LONDON—Britain is using “ferrets” to transfer technology from its national defense research laboratories into the civil sector. These two-legged ferrets, all of whom have good technical qualifications, are employed by a technology broker to spot promising ideas and obtain licenses for them.

The broker is a private company called Defence Technology Enterprises based at Milton Keynes. Owned by eight British financial institutions, it so far has signed up more than 200 associate members who pay up to $1,600 a year for a “window” on research done for the Ministry of Defense (MoD). Such work constitutes about one-half of the country’s publicly funded R&D.

The ferrets, on the broker’s payroll but operating inside four of the six defense research establishments, stay in close touch with some 4,700 qualified scientists and engineers whose ideas may have commercial value beyond what is being developed for the military.

The venture, which has certain exclusive...

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