Technology scouting remains vital for the innovation of organizations, yet you do not consider yourself to be a tech scout. Maybe you should. Although it may not be in your job title, tech scouting is most likely embedded in your job description. Even though there are few dedicated tech scouts, there are abundant possibilities for external technologies and partnerships. Consequently, each technology you see is a tech scouting opportunity.
So what makes you a tech scout? You might be a tech scout if you identify or evaluate emerging technologies.
Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to talk with Gareth Hughes, a senior research engineer at 3M. He has been scouting technologies for about five years after beginning his career as a contract tech scout consultant for corporations. Hughes has a PhD in material science from Northwestern University. Although his current role involves working on internal innovations in the lab, keeping up with market trends in emerging technologies is key to staying current in his field. He may not consider himself an official tech scout now, but identifying cutting-edge technologies in his industry is part of his job description.
Identify Emerging Technologies
If you are part of an ongoing process to find new technologies in your field, you may be a tech scout.
“Tech scouting is a constant practice of being informed about what’s going on in your industry and aware of what people are doing,” Hughes mentioned. It may not be a structured end-to-end project but rather an ongoing exercise of staying on top of technology trends.
Given that Hughes has a defined research area, his searches are more specific than most tech scouts. One of his scouting methods involves 3M’s internal library system. By using keywords relevant to his research, he receives alerts from the database librarian, which include the latest patents in his field. Another common way to discover technologies is to attend conferences or peruse industry journals for current industry trends.
Identifying emerging technologies may be a part-time endeavor, but it is a highly valued activity. Like many innovative companies, 3M encourages their employees to be creative during their free hours. According to the “15% time” policy, management asks employees to spend 15% of their time working on projects outside of those assigned. This time allows individuals to explore new ideas that may require cross-pollination, such as identifying academic research partnership opportunities or looking at companies of interest, as well as develop new ideas in the lab. Based on his experiences, Hughes believed this enables crossover and collaboration with other groups.
If you participate in the evaluation of new technologies, you may be a tech scout.
For instance, 3M engages both corporate and business research teams in the business planning process. The business teams identify opportunities based on market potential, but they rely on the research teams to validate the technology’s feasibility. The corporate research teams take a long-term view on technologies that are two years or more away from commercialization. The business research teams provide insights on more current applied research and development technologies.
Moreover, to be successful at scouting, it also helps to have wide-ranging technological interests because they help identify the most promising technologies. However, having specialized knowledge means you will need to coordinate across teams to fill in knowledge gaps.
Hughes explained, “Having an intuitive understanding of how things work is critical because you want to be able to read about something and figure out the key differentiator of this new technology or why this new start-up is important. If you don’t see that, it is going to be hard to pick out which ones are significant. Also being organized and keeping track of what you have found is important.”
In addition, Hughes noted you may know someone or have the expertise to implement a new technology into your product roadmap, but when it comes to determining whether the technology will have an impact on the market, you may want to seek outside help to explore the potential value of moving forward.
The New Reality Is Everyone Is a Tech Scout
Although you may not spend the majority of your time searching for external technologies, this does not exclude you from being a tech scout. In fact, we find that most employees are frequently involved in behaviors associated with tech scouting; many identify a handful of technologies each month and keep a log of companies they may want to invest in or license their technology.
Comprehensive technical experience and interest in technology enables tech scouts to succeed at sourcing an opportunity even if they may not be aware of its full market potential. Hughes is a great example of a covert tech scout who lies low until he finds a technology that influences innovation within his company.
The process of ongoing technology scouting requires an industry expert to be organized and curious as well as possess an intuitive understanding of technologies on the rise. Do you identify emerging technologies? Are you evaluating these technologies?
About Gareth Hughes:
Gareth Hughes is a Senior Research Engineer at 3M Company in St. Paul, MN. He joined 3M in January 2015 after completing a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University. His doctoral research involved studying the performance and degradation of solid oxide fuel cells and the behavior of such systems when used reversibly. At 3M, he is in the Ceramics and Inorganics group of the Corporate Research Process Laboratory. His research areas include additive manufacturing, metal and ceramic composites, and ceramic fibers.