Methodological and Technological Issues in Technology Transfer

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Case Study 21

Concrete Armouring for the Coast - Government to Private Sector Technology Transfer
James G. Boyd
Coastal Services Center
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Keywords: breakwater concrete armouring, coastal protection, licensing,

In 1993, two researchers at a United States federal laboratory, the U.S. Army Engineers Waterways Experiment Station (WES), developed and patented a new design for breakwater concrete armouring. The transfer of this innovative technology followed the classical pathway by which national government-sponsored research and development may be adopted and applied by the international private sector. The significant features of this case were new government policy, which provided additional incentives for the government laboratory and the inventors to pursue commercialisation of their innovation, and the presence of a global market.

Geographical Focus

The transfer pathway included government-to-government transfer within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE), but has focused intensively on transfer from government to the international private sector. Five companies are now permanent regional licensees covering North America, South America, Europe, Asia, the Far East, Japan, South Africa, and the Middle East.


The COE research programme established to investigate new design methods for concrete armour units funded the initial development and testing of this technology. This innovation has wide-ranging potential application, as there are sites worldwide in need of coastal protection for land, property, and life. However, for some, the cost of this type of technology is a prohibitive factor. While this technology has been shown to potentially cost less and be more reliable than other armouring technologies, the initial investment is still a consideration, especially for those countries with limited resources. Altogether, this innovative technology seems to hold great promise, while the case study provides an excellent example of a product, market, and policy coming together to provide an opportunity for the transfer of technology.

Research and development funding was provided exclusively by the Corps. Once testing was completed, technical presentations were made at coastal engineering conferences in Japan, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Spain, and local seminars were used to introduce the technology to prospective users. A U.S. patent was awarded in 1995, but the international patents were significantly more difficult for the patentees to obtain. By retaining an experienced international patent attorney, this obstacle was overcome. In the United States, the Federal Technology Transfer Act of 1986 (FTTA) made technology transfer a responsibility of all federal laboratory scientists, allowed laboratories to enter into CRADAs and negotiate licensing agreements, and established principles for royalty sharing for federal inventors and other incentives for the laboratories. The developers and WES took advantage of the FTTA and entered into a CRADA with a South African firm interested in using the armouring units for a project. Difficulties in construction and the substantial time required administering the agreements provided WES with the incentive to establish permanent licenses with a few select experienced private companies. The patentees continued to promote the technology during licensing negotiations and provided technical support to another CRADA partner as well as subsequent licensee projects.

The application and promotion of the technology resulted in the unit being proposed and used worldwide very early in its patent life, which is particularly uncharacteristic for coastal protection structures. A significant feature in gaining the quick acceptance of this new civil engineering technology was that the researchers addressed their clients' anxiety risk by streamlining the usual "chain-of-command" responses, as provided by the FTTA. At this time, WES involvement in projects is limited, as the licensees have begun to actively promote the technology, conduct their own research, and administer all projects.

Lessons Learned
It is important to note that much of the early technology transfer was done without specific government funding and was accomplished beyond the normal duties of the government researchers. However, the incentives provided by the FTTA have resulted in nearly US$1 million in engineering revenue, license fees, and royalties for the WES. In addition, the FTTA allowed the government inventors to share the royalty revenue. This provided motivation for the researchers to commit a great deal of personal time and energy to develop the product and an associated construction technique, and implement the technology transfer. It also provided incentive for WES to allow the researchers to perform this work. Without these types of incentives, technology transfer of this type would be much more difficult, or might require a completely different type of transfer pathway.

Jeffrey, M. (Research Hydraulic Engineer, WES), Personal communication.
Phillip, S. (Technology Transfer Office, WES), Personal communication.
Melby, J., and G. Turk. U.S. 1997: Army Corps of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station Technical Report CHL-97-4 (March).

Jeffrey A. Melby (CEWES-CN-S)
USAE Waterways Experiment Station
Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory
fax: 601/634-3433; 3909

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