Mind the gap, manufacturers

Say you’re a professor at a major research university. You’re brilliant, of course, and well-funded. Some of your well-guided hotshot grad students and postdocs create a technology that shrieks out for commercialization, and the university’s intellectual property folks plunge into patenting.

Maybe the hotshots then get together with a veteran executive or two and sell the idea to a venture capital firm. Their startup is off and running, and the world awaits with joy.

Or maybe the venture capitalists are otherwise occupied that month, the hotshots wander off to the next great opportunity and the idea sits on the shelf.

All too often, professors tell me, the major manufacturers who might really exploit the technology show no interest in bringing it to market from that stage. Their development ecosystem doesn’t work like that—they want to buy the startup when it has shown progress commercializing the work. They want not just patents but people, understandably enough.

This does make you wonder, though, whether more manufacturers should consider extending their own research groups a little further down the food chain to cherrypick a few of the best available intellectual properties and bring them forward much as a startup would. Maybe a few million dollars invested in this form of intrapreneuring would pay off very, very well down the road.