Increasing Assistive Technology Tech Transfer Success Through the IMPACT Center’s Three-Phase Assistive Technology Training Program

Initiative to Mobilize Partnerships for Successful Assistive Technology Transfer (IMPACT)
University of Pittsburgh, School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology
Submitted by Michelle Zorrilla

Focus

This project seeks to raise awareness and increase the capacity of National Institute of Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) grantees to perform successful assistive technology tech transfer (ATTT). To do this, grantees need to consider knowledge translation (KT) strategies that will help them to determine a technology’s potential usefulness. To increase the use and adoption of technology, grantees should include KT strategies such as customer discovery, user-led and user-centered design, and interdisciplinary collaboration with various professional fields. The IMPACT Center’s three-phase training program can be used by a variety of entrepreneurs, researchers, and innovators from both the commercial sector and the academic setting. This program is applicable to a variety of grant types including grants from small businesses and larger, research focused grants.

Context

An estimated 1 billion people worldwide need assistive technologies (ATs) to live active, independent lives (Tebbutt et al., 2016). As the global population increases and ages, the number of people who will need ATs, such as wheelchairs, prosthetics and orthotics or augmented vision and hearing devices, is expected to double from 1 billion to 2 billion people by 2050 (WHO, 2018). The amount spent on ATs is also expected to grow from $15 billion in 2015 to more than $26 billion by 2024 (McCue, 2017; Coherent Market Insights, 2018). The potential impact of these changes and the opportunity to bring new assistive technologies to market to meet increasing demand, highlight the urgent need for effective assistive technology tech transfer (ATTT). ATTT is the process of moving, selling, transferring or disseminating an assistive technology from the university setting, a business or organization to the market and into the hands of those that may benefit from its use. Barriers to successful ATTT include poorly defined and fragmented product markets, a high rate of abandonment of devices by end users, and a lack of clear regulations. Despite these hurdles, successful ATTT is possible. To be successful, ATTT needs to be streamlined and more efficient. This will require collaboration among the health care sector, researchers, industry, and the community.

In 2018, the IMPACT (Initiative to Mobilize Partnerships for Successful Assistive Technology Transfer) Center at the University of Pittsburgh received a grant from NIDILRR to help ATs reach the marketplace. IMPACT provides tools and approaches to understand the barriers and facilitators to successful ATTT, increase the capacity of researchers and entrepreneurs to perform successful ATTT and monitors the ATTT success rate of NIDILRR-funded projects.

KT Activities

Knowledge translation (KT) is an effective and useful tool that can be used to support ATTT and provide insight into ATTT. KT provides a common language and a framework to help understand how research is informed by consumers. IMPACT looked at evidence-based practice (EBP) techniques and the Need to Knowledge Model (NtK) to develop a model for IMPACT’s technology transfer training program. EBP is commonly used by clinicians in the rehabilitation sector to describe how clinical services are guided by research and to improve their practice. The aim of EBP is to use evidence from research to improve the impact on the end user. In this case, the technology or related tools (e.g., standards) represent the created knowledge. KT principles can be used to develop strategies to help ensure that a technology reaches the end user. KT also examines how users and other stakeholders inform the technology creation process. The NtK Model developed by Lane et al. (Flagg et al., 2013, Lane et al., 2010) is an evidence-based framework. This model breaks down technology transfer (TT) into three states: conceptual discovery, prototype invention, and market innovation. These three states are used to measure outcomes and impacts of the technologies generated through approaches such as scientific research, engineering development and industrial production. The model views the customer and commercial requirements as factors that must be considered as part of the research project for improving ATTT.

IMPACT felt that these approaches were missing a critical factor: an acknowledgment of the creative abilities of academic researchers, despite the use of obsolete business models in academic environments. They also do not capture the processes already in place in research institutions, and the strategies being implemented to successfully transfer technologies out of the university. To address this, IMPACT set out to create a program that could be used by a variety of entrepreneurs, researchers, and innovators, including those from the commercial sector and academic settings. The program can also support a variety of grant types including small business grants and larger, research-focused grants and includes strategies to help determine a technology’s potential usefulness. Such strategies include a customer discovery (Blank, 2012) process of potential customers’ needs and pain points to provide insight into the current value of a technology and drive additional knowledge creation (i.e., the pivot). Other strategies include using user-led and user-centered design principles and interdisciplinary collaboration to increase the use and adoption of the technology (Hannukainen & Holtta-Otto, 2006).

The Training Approach

A diagram of the IMPACT 3-step Training Approach: BootCamp, StartUp, and Accelerate

Figure 1. IMPACT Center Three-Level Training Program and Readiness Assessment Tool. Level 1: idea 2 IMPACT BootCamp and/or massive open online course (MOOC). Provides foundational training using the Coursera platform. Goal: to increase awareness and capacity of teams to successfully get their technologies in front of the appropriate audience or commercialize them. MOOC is open to all; BootCamp is limited to eight teams. Level 2: IMPACT StartUp. Provides guidance in the ATTT process. Serves as a canvas for teams enrolled in the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other programs. Goal: Customer discovery and business model canvas (BMC).Limited to four teams. Level 3: IMPACT Accelerate. Provides consulting services and collaboration with Fourth River Solutions. Up to four teams. Readiness Assessment Tool is used to help AT innovators and researchers evaluate the promise of their technology and to guide mentor’s advice. The tool is used throughout all of the training levels to judge progress and evaluate teams.

Assistive technology (AT) concepts, research, and products can take on different forms. Further, AT encompasses many things, from commercial products to standards and guidelines for clinical care and free software. IMPACT created a three-phase technology transfer training program to help researchers and entrepreneurs take an assistive technology idea and turn it into a product that can help end users (Figure 1). The phases of the training program are described below.

Phase 1 of the training program is the idea 2 IMPACT (i2I) bootcamp. This course, which is titled “An Introduction to Translating Assistive Health Technologies and Other Products,” is offered in two formats: (1) A massive open online course (MOOC) that is asynchronous, without real-time live interaction, and open to all on the Coursera online learning platform; and (2) a mixed synchronous and asynchronous format course that is available to NIDILRR grantees and those seeking NIDILRR funding. This introductory 6-week online course explains step by step how to develop an entrepreneurial idea in the area of assistive technology, by increasing awareness and capacity building for the disability and rehabilitation research community. This course provides a foundation in the translational process including how to maximize impact of an AT for an intended audience. Each week, innovators focus on a stage of the translational process. Participants work in teams to identify a problem, analyze stakeholders, define a solution, describe its benefits, research the competition, articulate differentiators, and create an action plan (see Figure 2). This course helps participants learn about technology translation. It can also serve as a refresher for those who may already have experience taking their technology to market.

A diagram of the six IMPACT Training Modules: (1) KT & TT; (2) Problem and Stakeholders; (3) Solution & Benefits; (4) Competitin & Differentiation; (5) Regulatory & Reimbursement; and (6) Action Plan. Modules 1, 3, and 6 include an IMPACT Readiness Assessment Tool Re-Evaluation.

Figure 2. idea 2 IMPACT Training Modules. The modules are: (1) Introduction and Deep Dive into Knowledge Translation and Technology Transfer (+), (2) Problem and Stakeholders, (3) Solution and Benefits (+), (4) Competition and Differentiation, (5) Regulatory and Reimbursement, (6) Action Plan (+). Note. + = IMPACT Readiness Assessment Tool (Re-)Evaluation is used that week.

The second phase is IMPACT StartUp. This phase was developed to provide further guidance in the ATTT process and serve as a canvas for AT innovators. The goal of this phase is learn about comprehensive customer discovery. This is a crucial step to help identify the viability of a product and its potential customers, and how to meet their needs. This 10-week program offers a real-world, hands-on learning experience. Each team engages with stakeholders by getting out of the building, either physically or virtually. Teams learn from talking to customers, partners, and competitors about commercializing innovations, creating ventures, and testing hypotheses from their business model canvas (BMC). They learn to clearly communicate the capabilities of their product and its value proposition. Funding has been shown to be a pivotal factor for some groups when trying to move to the next phase of development. To assist with this, teams that progress from the BootCamp phase to the StartUp phase receive pilot funds of $25,000 for comprehensive customer discovery, interview travel, supplies, technology development, and product testing. Funding is necessary to reach a broader audience as this requires promoting the technology with special interest groups and conducting comprehensive customer discovery to drive additional knowledge creation and value.

The third and final phase of training is called IMPACT Accelerate. In this phase, participants have access to consultants, who help them translate research and ideas into real-world business solutions. Each consultant supports an innovator by creating a customized scope of work. This scope of work may include a value proposition assessment, a marketing analysis, a competitor analysis, customer discovery, a regulatory assessment, an indication prioritization, a business plan, an investor pitch presentation, or an exit strategy.

Throughout all three phases, innovators use the Assistive Technology Readiness Assessment Tool. This tool helps to evaluate the promise of their technology. It also guides mentors’ advice and serves as a measurement of innovators’ progress throughout the training.

Impact

All training takes place online and uses virtual learning platforms such as Coursera (BootCamp) and LaunchPad Central (StartUp). Participants also use Zoom for weekly recitations and have access to mentors. This format allows IMPACT to reach a large group of AT innovators. Success is measured by the number of learners enrolled in the training program, whether teams commercialized their ideas or were closer to reaching their goal, the number of people they reached who use assistive technology, and the impact they made on the AT sector.

Results from the Assistive Technology Readiness Assessment Tool during the IMPACT BootCamp show that, in all cases, innovators showed progress in “Grand Total” scores for their idea’s readiness for market, from the first time the tool was used during the course to the third time. In some cases, teams regressed in their Grand Total score from the first time they used the tool to the second; but by the end of the course, those scores had surpassed the first scores. These results show that the course materials and activities are effective in increasing innovators’ understanding of the technology transfer process.

After taking the idea 2 IMPACT Bootcamp, one team went on to apply for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II funding. This team thanked the IMPACT Center for preparing them to apply for this funding and making their application more competitive. Participants in the StartUp course obtained new insights into what customers want and need and were able to pivot their original technology to better suit the market. Seeing the changing mindsets of the innovators from researcher to entrepreneur through the use of newly learned skills and successfully applying those skills to get their assistive technologies to market, demonstrates the preliminary success of this training program and what it has been able to achieve in such a short time.

Using a team approach that combined teachers, mentors, and consultants from diverse backgrounds in education, entrepreneurship, and assistive technology enhanced the curriculum. This approach also exposed the innovators to new and diverse points of views and gave them appropriate support and real-world experience. Mentors played an essential role in the training program. They addressed teams’ questions, provided them with real-world anecdotes, helped teams figure out the goal of their technology, and filled in gaps between the initial pilot or prototype and commercialization. Mentors also provided guidance on how to overcome risk aversion or embrace it to move a product to market, while making sure that a team’s short-term goals align with the funder’s long-term vision. Expanding the mentor’s role and involvement with the teams by asking them to delve into further detail would be more effective for the development of the innovators’ business model canvas to more clearly communicate a technology’s value with potential investors and future clients.

It is important to remember that failure is not always bad and it is OK to pivot by changing your customer target, revenue or pricing model, partners, resources or activities. Having a space where teams and mentors feel comfortable expressing their thoughts through open discussion and feedback has allowed for greater collaboration and commitment throughout this process. We hope future cohorts will take the time to understand the problem they are trying to address, their stakeholders’ needs, and the market, and commit to customer discovery as those who have taken the training thus far have done. Ultimately, if an assistive technology is progressing and makes it one step closer to reaching those in need, that is impactful.

References

  • Tebbutt, E., Brodmann, R., Borg, J., MacLachlan, M., Khasnabis, C., & Horvath, R. (2016). Assistive products and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Global Health, 12(1), 79.
  • World Health Organization Executive Board. (2018). Improving Access to assistive technology. Draft resolution proposed by Algeria, China, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Ghana, Iraq, Israel, Jamaica, Pakistan, Philippines, Zambia (142nd session; Agenda item 4.5). Retrieved from http://apps.who.int/gb/ebwha/pdf_files/EB142/B142_CONF2-en.pdf
  • McCue, T. J. (2017, March 21). Elderly and disabled assistive technology market to surpass $26 billion by 2024. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/tjmccue/2017/03/21/elderly-and-disabled-assistive-tec hnology-market-to-surpass-26-billion-by-2024/. Accessed 7 May 2018.
  • Coherent Market Insights (2018). Global elderly and disabled assistive devices market, by end user, by device type, and by geography - Trends and forecast 2014–2024. http://www.coherentmarketinsights.com/market-insight/elderly-and-disabled-assistiv e-devices-market-82
  • Flagg, J. L., Lane, J. P., Lockett, M. M. (2013). Need to Knowledge (NtK) Model: An evidence-based framework for generating technological innovations with socio-economic impacts. Implementation Science, 8, 21.
  • Lane, J. P., & Flagg, J. L. (2010). Translating three states of knowledge--discovery, invention, and innovation. Implementation Science, 5, 9.
  • Blank, S., & Dorf, B. (2012). The startup owner’s manual: The step-by-step guide for building a great company. Pescadero, CA: K&S Ranch Press.
  • Hannukainen, P., & Holtta-Otto, K. (2006). Identifying customer needs: Disabled persons as lead users. In: International Design Engineering Technical Conferences and Computers and Information in Engineering Conference, Vol. 4a: 18th International Conference on Design Theory and Methodology (Paper No: DETC2006-99043, pp. 243–251). https://doi.org/10.1115/DETC2006-99043

Contact Information

Initiative to Mobilize Partnerships for Successful Assistive Technology Transfer (IMPACT)
University of Pittsburgh, School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology
6425 Penn Avenue, Suite 400
Pittsburgh, PA 15206
Website: https://idea2impact.org

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