Big Dreams and Flying Machines
It’s 7 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, and the students in Michael V. Laric’s Market Opportunity Analysis course at the University of Baltimore have just come off an hourlong lecture on the finer aspects of Boolean search logic and Google Patents investigations. Now Laric, professor of marketing in the Merrick School of Business, tells the six teams of graduate business and law students they have 25 minutes to put together a one-pager on applicable markets for their pet NASA technologies.
And the students are off, chattering amongst themselves; above the hubbub, the pitch growing higher with each notch of the minute hand on the classroom clock, bits and pieces of brainstorming can be heard: “generate more wind power with less wind,” “maybe you could sell it to people building roller coasters,” “3-D imaging when you go through security.”
By 7:30(ish), the teams have turned in their papers, a small step that—together with some hard dreaming and some very hard working—might possibly turn into a giant leap for mankind.
That may be hyperbolic, but it’s not entirely far-fetched. After all, this course is about possibilities. The 23 M.B.A. and four law students enrolled in this spring’s cross-listed class were charged with exploring the commercialization potential contained in one of a selection of widgets that scientist-inventors at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center developed for very specific (and probably very obscure) space-related reasons.
First, the students needed to understand the technology, a challenge in itself, enough to describe it from a business standpoint. Then, they defined a commercial market in which their team’s particular NASA technology might find a new and hopefully lucrative life. Finally, they integrated financial analysis of the technology in its would-be market and presented the complete commercialization study to a panel of NASA representatives. That’s the short version.
The long story started nearly 20 years ago, when the School of Business launched its Lab to Market program—a three-course series that married business students’ entrepreneurial and technological bents by allowing them to follow a technology from commercialization study to business plan to actual startup implementation—and began building relationships with local research labs, in which the Baltimore-Washington corridor is rich. UB has worked with more than 40 labs during the past two decades, including the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, the Naval Air Station Patuxent River and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, adopting raw, patented or patent-pending technologies for a semester and unleashing students’ creativity on them.
The benefit to the students is immeasurable, Laric indicates. “In the future, it will be much more important to come up with commercial applications for intellectual property; the wealth created in the past 50 years has been generated much more by harvesting intellectual property as evidenced by IBM, AT&T, Microsoft, Google and others,” says Laric, who has taught this course since 2005. “It becomes a very important part of business that’s not typically taught in business schools.”
“What our students get is the experience of first working with technology, then creating a whole business plan and then trying to come up with an exciting and profitable venture.”
Intellectual property is often taught in law schools, which is where the course’s cross-listing comes in as an effort to make the student teams more diverse, much like the workforce of a company or lab would be. “The law student interacts with the one who has a bio undergraduate [degree] because they’re both in a class with M.B.A. students who specialize in marketing, finance and accounting,” Laric adds. “What our students get is the experience of first working with technology, then creating a whole business plan and then trying to come up with an exciting and profitable venture.”
The benefit to NASA, which formalized its technology commercialization partnership with UB in fall 2010, is somewhat more measurable. “It’s the technology assessment that the students perform—fresh perspectives on how the technology can be applied—and potential partners, future licensees, maybe,” says Nona Cheeks, chief of the Innovative Partnerships Program Office at Goddard. “NASA putting technology into a process such as this provides opportunities for different perspectives to meet various needs within or beyond NASA.”
Laric explains, “The major benefit for most tech transfer people was our students’ creativity and coming up with potential market applications that they hadn’t thought of. And, as a good friend of mine at Indian Head [Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center] said publicly at some point, our students give them the value of a $10,000 market research project. They get it for free.”
Technology transfer is the process by which businesses (or business-minded individuals) introduce technology developed for a specific purpose to a different market; research labs and universities are major players in tech transfer, as are business incubators. The business that commercializes the technology benefits by not having to invest in the research and development and therefore pays licensing fees to the original owner or inventor.
Why don’t labs like NASA just commercialize the technology themselves? Well, because the government cannot manufacture commercial products, Laric says, and because NASA’s mission has nothing to do with commercializing its inventions—although agency-wide, NASA owns or has joint ownership in approximately 900 patents, nearly 30 percent of which have been licensed, according to Cheeks. “NASA’s mission, first and foremost, is to develop science and technology, to disseminate information on our achievements and then to find the broadest application of them,” Cheeks says. “When NASA was established, we had a responsibility of getting that information out, and one way was through the tech transfer process.”
It’s also a resource issue, says Rebecca Whipple Bettes, M.B.A. ’10, a research supervisor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who took the Market Opportunity Analysis course in spring 2010 and now serves as the graduate class’s technology liaison. “They’re just sitting on these awesome technologies that could have such an impact on society, but they can’t market it well,” she says. “They don’t have the entrepreneurs that want to take the risk to license certain things.”
In the NASA-UB partnership, Laric says, “we’ve developed a relationship with tech transfer people so they will not only give us [a list of the patented technologies], which are protected by patent law, but sometimes they give us the disclosures, which are not.” This broadens the field of possible technologies for UB students, and it can also prove beneficial to NASA.
“The researcher is developing an idea because of a certain task or mission: for example, minimizing corrosion on this part of the ship,” Laric says. “They are never going to test whether this thing will also work on the underside of a car driven in Michigan snows. So when we come up with the commercializing idea of ‘My God! Maybe you can test the usefulness of this on cars!’ the researcher may say, ‘Wow! That is a great idea! When we patent it, let’s do it so it can apply not just to ships, but to cars.’ And that’s a whole different patent. Sometimes they have disclosures where they’re not sure whether there’s an opportunity for commercialization, so what we give them is the creativity of the students who are challenged to figure out commercializing ideas.”
Of course, students have to understand what the technology does before they can come up with brilliant ideas of how to apply it elsewhere. “They have three months,” Bettes says, “and they have to cover so many things and try to be engineers at the same time.” So Bettes helps lighten the tech-geek load, developing PowerPoint presentations with videos and schematics, breaking down the technologies into layman’s terms and guiding the students to finding the right markets.
“The way I described it in the beginning of class, I said, ‘Think of me as your sous chef,’” she says. “‘You hand me the ingredients, and I’ll tell you as best as I can how to guide you into making your dish.’” In addition, the short list from which the graduate students chose their technologies included only those developed by inventors who agreed to answer students’ questions and to offer further explanations.
Bettes also served as the tech liaison for the fall 2010 Product Management undergraduate course, the first to explore the NASA technologies after the agency and UB had officially inked their partnership and also Laric’s first attempt at the technology commercialization study with an undergraduate course. It had its ups and downs, Laric says, especially since the technologies were complicated, but Bettes was impressed. “I was completely blown away with the undergrads’ capabilities,” she says. “They were fantastic.”
One group worked on an adaptation of a swiveling GPS antenna, developed to keep in constant contact with satellites, that would allow commercial airplanes to circle airports more tightly, thereby reducing air traffic and flight times. “They did great research,” Bettes says. “I think NASA walked away with that one going, ‘Hey, we’ve got a lot of information. Let’s approach this market now.’”
Another group, working with 3-D imaging software, found a market for commercialization in the plastic surgery industry. “Why would someone pay for 3-D in the plastic surgeon’s world?” Laric asks. “Theoretically, if the plastic surgeon could show the patient how they’re going to look after the surgery, the patient might agree to the surgery faster.”
Bettes says, “It could be a game changer for the plastic surgery market. … With that one, I did notice that ‘hmmmm-I’ve-never-really-thought-about-that’ kind of look on [the NASA representatives’] faces.”
Students in this past spring’s graduate course were able to derive clarity from the technological complexities the class introduces. “The most interesting concept of the course was … intellectual properties regarding patents, trademarks and copyrights,” says Hamed Chahargbaghi, M.B.A. ’11, whose group explored a radiation-frequency-induced monitoring device. “I could use a lot of those concepts to apply to my future career. The main image I’ve had in mind is our family dry cleaning business that my brother started a year ago; it’s going green by eliminating all plastics.”
Alan Feuerstein and Tom Liles, both second-year law students, say the course’s applicable material is a nice break from the “rote memorization” of law school. “It’s much more practical than we usually get into,” says Liles, who worked with a portable, nondestructible materials-testing device that can gather data on various characteristics of a material without harming it as an X-ray might. “Normally in law school, you read what are called appellate decisions. They’re really important but they never come up. Here, what you’re doing will come up because you’ll actually use it. It’s guaranteed.”
Feuerstein, whose group researched a 3-D laser measuring tool, agrees: “That is a good reason we’re here: Actual use of the law as opposed to learning about it. A hands-on class, so to speak.”
And the dream of financial success while changing the landscape of an industry doesn’t hurt, either. “The fanciful idea that one of the groups in this class will actually have a patent—hope springs eternal,” Feurstein says.
Echoes Bettes: “I would love to see just one of these students take the NASA technology or do a tech transfer and make billions of dollars.”