opening the pipeline for assistive technology

assistive technology

To illustrate the rewards that are possible when universities support innovators working in assistive technology, Cathy Bodine likes to tell a story from her early days in the field. Bodine, who now directs the University of Colorado’s Center for Inclusive Design and Engineering in Denver, was approached by a successful IBM engineer nearing retirement who was looking for a way to give back to society. This was before accessibility features were common in software, so Bodine suggested he develop something that would help people with tremors use a computer mouse. The engineer liked that idea, and the two began working together, with the engineer developing the algorithm and her team taking on the human subject work and design specifications.

“I went to my tech transfer office, and I said, ‘You know, IBM is willing to share this. Do you want to go through the process?’” And they said, ‘Absolutely not. Just give it to them. What you do doesn’t make money.’” “So, we moved on,” Bodine recalls. “And IBM sold this for $65 million. That’s when my university went, uh-oh.”

Today, she notes, her university has a representative from its technology transfer office embedded with her program, just one of a number of strategies her center employs to open up the pipeline of commercialization for assistive technology. At a recent VentureWell OPEN session titled From Academia to the End User: How to Accelerate Assistive Technology Innovation, Bodine shared her insights about how other assistive technology programs can improve the process of moving ideas from lab to market. She was joined by Jordana Maisel, director of research at the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access, as well as other leaders in the assistive technology space, who told of practices that have encouraged innovation at their institutions, as well as the barriers that still remain.

Editor’s note: Read our article on how technology transfer offices can close the gender engagement gap.

a growing market

Few today would suggest that assistive technology doesn’t make money. The field, which uses engineering and design to improve the lives of people with disabilities or other physical needs, was a $50.5 billion industry last year in the United States alone, Bodine noted. “Unbelievable amounts of money are now being put into developing products for seniors,” she noted. And to help make all of those new products, industry needs the expertise that academia can provide. “They need people that understand how to design and develop technology,” she explained, “and—most importantly— how to get it out the door.” 

At the University of Colorado’s Center for Inclusive Design and Engineering, those industry-faculty partnerships hinge on the work of the tech transfer office, so Bodine recommends that assistive technology faculty take the time to develop strong relationships with their university’s department, helping them understand who you are, what you do, and why your innovation is valuable. For Bodine, that meant learning to translate her work into business language, drawing on ideas like market share and return on investment—which is not dissimilar to faculty working in other sectors.

“Once I was able to shift my language, it shifted the world dramatically, and really created a great working relationship.”

putting a price on social value

Maisel agreed that a strong relationship with the tech transfer office is important, but noted that the very nature of inclusive design—which is focused on improving life for others more than making money—can complicate matters. “In the world of inclusive design, it is very challenging to make economic arguments,” she noted. “There’s hidden value—whether it’s improved productivity or satisfaction. There are other things to consider when quantifying the benefits of inclusive design.”

Getting a great idea to market can also be hampered by legal roadblocks, participants said, specifically the processes of negotiating industry partnerships, resolving intellectual property issues, drafting non-disclosure agreements, and other matters that can take time to move through a university bureaucracy.   

The Center for Inclusive Design and Engineering in Colorado solved that issue by having dedicated attorneys and business services staff within the technology transfer office, and making sure everyone understands the need to move at industry speed. “Our university says it wants to be entrepreneurial and it wants to be innovative,” she said. “My job is to say, how do you operationalize that? Well, you don’t take 18 months to get a contract with an industry partner, because industry has dropped you and moved on at that point.” With the current arrangement, she now can get industry contracts turned around in 48 hours.

thinking like an entrepreneur

For their part, faculty can improve the commercialization process by learning to think more like business strategists, Bodine noted, employing tools such as customer discovery, the entrepreneurship exercise where innovators talk to dozens of stakeholders to determine if they really have a marketable idea.

“We’re not trained to think in this way,” she acknowledged. “We’re trained to think, ‘Is this a five-year grant or a three-year grant?’ We don’t necessarily have to please the public.” When Bodine’s innovators go through the discovery process as part of their I-Corps team training, “it is just amazing to watch.”

Workshop participant Paula Mendonça, who heads the Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office at Memorial University of Newfoundland, seconded the importance of faculty relationships and understanding each other’s needs. “We always say, come and talk to us, even at the ideation stage,” said Mendonça, who noted that at her Canadian university the rules allowing faculty to own intellectual property they have created are more flexible. “If you are interested in working with industry, if you are interested in commercializing a research outcome, and you don’t know how, come to us and we’ll help.” Toward that end, she added, the more faculty can think like an entrepreneur, the better. “While your research may be awesome,” she noted, “does it align with industry needs?” 

According to Maisel, if there’s one takeaway from the session, it’s that commercializing assistive technology requires two-way communication between tech transfer offices and faculty. Tech transfer offices need to understand what faculty are doing, which requires faculty to think like entrepreneurs and translate their work into language that explains their case. “Like with any good partnership,” she noted, “it takes time to build that trust and understanding.”

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