19 November 2015

How technology transfer ought to really work


Breakthrough innovation is often first and foremost at the hands of skilled technicians and engineers that carry out the necessary processing, computing and programming to make great technologies feasible. Technology entrepreneurs that build businesses are anchored by the technologies such researchers help develop. A particularly noteworthy example is the work developed by electrical engineers at the University of California, San Diego who have achieved ground-breaking speeds for signal processing. The team of scientists have broken barriers that limited the distance information could travel in fiber optic cables. The result is an increase in the power and distance at which optical signals could be sent through optical fibers.

Optical network architects and engineers worldwide agree that any technology which increases the capacity of fiber cables is critical for the “capacity crunch” problem our planet faces. The capacity crunch is a problem with space. Fiber optic networks have the potential of reaching full storage capacity in several years and this is problematic because fiber optic cables serve as the backbone to landline, wireless, cable and internet networks. Increasing the data transmission rate in fiber optic cables presents great opportunity for businesses and entrepreneurs looking to anchor their ventures in scientific-driven insights.

The work of the UC San Diego researchers relies on frequency combs. The term was so named to reflect the fact that signal distortion emerging from streams of information traveling long distances across optical fiber is in fact predictable and exploitable. As one of the team members, Dr. Stojan Radic, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, explained to me – “crosstalk between communication channels within a fiber optic cable obeys fixed physical laws and we present a method that leverages such crosstalk to remove the power barrier for optical fiber.”

When leveraging the predictability of the frequency combs, Mr. Radic and his team could significantly increase the power of the signal being sent across the optical fiber networks. Thus far, it has been nearly impossible to send information across fiber optic cables more than a short distance because “crosstalk” is inevitable across different communication channels within one particular fiber optic cable. By modeling when that “crosstalk” occurs, Mr. Radic could decipher the communication distortions in a predictable manner, increase the power of optical signals being transmitted, and lead to information traveling thousands of kilometers longer across any given fiber optic cable.

Perhaps more surprising to learn from the team members was their belief in the business implications of their breakthrough. As Dr. Radic informed me, the business implications that emanate can be more compelling than the science behind the work itself. Radic and his team were supported in part thanks to Sumitomo Electric Industries who provided the fibers used in the researchers’ experiments, and Google, who supported the efforts of the researchers through grant funding.

Increasing the speed of connectivity in digital platforms such as the Internet has become one of the world’s leading goals. Leading corporate and communication platforms like Facebook and AT&T all aim to provide universal access and connectivity through wireline, wireless and Internet network infrastructures. A significant component to industry’s role in providing universal access is to leverage the academic, actionable and evidence-based research provided by the likes of Professor Stojan Radic and his laboratory at UC San Diego.

Technology transfer has been a term used more and more often by business and media executives in describing the importance of innovation for generating economic growth and ultimately more jobs. Few media pundits hint to academic institutions and the brilliant minds working there as being incubators for world-leading innovations. Rather, the dialogue often focuses on high profile technology and social media leaders.

My conversation with Mr. Radic at UC San Diego helped inform my thinking of technology transfer as a symbiotic partnership that depends on technology entrepreneurs leveraging the specialized knowledge and resources of skilled technicians, academics and scientists. Success in business depends on entrepreneurs utilizing the intellectual assets of academics like Radic and his lab.

In building initiatives like universal connectivity, it would behoove entrepreneurs as well as the financial, technology and small business sectors to leverage the intellectual assets developed by skilled scientists in all possible ways. In this manner, a business ecosystem could emerge that should provide for greater likelihood of success in its initial ambition – such as universal access – the topic at hand.

When business ecosystems come to fruition, the likelihood of success for the overarching goal (e.g. universal connectivity) will be more immediate. And we all can agree that economic growth and more jobs are likely to follow suit.  To harp back to the case of Mr. Radic, the work of his team has already achieved one significant milestone: eliminating the repeaters in traditional optical fiber cables and sending information more powerfully and more cheaply.

The role of an entrepreneur is multi-faceted with one needing to juggle a number of roles simultaneously: project manager, designer, technician and leader. Facing choices about where to outsource concrete tasks is an important one and the nature of whom the entrepreneur chooses to perform that outsourcing will have downstream effects on the success of the business venture. A source to keep in mind should be those academicians and scientists working at nearby colleges and universities. It is ultimately through an entrepreneurial-academic partnership where genuine technology transfer really occurs.

Alex Verkhivker is a contributor to Capital Ideas at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. In prior work, he has worked as an economic researcher with the Federal Trade Commission in Washington and as an Associate Economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.