Why we need to bring technology down to earth.
When the Mars Curiosity Rover landed on the red planet’s surface, an invention by a Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist clicked into gear, taking measurements of the air around the rover. David Scott, a senior scientist at JPL, had developed a laser-based spectrometer that could identify and analyze large and complex molecules lurking in the Martian atmosphere (most laser-based instruments can only work with much smaller chemicals, which limits their effectiveness).
Meanwhile, back on Earth, a team at the University of Southern California, intrigued by the innovation, wanted to add another dimension to the invention; give it a business purpose. The team’s interest underscores a key component of today’s scientific inventions—the need to apply the technology to as many parts of society as possible, for funding reasons as well as the need to show the inventions’ true benefits.
What’s remarkable about the USC applications was that the team consisted of graduate students, and they successfully designed and tested a business model, ready to pitch to investors, in just three months.
But finding the right business model can be a challenge, even when working with experienced colleagues. The student team worked with Scott to find a business purpose for his device. Scott had miniaturized the laser into a handheld device and imagined 20 or more uses for the product, many in the medical field. The students talked with potential customers — and found that nearly all his ideas were too expensive or something these customers were not interested in pursuing. They eventually discovered the ideal target market was the one they least expected: the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Because the laser spectrometer can identify large molecules, DHS officials saw its potential for detecting agents of biological or chemical warfare. In addition, the hand-held size was a perfect solution for the TSA, which needed help speeding up security checks and had no room for bulky equipment.
While some may groan at the idea of presenting an invention or discovery to the private sector, the USC team showed that just as much creativity was needed as making the invention itself. Entrepreneurs can get hung up on a specific concept for their product. But, if they want funding for the project (and the ability to keep their labs humming), they need to find people who had a “pain point” (an acutely unmet need), and is willing to invest in new technology.
Even if that new idea was tested 140 million miles away.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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