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Prior Knowledge Diversity

Case Aims: To illustrate how diversity in prior experience will determine the nature of the opportunities identified for a new technology

A specific form of additive manufacture patented as three-dimensional printing (3DP™), a whole new approach to manufacturing technology, was developed by MIT in the USA. Shane (2000) used licences granted by MIT for this breakthrough innovation to examine how different entrepreneurs identified new opportunities for exploiting technology.

The background and activities of the firms he studied included:

Z Corp., created to manufacture a fast, inexpensive, office-compatible machine to make three-dimensional concept models for engineering and architectural design. The Z Corp machine makes rapid prototypes 20 times faster than existing rapid prototyping processes and uses much less expensive materials.

Therics, established to manufacture drug delivery systems for the pharmaceutical industry. The 3DP™ process can control the amount, time and sequence of drug delivery to ensure optimum blood drug levels, increasing efficacy and reducing side effects.

Specific Surface Corporation, established to manufacture ceramic filters for the power generation market directly from computer drawings without tooling, dies or moulds. The 3DP™ process allows Specific Surface to manufacture filters with geometries and performance that are not possible with alternative processes.


Soligen, created to provide foundries with the ability to postpone the design and creativity of casting tooling until after the design is proven, thereby eliminating the need for prototype tooling. The 3DP™ process allows Soligen to make a ceramic mould directly from a CAD model, using a powder and binder, so that cast metal parts can be developed with a much shorter lead time and at a much lower cost.

3D Orthopedics, which used the 3DP™ process to provide custom-fitted orthopaedic devices for the medical and dental market. Diseased or injured bones previously had to be replaced with cleaned cadaver bones, bone harvested from another part of the body or prefabricated artificial substitutes. The 3DP™ process allows three-dimensional forming of a biologically compatible replacement bone that could be printed out of any material and implanted.

J D Imaging, an existing firm owned by Lau Christianson and Todd Jackson. They proposed using three-dimensional printing to provide a modelling service for surgeons. The 3DP™ process would allow the creation of multicoloured three-dimensional models of the human brain for surgical planning that would reduce error and expose malpractice.

The discovery process described by all these entrepreneurs involved recognition of an opportunity rather than a search for information upon which to base their new products. Each had heard about the technology from someone directly involved in development work at MIT and immediately recognised a potential opportunity. When the various commercial outcomes were reviewed with the entrepreneurs, all of them confirmed that they would not have identified the opportunities which the other firms in the sample were pursuing. This was because they all drew upon their prior experiences and knowledge of a specific industry or market sector.

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