In my last blog post, I had elaborated on what I think are the biggest challenges to successful KTT activities: the inventors’ technological perspective as well as their functional fixedness. Both of these phenomena clearly and substantially inhibit the identification and evaluation of new and promising, far-analogous application fields to existing technologies.
But awareness of those challenges is only the first step to mastering the fuzzy front-end of knowledge and technology transfer processes. To really succeed in such endeavors, one also needs to know how to tackle these challenges. And this is exactly what this blog post is about.
In the following, I’d like to introduce you to the Technological Competence Leveraging (TCL) method. I have developed this approach together with my former colleague Reinhard Prügl almost 12 years ago. In the meanwhile, we have applied it successfully in more than 100 consulting projects, helping research organizations like CERN and Fraunhofer as well as technology-driven companies like Magna, Austrian Microsystems, and innovative start-ups to systematically identify, evaluate, and exploit new business opportunities to their existing or newly invented technologies.
The TCL method is a systematic approach consisting of four inter-related steps. The fist step is to derive a technology’s benefits; in the second step, these benefits are used to convey the technology to potential users from various fields in order to search for viable application fields. Steps 3 and 4 deal with the evaluation of the identified application fields as well as the design of actionable commercialization strategies. The core idea of the TCL method is to involve current and potential users in each of these steps (see figure below).
Let me walk you through the method and its logic step by step. As indicated above, the first – and from my experience most crucial step – is to derive the technology’s benefits from a users’ perspective. By analyzing how current and/or potential users actually benefit from using the technology, i.e., which problem the technology solves for them, inventors take a first step towards overcoming their technological perspective. Instead of focusing on technological specifications, features, and functionalities, inventors learn about their users’ jobs to get done. A perfect means to do that are customer discovery interviews. Talking to customers about why and for what purposes they use a specific technology (product) very often turns out to be an absolute eye-opener, as users tend to mis-use. Mis-use in this context refers to an (by the inventor) unanticipated, creative interaction with the technology (product). I call this phenomenon the Viagra effect. Viagra was originally developed as a medication to treat pulmonary arterial hypertension. It was only throughout the clinical trials that Pfizer realized there was more to their new drug than they themselves had expected! Participants in the clinical trials would approach Pfizer and urge them to provide more of the new medication, a behavior that had not been observed in past trials. When participants were asked about their motives, they ultimately revealed information about the more than welcome side effects of Viagra, which led Pfizer to market the drug as a new treatment to erectile dysfunction. Although this appears to be an extreme case in a very specific product category, the Viagra case perfectly illustrates the value of use experience in technology analysis. The user – as opposed to the inventor – knows the technology from actual usage. Thus, she’s much more aware of potential benefits but also shortcomings of a technology in day-to-day usage.
Deriving a technology’s benefits does not only help to overcome the inventor’s technological perspective, though! More importantly, it facilitates the next step, which is the systematic search for new application fields. The logic of this search process is pretty straight forward: based on the idea of crowdsourcing, inventors present their solution to as many and as heterogenous potential users as possible. But instead of presenting technological specifications, features, and functionalities, the technology is presented along its benefits. This is advantageous because of two reasons: First of all, when talking about a technology in terms of its problem-solving capabilities (i.e., the problems it solves) instead of technological details, inventors do not have to worry about revealing valuable IP. To potential users from other fields, the benefits of a technology are much more important and interesting than the technological specifications that allow for these benefits. Secondly, benefits are much easier to understand for potential – in many cases not technically trained – users from far analogous fields. In other words: When presenting the technology along its benefits (instead of technological lingu), it’s much more likely that various potential users will understand and recognize the technology as a solution to a problem they might have in their specific fields. As a consequence, inventors will more easily find completely new application fields outside of the box and thus overcome their local search bias!
But the integration of users into the fuzzy frond-end of knowledge and technology transfer processes does not stop there! In fact, the evaluation of the identified application fields (step 3) as well as the design of actionable commercialization strategies (step 4) also call for user intelligence. Users from a specific application field usually possess a lot of information that is extremely valuable when it comes to seizing and exploiting the market opportunity. For example, users might know about the size of the market, they might know about competitive solutions and substitutes, they might know about the most important market players, price levels etc. Drawing on this information when commercializing a technology within a new application field is extremely helpful!
As indicated above, the TCL method has been used in many consulting projects already. Furthermore, it has become an integral element of KTT activities of various Fraunhofer institutes as well as some working groups at CERN. When being employed, the method on average yields in 30 new application ideas; approx. 10 of these ideas are considered technologically feasible and commercially attractive from the inventors’ perspective. So if you also want to give it a try and set up a TCL project, shoot me a message! In case you want to learn more about the TCL method, have a look here.