Today’s blog post comes from a recent conversation with Leopold Demiddeleer. Prior to launching Techbridgeone in 2013, a Leuven-based technology consulting firm, Leopold was responsible for Solvay’s innovation, technology watch and corporate venturing functions, and headed their Future Business unit.
Over his almost 40-year career, Leopold has been at the nexus of scientific research, new product innovation and business development. His role in innovation relates to a very broad spectrum of materials and manufacturing: organic and mineral chemistry, catalysts, new polymers, polymers processing and pharma. With over 150 industrial R&D projects to his credit, and the sponsorship of dozens of cooperative research agreements with R&T institutions all over the world, Leopold has also invested in early-stage companies, both directly and via corporate VC funds.
He recently shared some interesting thoughts with me about industry tech watch. Leopold talks about technology commercialization offices and industry networks and focuses on one particular factor in attracting more tech scouts to the institution’s research capabilities and IP portfolio.
JL: Leopold, how do tech scouts search efficiently in real life?
LD: That’s a big question, and there are a lot of ways to do it. There are so many Technology Transfer Office websites to visit, portals, conferences, a lot of people to meet, and talk with, … it’s key to figure out what you’re looking for so you can avoid things that are unlikely to get you there, as interesting as they might appear.Tech scouts are bombarded with information and they need to keep clear and consistent strategic focus. Sometimes it’s just easier to say: “Unsolicited? I can’t look at it.”
JL: Fair enough, they’re under information assault, but we all have that problem? Why is tech scout resistance to a lead any greater than for prospecting activities, like sales or office site selection?
LD: For tech watch, the answer to: “Is it a fit?” is complex. Scouts are inundated with information and people trying to tell them how great an invention is. Not only time-consuming due to technical complexity – reading and having to work through multiple scientific and engineering claims, but interacting with people, determining know-how requirements, and so forth, make the evaluation process a lengthy, big job. “Is this a fit in my organization?” is not a trivial question you’re facing before you sign an NDA and do any hard due diligence. The problem is that it’s so easy to put a lot of time in on something that looks like a fit, and bang – it’s dead.
Many scouts think they want the path with the fastest green light. But just as valuable, is a red light – an early and meaningful one – so you avoid misspent time and money.Alertness for “false fits” is critical to scouting efficiency – being able to say confidently, “Nope, despite the theoretical fit, it’s not for us.”
JL: Sounds like AWACS for tech scouts – warning system for false fits. Avoidance of time trapsit’s a big topic, do you have any single piece of advice?
LD: Yes. Figure out your strategic thrust, avoid things that don’t help you get there. And though not always possible, try to make every step of evaluation as compact and uninterrupted as possible – whether a 2nd phone call, initial deep-dive review, or in-depth due diligence.
JL: When you and your team found something interesting enough for a deep-dive, did you know what you wanted in terms of structure – a license, an acquisition, something else?
LD: Sometimes, but it varies a lot, especially once you get in there. On occasion, we’d really like the research, but weren’t satisfied with published IP – say, because the patent wasn’t written to protect what we needed – it happens a lot. Even with a smart and successful TTO guiding the process, patent applications can easily get written “academically” and not meet industrial licensee needs.
JL: Interesting point. In checking out a potential license, does the discussion ever morph into something else?
LD: Sure, for example, around 2005-06, Solvay worked out some strategic technology initiatives in advanced materials. Two of them were: (1) printed electronics/OLED lighting, and (2) PEM fuel cell membranes for electrodes and assemblies. Let’s look at what we did in OLED.
Solvay’s motivation had internal and external factors relating to fit. External factors for OLED were its broad potential demand in lighting applications, way beyond flat panel display (FPD). For fuel cells (FC), PEM had the best prospects for wide adoption due to production economics and operating environment. Judgments like that relate to external markets and technology, not to Solvay’s organization.
Organizationally, Solvay brought an enormous track record to the table of taking sophisticated materials, improving production efficiencies and scaling them into high value-added goods for the market.
To move forward, beyond reaching out to new academic research centers, we also invested in a few specialized venture funds to help us pursue open innovation more intensively. That was a big deal for Solvay, which, like a lot of European companies, had a very internally-focused R&D function, historically.
Sounds like the beginning of a joke: we came across a group of three research scientists – a Belgian, a Frenchman, and an American. But instead of walking into a bar, they moved from one university in the US, to Georgia Tech. That team was doing terrific work in OLED – not just FPD. One thing quickly led to another, and our collaboration took off and went for 6 or 7 years, with sponsorship of several million dollars – resulted in over 60 patent applications.
JL: I see the path. Going back to the general – if you found a technology at a university that looked potentially interesting, what do you do?
LD: Well, first I want to know if the research is ongoing – it’s a big deal for effective transfer to get know-how with it. Getting the author with the patent brings critical know-how useful for optimizing, and sometime just to make it work. Next, if my team had a connection to the researcher or institution, we’d probably get in touch and get a dialogue going right away.
JL: Suppose you didn’t know anyone there?
LD: Like everything else, you tend to work with people you know already because of everything else that needs to get done in a day. So, why create work to get to know a new place, with same or higher “no fit” risk, when there’s lower-hanging fruit. Of course, there are exceptions.
It’s easy to back burner a time-consuming project with an uncertain outcome. Tech watch is no different, and the problem is worse due to the frequent appearance of a fit, so many just don’t bother – it’s hard to break out of that circle.
JL: But what makes determining a fit so hard?
LD: Fit is complex. Back to OLED – I’ve looked at many OLED patents and papers – I mean tons. Say we’re looking for a material providing blue color – very elusive thing. You show me your blue-emitting material with 100 hrs of testing on commercially available parts for FPD. I should be happy right?
JL: Sure, I guess.
LD: No, Jon, it’s only a maybe. If you’re testing only covers conditions typical for a TV/FPD, but I need material for use in outdoor lighting where outdoor temperatures go from – 20 ° C to +50 ° C. So if the material degrades with temperature, though it’s blue, it doesn’t work for me. Right?
JL: Okay, but that should be easy to figure out up front.
LD: But it isn’t! Getting both sides to summarize clearly what they want isn’t easy for a lot of reasons: focus, disclosure sensitivity, timing, prior practice, and so forth. Okay if you know someone, it’s a lot easier to be informal and get your answers fast, but figuring out if there’s a fit is complex and getting owners of a startup or a technology to put the story into a short, meaningful summary– is really hard.
JL: Okay. Let’s switch gears, and go downstream: you talk to an institution and end up collaborating with a startup? Does it occur and what happens?
LD: Sure. After we started working with Georgia Tech for a while,we came to know a lot of startups in printed electronics, and we ended up collaborating with several of them,. In a couple cases made substantial equity investments. And some of that got reflected in work with GT, and so on.
With the startups, we saw that the teams were doing great stuff, but we’d also find some surprises that weren’t always good. Small companies can easily get hyper-focused on performance needed for a global market opportunity, but miss a major roadblock. In advanced, we find it safety or environmental issues that have not been addressed.
JL: But startups can hire a consultant – it’s simpler and faster, no?
LD: That’s not my experience. For example, one of the startups we worked with in OLED was very proud of the pilot line they’d built. And it was very good for what they’d had to work with. However, despite the all their VC money, they had a safety problem that would have made scale-up of their pilot line risky. Our experience and processing insights, let us propose an alternative production method that avoided big safety and environmental problems and market-entry delay. Maybe consultants could have found it, but it’s hard to know which one. In the safety and environmental area, global companies are focused on compliance – a topic that could easily get less time in the here-and-now thinking of a startup.
For us, it was what we’d been doing for decades – taking a good process and scaling it up for products that appeal to sophisticated, leading-edge industry customers, and making them safe for global standards
JL: Great example. How about the connection between research capabilities and spinouts or licensing to startups? Say two places each file around 150 patent applications a year, and have active TTOs. If one has much more visible venture creation and early-stage licensing, would you care?
LD: My personal experience – and I don’t think I am alone – is “yes”, it’s a big connection. I’m not sure why TTOs and research administrators don’t exploit it more, because it’s a strong signal for tech scouts. Unless non-market-based incentives distort startup formation, activity in creating spinouts and in licensing to startups are clear and positive signs that other research is likely to have not just academic significance, but commercial potential: investigators don’t form companies and put their family’s money at risk just for fun.
JL: Maybe the TTO couldn’t license to a big company – aren’t startups riskier as licensees?
LD: Maybe, but that’s not the right question, you’re talking about returns on licenses – different topic, entirely. The issue for the tech scout is – are the people with the technical insights putting their time and money into work with commercial goals?
Looking at a patent description is okay, but it’s nowhere near enough to know if it’s a fit with my company, I have to do a lot more work. But startups connect the dots for me: here’s a technology that a smart team is actively trying to commercialize.
That’s a really good sign for tech scouts market-based solutions are motivating the researcher, not just peer recognition of scientific leadership. So, even with a flawed process – like the OLED pilot line I mentioned – industry insights can bring a lot. Also works for available technologies when TTO explains expected next steps to develop toward commercialization, that’s how industry thinks.
Remember, investigators hitched to a startup aren’t just making a theoretical connection between research and marketplace: they’re betting on it. As a tech scout, I’m far more interested in getting to know a new institution with vigorous startup-stage licensing/new ventures because it shows that they have investigators interested in real products for the market.
JL: So I guess the message for tech commercialization people is: helping startups shine attracts potential industry partners for them – but also makes the pie bigger – they’re also potential licensees and research sponsors for you.
LD: You got it.
JL: Thanks Leopold.
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