Case Study in Technology Transfer Training
University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro (UTAD)
New Agglomerant for Making Particleboard from Wood Fibers
by Cliff Zintgraff and Carla Mascarenhas
This is one in a series of case studies in how the University Technology Enterprise Network (UTEN) is helping Portuguese Technology Transfer Offices develop practices that lead to globally competitive and sustainable operations. This case study is an example of how UTEN applies Technology-Based Training (use of real cases during training) to accomplish this goal.
UTAD is a medium-sized public university in the far north of Portugal, about 50 kilometers from the Spanish border. UTAD is a public university with 10,000 students and 400 researchers. The university’s core areas of instruction and research are in Chemistry, Food Chemistry, Biotechnology, Electrical Engineering, Winemaking and Forestry. UTAD is ranked 12th in Portugal by Webometrics Ranking of World Universities.
About the UTAD TTO
The UTAD Technology Transfer Office (TTO) reports to Professor José Bulas Cruz. The office’s overall mission focuses on the promotion of multidisciplinary research, and active analysis of research activities carried out within the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro (UTAD) in order to support their protection, development and licensing. The UTAD TTO enhances knowledge, encourages innovation and, most importantly, promotes the university’s liaison with the industry to create an environment of cooperation between the University and private enterprise. It is staffed by two full-time employees. The office contracts for patent filing services. The office organizes itself along these functions: patenting, licensing, and grant submission. The TTO has 35 patented technologies, and a portfolio of 9 technologies being promoted by the university. UTAD staff has attended 9 UTEN-sponsored conferences and workshops. One staff member did a two-month U.S. internship at South Texas Technology Management (STTM) in San Antonio, TX. an 11-staff-member office connected primarily to the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSC-SA), and the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), and also serving the University of Texas-Pan American (UT Pan Am) and the University of Texas at Brownesville (UTB) in the Rio Grande Valley, near the Texas-Mexico border.
About New Agglomerant for Making Particleboard from Wood Fibers (NewAgglomerant)
New Agglomerant is a technology from Professor Doctor João Claro of UTAD. The technology is contained in two patents that have entered the national phase of the PCT patent process. (In PCT, this means the patent is granted in one country – in this case, Portugal – and is therefore considered provisional in other countries who are signatory to the Patent Cooperation Treaty and listed on the patent application. As provisional, the approval date in Portugal will be the effective date in other countries that grant the patent, and the Portuguese patent affects positively the potential in other countries.)
The technology is a new agglomerant used in the process of manufacturing particleboard from raw wood sources such as pine, eucalyptus, and even sawdust. The technology addresses a major environmental concern by avoiding use of formaldehyde in the manufacturing process. While its use of di-isocyanate is not unique, it has added two additional chemicals that address shortcomings of di-isocyanate in the market.
Carla Mascarenhas of UTAD performed a technology and market assessment of New Agglomerant working with Cliff Zintgraff, a Program Manager from UTEN UT-Austin. Two steps have been performed. In the first, a 4-8 hour RapidScreen is performed to assess seven categories of readiness related to the technology, technology team, institution, and market. The RapidScreen identifies any shortcomings in the readiness of the technology, institution, or team to move forward with the technology, evaluating both the technology, and also the environment infrastructure required to advance commercialization. The second step, a MarketLook, is a 40 to 60 hour assessment of the market size and opportunity. The goal of this step is to uncover the “voice of the market” with respect to the technology, so that the TTO can work with the inventor to negotiate a license, form a spin-off, create research, development and sales collaborations, and/or address shortcomings that are barriers to market acceptance. The MarketLook process uses as its main research method primary interviews (phone calls, in-person interviews, and email exchanges) with potential customers, end users, partners and other expert validators in the technology’s target market/s.
Assessment Findings and Deliverables
The RapidScreen assessment results were generally positive, characterizing a good infrastructure to support commercialization efforts. The major “critical” finding of the RapidScreen regarded a contract with a major industry player whose terms were less than clear, and whose existence has colored many commercialization decisions. In fact, this issue pervaded much of the remaining work. UTEN is contributing to an ongoing strategy review as a result of this finding.
The MarketLook quickly exposed the voice of the market. To a significant extent, the rapid response we received from the market is a testament to the relevance of the technology to current regulatory concerns regarding formaldehyde. But the process also enabled the results, as four introductory emails with a market-based technology description led to three phone interviews with the Director of a major wood products manufacturer, the Director of Certification for a large association, and a prolific industry journalist. The keys to that success were insightful Internet research to identify key issues and targets, an attention grabbing introduction and technology description, and relevance in the eyes of the market players. What usually took 8-12 interviews happened largely in three interviews. These interviews resulted in one later email exchange that laid out in great detail exactly how the market will assess the technology, and what characteristics of the technology matter most. The email is a narrative version of a competitive matrix, and it inspired the creation of a real competitive matrix. It has identified for the TTO and inventor the areas that require focus to achieve successful commercialization. Here is an excerpt from the email content, with specific numbers removed and small paraphrases for readability:
“I have looked over the information and I have asked our resident chemist to look it over too. I am no chemist but basically the inventor is proposing to use and a di-isocyanate to make an adhesive for composite wood panels. One of the slides shows addition rates of x – y%. pMDI adhesives are used in the MDF industry today at addition rates between x and y%. Currently, the adhesive cost in a composite wood panel is about $x – $y per thousand square feet on a 3/4″ basis for urea formaldehyde resins depending on addition rates. This typically represents x – y% of the total cost of the product. The adhesive cost for non-formaldehyde emitting adhesives that are on the market today is between $x and $y per thousand square feet on a 3/4″ basis. So you can see that this is a significant cost increase but these alternatives are available. This higher cost has limited the growth of these products although regulatory pressures and evolving technology is changing that. The inventor’s product needs to show a distinct cost advantage over what’s already out there.”
During the MarketLook process, the team has continually refined its technology description, which will continue to serve the commercialization effort. The technology also now has a public listing on TechPortugal.com, and we engaged the inventor in creating a listing that addresses the important questions that must be answered in market-facing promotion.
The primary training takeaways were as follows:
1. TTO impressions about promising technologies do not always match market perceptions: In this process (considering all technologies reviewed), market feedback did not always match the TTO’s initial perceptions about which technologies have the most promise in the market.
2. Lack of answers is also an “answer”: It was often difficult to get the information required, and sometimes, it was only through executing the process that it became clear what information was needed. Lack of answers is an important (almost always negative) indicator.
3. The good and bad of industry cooperation: The positive tactic of industry cooperation later became a difficult issue in the project as creeping delays slowed forward progress.
4. Silence is a warning – be cautious of creeping delays: A creeping delay in this case indicated a lack of full disclosure and withholding of important information by the industry partner. This was difficult to recognize until the process surfaced the evidence. In the words of a member of the TTO staff: “we spent too much precious time waiting for results and answers from a partner.”
5. Publish your claims and then check assumptions: An EU regulatory requirement that had become “gospel” with the team could not be confirmed. This was discovered because claims of the inventor and team were aggressively included in the technology description, and was questioned by an interviewee.
Impact on TTO Practices
As a result of this technology-based training exercise, the UTAD TTO will make these changes to their technology transfer processes:
1. Development of public technology descriptions with inventors: UTAD has started working with researchers to create public descriptions of their technologies, both for promotion, and also to help researchers engage in the issues required for successful commercialization.
2. Incorporation of broad market review into standard processes: UTAD will conduct more rapid surveys of the market to get broad market perspective on a technology, and will avoid relying on one industry opinion.
3. Aggressive marketing before patenting: The process of marketing and market research will occur before applying for patents; in essence, UTAD will begin the search for potential buyers at the very beginning of the process.
4. Consideration of time limits in contracts and processes: UTAD will specifically incorporate procedures and contract terms to avoid unnecessary delay and motivate forward movement of the technology commercialization process