WHAT do Google, fluoride toothpaste and the modern seat belt have in common?

They all started as inventions developed first at universities, and were later released to the market when their commercial potential became clear.

This commercialisation of university inventions is called technology transfer (TT).

It takes a special breed of experts, known as TT professionals, to facilitate the translation of research, discoveries and inventions into new products and services that benefit society.

TT is the formal transfer of intellectual property rights to use and commercialise new discoveries and innovations resulting from scientific research to another party.

TT professionals are the people tasked with helping to translate scientific research into new products and services that improve the quality of life. These may lead to the launch of new businesses and jobs for people.

TT professionals must understand the innovation, its impact on society, and be able to help transform it into a viable new product or service.

As such, they can grasp the technology from the point of the inventor, understand how it works, assess its commercial viability, protect the valuable intellectual property (IP), and then market and sell it.

To do all this, TT professionals need to have a mix of hard and soft skills:

Interpersonal skills

TT professionals must possess strong interpersonal skills because they need to work with different parties, including scientists doing research, companies acquiring new technologies and universities looking for return on their research and development (R&D) investments.

Each of these parties has different needs and expectations.

The TT professional has to negotiate between them and try to ensure all are satisfied with the outcome. For example, an inventor in the university wishes to publish his invention in a journal quickly, while a company wants to exploit the new invention and market it rapidly.

However, the TT professional needs to take time to protect the invention's IP rights and ensure the university's interests are met.

Scientific expertise

A science or engineering degree is essential for a career in TT. As most technologies and inventions arise from cutting-edge research work, TT professionals must have a certain level of appreciation for the technology.

While they do not need to understand the technology fully, they must understand it sufficiently to see its potential application and assess its commercial potential.

TT professionals also need to keep up with the latest developments in the field. They have to know which technologies are "hot" and what they can potentially be used for.

This will allow them to work effectively with inventors, assess new technologies better and provide inventors with an accurate horizon scan of developments in the field and market.

Business acumen

Frequently, inventions never make it to the market - not because the technology is not sound, but because of other business issues.

For example, the market may not be ready for the technology, as it is too advanced, or the product is too expensive or cannot be produced in quantities sufficient to be sold on the mass market.

TT professionals must take these factors into account when looking at the technology's marketability and commercial potential.

To do this, they must have strong business acumen. They need to be aware of existing products, what the market needs and the limitations of existing solutions.

They must also be able to assess the partnering companies, to know which one has the skill, ability and interest to realise the benefit of the technology fully. Because of this, a good business sense is essential for any TT professional.

Knowledge of IP

IP, or intellectual property, is an integral part of TT activities. It refers to creations of the mind: inventions, literary and artistic works, and symbols, names, images, and designs used in commerce.

TT professionals must have a good knowledge of IP so that they can appreciate the true value of a new technology and understand how the IP associated with a technology can be fully exploited.

Balancing act

To perform his job successfully, a TT professional needs to juggle science, business, IP and interpersonal skills. This is why these professionals are being referred to as a new breed of experts.

In Singapore, the TT community is a small and close-knit one, having only been developed since the mid-1980s.

However, it is a growing industry, and as more companies outsource R&D to universities, the demand for TT professionals will only increase both locally and globally.