Richard DiCicco runs a kind of corporate dating service.
Four years ago, when the Keebler Co., a Chicago-based cookie giant, was having trouble entering the burgeoning chewy cookie market, DiCicco matched it up with an obscure New Jersey firm called Food-Tek Inc. Working with Keebler, Food-Tek's scientists helped design an ingenious double biscuit: a soft inner cookie with a crunchy outer cookie baked over it. Today Keebler's Soft Batch brand is the industry leader.
In the past nine years, DiCicco and his staff of 14 at Technology Catalysts Inc. of Falls Church have arranged hundreds of such matches, drawing on a network of 60,000 small businesses throughout the world to compile a list of new ideas that the firm says is close to 200,000.
Technology Catalysts is one of a growing band of high-technology matchmakers that link entrepreneurs and small firms with new ideas to big companies with money.
DiCicco's role in the Keebler transaction was small; he provided only a name and an introduction. On other occasions Technology Catalysts provides more extensive services, gathering technical information from small companies and attempting to match those firms with others in need of the expertise.
"The cost of research is so high these days that companies are realizing that it's cheaper to buy existing technology than develop it themselves," DiCicco said. For annual fees of between $12,500 and $20,000, Technology Catalysts gives its 150 corporate clients unlimited access to everything in its files. For many, it's a bargain.
Another local firm, Kiser Research Inc. of the District, specializes in finding the best of Soviet bloc technology for its American clients, scouting out high-technology developments and arranging licensing agreements for the 25 firms that have it on retainer. For example, the company is on the verge of licensing a Soviet juice-extraction process that may produce substantial gains for a major American beverage company.
"There isn't an area of basic research that the Soviets haven't poured tremendous energy into," said John W. Kiser III, president of Kiser Research. "They're world leaders in a lot of nitty-gritty industrial processes."
There are hundreds of technology brokers across the United States. The biggest is New York's Rain Hill Group, whose 40 multinational clients pay quarterly retainers of $24,000 apiece and among them have assets in excess of $500 billion. Large and small, however, matchmakers face the same challenge: to persuade clients of the value of new technologies.
For example, the E.O. Paton Welding Institute in Kiev is acknowledged to be the world's leading center for advanced welding techniques, and processes developed there have already been used in everything from the construction of American high-pressure pipelines to subway rails in the District of Columbia.
Yet Kiser said he has difficulty making some American executives believe that Soviet technology offers anything of value. He said others won't believe that the Soviet Union is willing to sell any of its technology to the West, when in fact "they're frequently willing to sell us things we wouldn't dream of selling them."
Generally, however, Kiser said he finds domestic firms receptive, especially companies in the chemical and materials industries. "There's an appreciation out there that America doesn't have all the answers," he said, "and that awareness is growing as our industry's behinds get blacker and bluer."
Not everyone finds U.S. executives so open. Florida technology broker Vladimir Dvorkovitz was responsible for bringing Yoplait yogurt to America, but said he finds the bulk of his business comes from selling American ideas overseas. "Japan wants everything," he said. "But U.S. firms just want to sit and clip coupons."
Dvorkovitz said that when he first brought the rights to a line of feminine hygiene products to the United States from Switzerland a few years ago, he was told by a major American health products company that "there is no market for this in the USA since American women have different habits than Swiss women." Two years later the American market for feminine hygiene products was $50 million, according to Dvorkovitz.
DiCicco said he, too, is a net exporter of American technology. Most of the small businesses from which he draws his ideas are American, but two thirds of his corporate clients are from Europe and Japan. He said presentations to U.S. companies tend to be merely "educational," adding, "We're telling them why to look for new ideas, and how to look. Other countries are just naturally more curious."
If the technology matchmaking business requires a willingness to educate corporate clients, it also requires patience.
"The rule is that you look at a thousand deals and do one," said Rain Hill President Dick Cawley, whose staff reviews 60,000 ideas a year. Technology Catalysts narrows the selection for its clients and lets them view videotapes of promising technologies; it usually licenses just over 100 ideas a year.
"If you're looking for a quick buck, don't get into the technology transfer business," Kiser said.
For small businesses that plug into the network offered by brokers, the dividends can be enormous. Said Gil Finkel, president of the high-tech cookie maker that DiCicco matched up with Keebler, "the networking that has resulted because of our association with Technology Catalysts is incredible."
Since word got out about Food-Tek's cookie coup, he said, the firm has received contracts to work on popcorn, strudel, pizza, doughnuts and cakes. "It has been a very happy relationship," he said.