The business world goes shopping

March 14, 1997

... but what it finds on the campus research web sites may often look like a limp lettuce. Paula Gomes and Janet Vaux report on moves to make innovative science and technology more compelling.

Universities, research councils, government agencies and a number of other players are interested in using the Internet for the dissemination of university science and technology. Among the more ambitious schemes are the Community Research and Development Information Service (Cordis), a European project and a British project, the Network for the Exploitation of Science and Technology (Nest), which explore ways of making information about science and technology more accessible to companies.

Most universities have a home page which provides information about their research. However, this is largely written for other researchers and may not contain the sort of information companies are looking for. It may be difficult to tell, for example, whether research is appropriate for industrial use or commercial exploitation. Academics and companies each have a very different understanding of when a project is finished, and companies need to know how much development work may still be needed. None the less, this sort of information provides a resource for industrial researchers. Some universities, particularly in North America, now provide a World Wide Web site which acts as a shopfront, designed to attract commercial customers for science and technology developed at the university.

However, there is a danger that this approach will combine new problems of a still untried medium with the old problems of trying to translate academic research into industrial needs (and vice versa). The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Industrial Liaison Program was one of the first to provide a web shopfront. This discourages the casual visitor, who cannot get beyond a symbolic keyhole. Most information on the site is reserved for members of the MIT Industrial Liaison Program. MIT is performing something of a balancing act, as it also wants to encourage non-member companies to get closer. Some public information is therefore available, including a list of more than 200 corporate members. We understand that MIT is redesigning the site to provide more material for public browsing, but keeping the most valuable products and services reserved for paid-up members. For MIT, one of the advantages of web-based information is that it can be kept up to date. The disadvantage - particularly for university industrial liaison offices that are less well resourced than MIT - is that this takes work. We have spoken to several British university industrial liaison officers who have reservations in general about the value of lists of technology for commercial exploitation which, as one put it, tend to look a little stale and shopworn.

Funding bodies and government agencies may be better able to fund the development and maintenance of useful information systems. In the United States, for example, the National Technology Transfer Centre (NTTC) provides a web site that promotes links between US companies and federal laboratories. This is a free gateway service that allows private sector users to establish contacts with specialists in the federal laboratory system.

Another site, The Dual Use Marketplace run by the Texas Innovation Network, is intended to promote technology transfer particularly in the defence industry. Organisations including companies, federal laboratories and universities are able, for a small fee, to list their available technologies, technology acquisition needs and partnering interests. In Europe, the Prosoma web site provides a multimedia showcase of innovation, essentially a database of results of research funded by the Esprit programme. The Cordis web site is under development for the European Community unit for dissemination of scientific and technical knowledge (DGXIII/D-2). The databases include information about research projects and results, and lists of EU technology programmes. To promote the commercial exploitation of research, the service holds a database of potential partners for development collaboration. In the United Kingdom the Office of Science and Technology is funding the first stage of Nest. The project is led by the Natural Enviroment Research Council, working closely with Leeds University and the Centre for Marine and Petroleum Technology, Pira International, the Centre for Exploitation of Science and Technology and Oakland Consultancy. Nest is supported by all the research councils. It will carry information on academic research and industrial users' needs. Its two-way browsing capabilities stem from two kernel systems: the Leeds Virtual Science Park, which lists the research interests and expertise of academics; and a system called Pteris which acts mainly as a want list for CMPT members.

The Leeds Virtual Science Park is viewable now, though it is under development. The virtual science park developers will probably extend it with a system that mines information from the Internet, rather than trying to incorporate other databases in their entirety. Nest may, however, build its own added-value temporary databases, based on needs that it perceives from traffic on the system.

Chris Neary, programme manager of Nest says it may be unique in addressing the question of the supply chain, In particular, Nest will not attempt to enrol a multitude of small and medium-sized companies directly, although those that want access can have it. Rather, it will try to build relationships with various intermediary organisations such as trade associations and technology brokers, so that Nest can be used in business clusters.

One unknown element is whether users will fall in with the plans of the designers of these web sites. In the course of a research project on the use of the Internet in technology transfer, we developed an experimental web-based technology bank at Brunel University. We found that we had a small but mixed selection of visitors. We classified them as guests, drop-ins and robots.

Guests were visiting the site on invitation; we knew who they were and the visit took place in the context of other exchanges. Robots are the programs that systematically surf the web in order to update scores for the various search engine services. Drop-ins are visitors who have found the page, probably by means of a word search, and may not find it appropriate. It may be that casual surfing will turn out not to be a particularly appropriate way to gather information on the web.

Paula Gomes is a research fellow in the Department of Manufacturing and Engineering Systems at Brunel University. Janet Vaux is a research fellow in CRICT (Centre for Research into Innovation, Culture and Technology) at Brunel University.

Research business links

Brunel/JRA Technology Bank http://www.brunel.ac.uk/technology-bank Colleges and Universities http://www.mit.edu/people/cdemello/univ.html CORDIS http://www.cordis.lu/ Dual Use Marketplace http://www.crimson.com/market/ Leeds Virtual Science Park http://dream1.leeds.ac.uk/vsp/ MIT Industrial Liaison Program http://ocr.mit.edu/home/index.html National Technology Transfer Centre (NTTC) http://iridium.nttc.edu/nttc.html NEST http://www.pira.co.uk/nest/ PROSOMA Esprit http://www.prosoma.lu

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