Like for instance the electric screwdriver, a NASA innovation?
That’s a prime example. Whatever a rocket is transporting up shouldn’t be too heavy. It all costs a lot of money. There’s also no electrical socket. The solution for repair work was the cordless screwdriver. But no one at the time realized it would be such a success later, back on Earth.
Although the idea is quite simple.
As is the case for the majority of successful transfers. Take the space probes that were developed to land on Mars or on Saturn’s moon, Titan. It’s a complex situation; the probes have their own unique shape. Like a potato chip does, too. Probes should remain intact when they enter the atmosphere, just as chips should when the bag is filled. One snack company wanted to accelerate the tempo for filling their bags, but all the chips ended up as crumbs. So they recycled the knowledge and software used to calculate how a space capsule enters the atmosphere. The fill tempo could be increased by 50 percent—the chips remained intact.
You’re the head of ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme Office, which makes sure that aerospace knowledge makes it back to Earth. Are you world’s largest recycling machine?
We’re the most motley crew, the aliens of the ESA. We work with industries that have nothing to do with aerospace. I think that all companies need an alien department. One that shakes things up and makes things uncomfortable.
Why is that?
It’s important to break with old patterns of thinking. There’s one thing we must be clear about: evolution, in the business world, too, is brutal. In mechanical engineering you learn that a new system creates friction. This implies that when you do something new and there’s no friction, then you’re doing something wrong.
What’s the solution?
We ourselves are often the biggest obstacle to innovation. Engineers, scientists and researchers sometimes develop tunnel vision, which may also have to do with the demands of our fast-paced society. Sometimes you just have to stir things up once in a while, for instance transferring people to a different discipline after ten years to create new stimuli. A company that does this doesn’t have to worry about its future. The company that doesn’t do this blocks new influences and will soon be overtaken by reality.
Is this way of thinking about interdisciplinary transfer perhaps your department’s most important innovation?
In my mind, yes, it is. It’s important to ask yourself: How do I make an innovation into three successes, three products? Today we’re so very much tuned into efficiency, so why not also do this for the adaptation of aerospace technology?
Who makes these observations? Do you approach companies? Or is it the other way around?
Both. To attract smaller companies and start-ups for transfer projects, we organize competitions or take part in entrepreneurial events. We also have intermediaries in most countries who are responsible for technology transfers. They’re our expanded sales channel. They try to find out what’s needed in industry and at institutions. We compare the biggest problems and ask ourselves: What keeps us up at night?