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Perspectives in Innovation: Nano and Advanced Materials Institute

Research, development, and commercialization are critical steps in the journey to successful innovation. Thomas Edison constructed his legacy on a foundation of these core elements, using exceptional skill in each area to create products that made radical and permanent changes to our society and way of life. In their efforts to encourage the continuation of the great inventor’s legacy, the Edison Awards honors companies whose excellence in these areas has produced truly innovative products or services. Yet, excellence in research, development, or commercialization can look very different from company to company, with each having a unique approach molded by its background and position within the industries in which it operates.

This year, the Nano and Advanced Materials Institute (NAMI) was awarded for three different technologies receiving gold in the Advanced Energy Systems category, gold in the Nano Technology category, and bronze in Energy Grid and Network Enhancements. Based in Hong Kong, the institute was established by the government in 2006 as a research and development center specializing in nanotechnology and advanced materials. Following up on this impressive win, the Inspiring Minds podcast proudly hosts NAMI Director of Operations Jenny Yiu as she explores their distinct approach to innovation and particularly commercialization as a government-funded organization interested in the support of industries as opposed to active participation.

At NAMI, “innovation,” in the sense of conceptualizing, researching, and designing new technology, is happening every day. Innovation in general is approached with the attitude that all ideas must be tested and verified with research first and foremost. According to Jenny, the fully realized, commercialized products, which can be considered true innovations, result from one of two types of projects. In one type, ideas for novel technologies are researched in-house then licensed to a company within the relevant industry. In this process, technological “know-how” is gathered during the research phase and, upon achievement of satisfactory results, is used by NAMI to actively approach the industry for licensing opportunities, which allow companies to use the technologies in their own applications, whether existing or upcoming. The second type of project is one in which research is done alongside the industry, referred to as collaboration research projects. In this case, NAMI identifies an industry sponsor, a company with ideas for new products, issues with their existing products, or insight on future products who are interested in receiving support from the institute. Following the completion of the research phase, which is done in direct collaboration with NAMI, sponsors are assisted with product commercialization in various ways including technical support and marketing.

In either case, industry involvement is what pushes innovation at NAMI, meaning that promotion of the institute’s products and abilities is absolutely crucial for their success. From a marketing standpoint, Jenny says that the institute promotes its technology on a themed basis, participating in local and international exhibitions centered around themes such as construction, smart cities, medical devices, and green technologies. With COVID-19 looming, NAMI has placed special focus on promoting technologies capable of combatting pathogens, such as PAPEL, a germ-repellant product for which they received gold this year. Jenny also states that new environmental regulations have made biodegradable materials a hot topic, and promotion efforts on the institute’s part have reflected this. This themed approach allows the institute to focus its efforts on specific industries and speak to the major concerns within them. Technology showcases are a particularly key part of NAMI’s marketing efforts. These large-scale events are held once or twice a year, and allow the institute to display and demonstrate all of the technology and commercialized products they have to offer. Additionally, Jenny points out the promotional value of participating in prestigious, internationally known awards such as the Edison Awards. While simply participating can promote an innovation, receiving an award for it validates its efficacy, bolstering marketing efforts. These various strategies ultimately serve to draw industry attention to NAMI and their work in order to generate opportunities for future collaborative projects and sponsorships, on which the institute thrives.

Beyond these strategies, however, Jenny explains that the commercialization of specific products is largely left to the company that sponsored the project. Commercialization, for NAMI, is achieved through the transfer of technology and technical know-how to the sponsor company following project completion. Although the institute encourages the development of effective sales strategies, commercialization beyond that point is left for the company, allowing them to align it with their overarching business strategy. NAMI does assist in other ways, however. While they participate in showcases and awards to promote their own work, these activities also promote the products and legitimize the marketing efforts of their sponsors. The institute also provides support to companies seeking to establish production lines in Hong Kong, where they are allowed better legal support and stronger protection of intellectual property, by helping them procure new buildings and areas for manufacturing and lining up other relevant opportunities.

Importantly, NAMI also assists sponsors in receiving government funding for research projects as well as for public trials. In Hong Kong, funding is provided for completed projects to be tested in real-world applications, in public organizations such as hospitals, nursing homes, and government departments. These trials help companies fine-tune technical aspects of their products as well as validate their efficacy, speeding the transition to commercialization. Being government-run, the institute can aid sponsors in their efforts to receive the funding for these important tests.

Because of their unique relationship with the industries they serve, NAMI offers an alternative view on how research, development, and commercialization can be carried out during the innovative process. Beyond this, they exemplify how success in these areas can be achieved and measured in different ways. With over 200 patents in the United States, Europe, and China, and over twenty commercialized products released in 2020 so far alone, NAMI’s successes at the Edison Awards only further proves that the picture of innovation can be painted with any number of brushes.