It's Just a Jump...to the Left
Borrowing technology currently being used in another product category can be an effective approach to problem solving. It should be considered as one of a number of different problem solving approaches, as the extent of work required to adapt and qualify these technologies can sometimes offset the other advantages that they might offer. Still, next to serendipity, few experiences in innovation are more satisfying than identifying a path for the feasible reapplication of a solution from an unrelated field.
Lateral technology translation results from understanding the underlying mechanisms that enable certain technologies to power particular usage applications and then hypothesizing productive alternative uses for them. Doing so can extend the utility of a technology platform.
Many technologies fit the definition of a "platform", in that they have robust reapplication potential. Procter and Gamble reapplied the surface adhesion technology that it developed for Glad Press n Seal Wrap for use in its Crest Whitening Strips. Or, consider the neurotoxin in Botox. Most of us know that it is widely used to relax facial wrinkles. Fewer know why it works. "Botox blocks signals from the nerves to the muscles. The injected muscle can't contract. That makes the wrinkles relax and soften." (WebMD) This same mechanism of action also enables Botox to be very effective for treating certain types of back muscle spasms. (It also is effective at treating hyperhydrosis and migraine headaches, but it is less clear as to why this is so).
In a personal example of lateral technology translation, a few years ago I was tasked with assisting a client to develop more environmentally friendly dish-ware. Among the technical options I developed, I found a patent covering the use of recycled glass with clay to create ceramic sanitary ware (toilets, sinks). In working with a ceramic expert, we learned this same technology could be successfully reapplied without a complicated or expensive development effort. This is a great outcome for a lateral technology translation exercise.
In summary, lateral technology translation can often create additional problem solving options. By creatively reapplying technologies to novel uses, it can be an effective way to broaden the number and type of solutions that are considered for thorny challenges. If you haven't tried it, I really encourage you to do so.
What are some examples of lateral technology translation that some of you have successfully applied?