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R3: Industry Profile Project



Reliable market data allows manufacturers to identify consumer needs and business opportunities; develop products to satisfy these needs; and prepare grants and secure investment capital to carry out research and development. Manufacturers obtain market data from public sources (e.g. federal studies, trade publications, academic publications); by querying their marketing and sales workforce; by contracting with market research firms or by conducting their own research. Examples of important disability market research includes: Knowle's MarkTrac studies of the hearing market [1, 2, 3, 4]; the US Department of Commerce study of the assistive technology industry [5]; Microsoft's excellent study of the elder market for computer technology [6]; and the T2RERC industry profiles for vision, communication, hearing and mobility [7, 8, 9, 10]. The Disability Statistics Center has a large collection of useful disability statistics. [11]

With a few notable exceptions, publicly available disability market data is incomplete; lacks specificity; is difficult to obtain; or is difficult to interpret. Assistive technology manufacturers are generally small companies with insufficient resources to contract for market research; or the time and expertise to conduct such research themselves. In lieu of reliable market data, they must rely upon the experience and intuition of their marketing and sales workforce to identify unmet needs and business opportunities. Similarly, their technical workforce must conceive of and develop technical solutions for poorly specified customer needs. In fact, based upon 294 survey responses, 38% of assistive technology manufacturers "do not gather user input to support the quality of their design efforts." [12]

Federal agencies provide public support for research and development initiatives through grant-based programs. For example, the Small Business Innovation Research Act (1982) requires large federal departments and agencies to establish Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programs which provide grants to small businesses, to conduct research and development to address mission-related agency needs. The funding agency generally has non-exclusive rights to use but not sell or transfer intellectual property developed under an SBIR. Otherwise, the small business generally retains all other rights to the intellectual property providing the basis for commercial product development. The SBIR program fosters innovation and new product development and is a major economic driver. Some SBIR programs (e.g. National Science Foundation, Department of Education) place added emphasis on small businesses serving the needs of people with disabilities. Grant solicitations reflect each agency's conception of which market market needs are most significant. Overall, the lack of comprehensive and reliable market data has a negative impact in both the public and private sectors - ultimately reducing the number, variety, and quality of assistive technology products in a marketplace; decreasing customer satisfaction with available products; and reducing manufacturer profits.

Over the five year grant cycle, the T2RERC will carry out primary and secondary market research for three assistive technology industries. These include wheeled mobility; low vision and blindness; and education technology. Market research will be compiled into "Industry Profile" drafts. To ensure content quality, each draft will be evaluated internally by T2RERC staff and externally by academic and industry experts. The "corrected" profile will be provided to a representative sample of assistive technology manufacturers. Each manufacturer will be surveyed to determine the impact of the market research on new product development, product refinement, grant development, strategic and business planning; reference and other uses. Industry Profiles will also be provided to SBIR program managers to determine its impact on grant solicitations; as a reference; and other uses.

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