The Advanced Technology Program (ATP) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was established by the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988, with the mission of supporting U.S. companies in pursuing early-stage, high-risk research to develop new technologies that have great potential for producing broad-based national economic benefit. The ATP funds industry-led research and development (R&D) projects that have high technical risk and inventiveness and promising potential for broad economic impact.

ATP began in 1990 in response to the erosion of U.S industry’s international competitiveness in strategic markets and the relative slowness of U.S. firms in translating inventions created in universities, national laboratories, and corporate laboratories into innovative products and processes (National Research Council 1999; Ruegg and Feller 2003). ATP provides cost-shared funding to industry to accelerate the development and broad dissemination of challenging, high-risk technologies that promise significant commercial payoffs and widespread benefits for the nation. This unique government-industry partnership helps companies accelerate the development of emerging or enabling technologies. Those technologies, in turn, lead to revolutionary new products and to new industrial processes and services that can compete in rapidly changing world markets.

By assisting in the funding of early-stage technology development, ATP helps propel promising technologies from invention to innovation—that is, make the transition from the laboratory to the marketplace, from demonstration of technical “proof of concept” to commercial introduction of a new technology product or service in the marketplace. During the process of early-stage technology development, when technical feasibility and economic viability are yet to be proven, great risk and fundamental uncertainty characterize the endeavor, and in this context, funding for R&D is often unavailable.

In a study commissioned by ATP, this transition from invention to innovation has been described as a “Darwinian Sea,” where good technical ideas may not emerge from the laboratory due to the inability to find funding (see Figure 1). In the Darwinian Sea, success depends critically on the availability of funding, timely information and contacts, and entrepreneurial ability. For startup technology innovators, the primary sources of support are “angel” investors (wealthy individuals with experience in starting up new companies), venture capital firms specialized in early-stage or “seed” investments, and state and federal government programs aimed at supporting technology and innovation.

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