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Technology transfer is

the process by which technology, knowledge and/or information developed in one organization, for one purpose is applied and utilized in another organization, in another area, for another reason.[1]
the process by which technology or expertise developed for one purpose is used for another purpose.[2]


Technology transfer is

[t]ransferring, exporting, or disclosing defense articles, defense services, or defense technical data covered by the United States Munitions List (USML) to any foreign person or entity in the United States (U.S.) or abroad.[3]
[t]he intentional communication or sharing of knowledge, expertise, facilities, equipment, and other resources for application to military and nonmilitary systems. Technology transfer includes spin-off, spin-on, and dual-use activities.[4]


Technology transfer is a complex topic that has various meanings to different audiences.

Technology transfer can have different meanings in different situations. In some instances, it refers to the transfer of legal rights, such as the assignment of patent title to a contractor or the licensing of a government-owned patent to a private firm. In other cases, the transfer endeavor involves the informal movement of information, knowledge, and skills through person-to-person interaction. The crucial aspect in a successful transfer is the actual use of the product or process. Without this, the benefits from more efficient and effective provision of goods and services are not achieved.

To industry it could mean loss of proprietary technical information to a competitor or the licensing of a new technology which could be used to increase productivity or introduce a new product. To the military or the state department, it could be connected with helping an ally to introduce advanced weapon systems for cooperative defense; but is more likely to be construed as meaning the loss of a national security-sensitive technology to a potential adversary via espionage or a breach in security.[5]

For government entities, this could mean:

  • Use of technology from outside the government for a government purpose (technology infusion)
  • The movement of technology developed by one government agency to use in another (technology transfusion), or
  • The movement of technology from the government to the private sector (technology diffusion). When applied to American business and industry, this is most commonly known as domestic technology transfer.

Because federal laboratory R&D is generally undertaken to meet an agency’s mission or because there are insufficient incentives for private sector research that the government deems in the national interest, decisions reflect public sector, rather than commercial needs. Thus, transfer often depends on attempts to ascertain commercial applications of technologies developed for government use — "technology push" — rather than on "market pull." In other words, a technology is developed and a use for it established because the expertise exists rather than because it is perceived to be needed.


When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established in 1959, Congress set aside a small percentage of the total budget to make the technical fruits of the space program available to other users. By their challenging nature, NASA programs are especially productive sources of advanced technology. NASA tries to facilitate and expedite the process by means of its Technology Transfer Program, in which it utilizes a variety of methods and mechanisms to stimulate the transfer of aerospace technology to other sectors of the economy.

In 1985, NASA created a nationwide network of nonprofit consortia of NASA, universities, and companies to conduct space-based, high technology research and development. The program was designed to use the collective abilities and expertise of all three sectors to move emerging technologies from the laboratory to the marketplace. As of September 1993, there were 17 Centers for the Commercial Development of Space throughout the United States, more than 350 industrial affiliates, and over 50 universities participating in the program.

In early 1993, NASA established a pilot program to develop Technology Commercialization Centers in conjunction with several NASA field centers. These "incubators" couple NASA technological innovations with skills and resources needed to create new business ventures.

NASA's Office of Advanced Concepts and Technology's mission is to pioneer innovative customer-focused space concepts and technology generated and developed through industrial, academic, and governmental alliances. The office also sponsors NASA's University Space Engineering Research Centers, a National Technology Transfer Network, and a NASA Small Business Innovation Research program.

Department of Commerce[]

The Department's Under Secretary for Technology is responsible for identifying opportunities and/or barriers affecting U.S. commercial innovation, quality, productivity, and manufacturing; advocating federal policies and programs to eliminate government-wide statutory, regulatory, or other barriers to the rapid commercialization of U.S. science and technology; fostering and promoting federal involvement in research and development; and promoting joint efforts involving business, industry, educational institutions, and state and local organizations to encourage technology commercialization. Reporting to the Under Secretary of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Technology Policy, which has the primary responsibility for maximizing the role and contribution of technology to U.S. competitiveness and economic security, are the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Technical Information Services (NTIS).

Technology transfer to private sector: Federal interest[]

The federal interest in the transfer of technology from government laboratories to the private sector is based on several factors. The government requires certain goods and services to operate. Much of the research it funds is directed at developing the knowledge and expertise necessary to formulate these products and processes. However, the government has neither the mandate nor the capability to commercialize the results of the federal R&D effort. Technology transfer is a mechanism to get federally-generated technology and technical know-how to the business community where it can be developed, commercialized, and made available for use by the public sector.

Federal involvement in technology transfer also arises from an interest in promoting the economic growth that is vital to the nation’s welfare and security. It is through further development, refinement, and marketing that the results of research become diffused throughout the economy and can generate growth. It is widely accepted that technological progress is responsible for up to one-half the growth of the U.S. economy and is the principal driving force in long-term economic growth and increases in our standard of living. Economic benefits of a technology or technique accrue when a product, process, or service is brought to the marketplace where it can be sold or used to increase productivity. When technology transfer is successful, new and different products or processes become available to meet or induce market demand. Transfer from the federal laboratories can result in substantial increases in employment and income generated at the firm level.

Cooperation with the private sector provides a means for federal scientists and engineers to obtain state-of-the-art technical information from the industrial community, which in various instances is more advanced than that available in the government. Technology transfer is also a way to assist companies that have been dependent on defense contracts and procurement to convert to manufacturing for the civilian, commercial marketplace. Successful efforts range from advances in the commercial aviation industry, to the development of a new technology for use in advanced ceramics, to the evolution of the biotechnology sector.

The most widely used technology transfer mechanisms in use today are:

1. Contracts
2. Cooperative research/CRADA
3. Cost-shared contracts
4. Exchange programs
5. Grants and cooperative agreements
6. Memorandum of understanding (MOU)
7. Patents/Licensing
8. Personnel exchanges
9. Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)
10. Test service agreements (TSA)
11. Material Transfer Agreement (MTA)
12. Use of User Facilities

Technology transfer to state and local governments: Rationale for federal activity[]

The increasing demands on state and local governments to provide improved goods and services have been accompanied by a recognition that expanded technological expertise can help meet many of these needs. The transfer of technology and technical knowledge from government laboratories to state and local jurisdictions can allow for additional use of ideas and inventions that have been funded and created through federal R&D. Intergovernmental technology transfer can also help state and local officials meet responsibilities imposed by federal legislation.

As state and local governments increasingly look for technological solutions, the concept of “public technology” — the adaptation and utilization of new or existing technology to public sector needs — has emerged. The application of technology to State and local services is a complex and intricate procedure. In transferring technology from the federal laboratories, the application often can be direct. At other times, alterations in technical products and processes may be necessary for application in the state and local environment. However, this “adaptive engineering” generally is not extensive or expensive and can be accomplished by federal laboratory and state and local personnel working together.

State and local government concerns with regional economic growth also have focused attention on technology transfer as a mechanism to increase private sector innovation-related activities within their jurisdiction. In order to develop and foster an entrepreneurial climate, many states and localities are undertaking the support of programs that assist high technology businesses, and that often use the federal laboratory system. State and local efforts to develop “incubator centers” for small companies may rely on cooperation with federal laboratories, which supply technical expertise to firms locating at the center. Other larger programs to promote innovation in the state, such as the Ben Franklin Partnership in Pennsylvania, use the science and technology resources of federal personnel. Additional programs have been created involving state universities, private companies, and the federal laboratories, with each program geared to the specific needs and desires of the participating parties.[6]

Current federal efforts to promote technology transfer[]

Over the years, several federal efforts have been undertaken to promote the transfer of technology from the federal government to state and local jurisdictions and to the private sector. The primary laws affording access to the federal laboratory system are the

This legislation has firmly established technology transfer as a mission of all federal laboratories and facilities. In addition, these legislative acts have given federal agencies the authority to enter directly into cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs) with U.S. private companies.


See also[]

External resources[]

  • Library of Congress, Science, Tech. & Bus. Div., Technology Transfer: The Use of Government Laboratories and Federally Funded Research and Development (full-text).
  • W. Douglas Maughan, "Tech Transfer: Crossing the 'Valley of Death': Transitioning Research into Commercial Products," Proc. of the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy (May 17-19, 2010).
  • U.S. House of Representatives, Subcomm. on Regulation, Business Opportunities & Energy, Comm. on Small Business, Technology Transfer Obstacles in Federal Laboratories: Key Agencies Respond to Subcommittee Survey, 101st Cong., 2nd Sess. (U.S. Govt. Print. Off. 1990).
  • U.S. House of Representatives, Comm. on Science, Space & Technology, The Future of the Department of Energy Laboratories, Hearing, 102nd Cong., 1st Sess. (Oct. 9, 1991).
  • U.S. House of Representatives, Comm. on Science, Space & Technology, H.R. 5229 — Fundamental Competitiveness Act of 1992 and H.R. 5230 — American Technology and Competitiveness Act of 1992, Hearing, 102nd Cong., 2nd Sess. (Aug. 5, 1992).
  • U.S. House of Representatives, Comm. on Science, Space & Technology, Subcomm. on Energy, Technology Transfer, Hearing, 103rd Cong., 1st Sess. (Mar. 23, 1993).
  • U.S. House of Representatives, Comm. on Science, Space & Technology, Subcomm. on Technology and Competitiveness, Technology Transfer from Federal Laboratories and Universities: Report (U.S. Govt. Print. Off. 1992).
  • U.S. House of Representatives, Comm. on Small Business. Subcomm. on Regulation, Business Opportunities & Energy, Improving Technology Transfer Programs at Department of Energy Laboratories, Hearing, 102nd Cong., 2nd Sess. (Dec. 4, 1992).
  • U.S. Senate, Comm. on Commerce, Sci. & Transp., Commercialization of Federally Funded R&D: A Guide to Technology Transfer from Federal Laboratories (U.S. Govt. Print. Off. 1988).