In fact, over 1,600 commercial products have been born out of NASAresearch since 1976 – and that doesn’t even include the number of technologies that are used in industrial processes. While NASA’s research contributions to society have been remarkable, it is just one of many federal departments pursuing research with a mission to serve the public good. Through government agencies such as NASA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Health & Human Services, just to name a few, the U.S. Government is developing technologies that are out of this world – and can lead to private sector products.


While Government research is a vital source of innovation, how can government agencies intensify the use of that innovation to become an active partner in economic development? The answer is simple: patenting. The premise behind intellectual property protections is that in order to encourage inventors to share their ideas with society, it is necessary to grant them a limited monopoly on that idea and allow them to have the first shot at commercialization. Governments, however, are not in the business of product development or commercialization and thus don’t need a limited monopoly on their innovations. So why should government agencies still pursue patenting and, further, how could government patenting spark economic growth? The answer to both questions is technology transfer. Technology transfer can take place in multiple guises, from simple knowledge sharing to more complex licensing agreements. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for instance, has been transferring technology and innovations to farmers throughout most of the 20th century by establishing test farms across the country and extension offices to share results with local farmers. Patenting formalizes an innovation in such a way that others can duplicate the invention. Once an invention is codified as a patent, it is easier to transfer. It can also be licensed to entrepreneurs who are willing and able to commercialize new products and services resulting from the invention. To successfully move an idea from the government research lab to the patent to the market requires more than just a good idea – it needs a technology transfer infrastructure.

As seen in Intellectual Property Today: www.iptoday.com

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