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Establishing External Organizations Key to Unlocking Potential of National Labs, Report Finds

September 08, 2016

To improve private sector partnerships and increase commercialization efforts, the national labs should consider establishing external nonprofit entities to manage their commercialization efforts, according to a new report from Innovation Associates Inc. Supported by Argonne National Laboratory, the report – Enhancing National Laboratory Partnership and Commercialization Opportunities – highlights elements of several models that the author contends will improve U.S. economic prosperity by increasing the effectiveness of technology transfer and commercialization of technologies developed by the national laboratories as well as developing vital industry partnerships.

Before discussing specific action times or other models, the report identifies several of the barriers that impede technology transfer and commercialization efforts of national labs supported by the Department of Energy (DOE), including Argonne National Lab, despite the efforts of these labs/DOE to promote their work. Based upon several studies on the topic matter, the roadblocks include:

  • DOE’s over-centralization;
  • Inconsistency and mixed messages regarding the importance of technology transfer, and what is permitted;
  • Aversion to risk;
  • Lack of flexibility;
  • Lack of researcher commercialization capacity and incentives; and,
  • Underfunded support for technology transfer and commercialization.

While these roadblocks exist and must be addressed, the report identifies several of the more successful programs that were born out of DOE-funded national laboratories including:

  • National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL’s) Industry Innovation Showcase;
  • Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s (Berkeley Lab’s) Cyclotron Road;
  • Pacific Northwest National Lab’s (PNNL’s) “use permit” model leading to ACT;
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL’s) creative Manufacturing Demonstration Facility; and,
  • Sandia National Laboratory’s (SNL’s) Science and Technology Park and entrepreneurial leave program.

In the report, the author concludes that one of the most promising recent trends is the “creation of external nonprofit organizations affiliated with national laboratories including Berkeley Lab’s CalCharge and Los Alamos National Lab’s (LANL’s) New Mexico Consortium (NMC).” This emerging trend of creating external nonprofits allow the national labs tech transfer and commercialization efforts to be more flexible and expedient as well as allowing for broader engagement with industry and other partners. These models, based upon long-standing university models, offer five advantages according to the report including:

  • Reduce risk;
  • Increase flexibility and speed to market;
  • Pursue and leverage broader research interests;
  • Connect with the region’s innovation and entrepreneurial (I&E) ecosystem; and,
  • Add value to the laboratory’s R&D and innovation culture. 

In addition to calling for the creation of external nonprofit organizations to facilitate commercialization and tech transfer efforts and cultivate industry partnerships, the report includes several other recommendations that include:

  • Proactively identify potential R&D and SBIR/STTR partners;
  • Participate in National Manufacturing Innovation Institutes;
  • Build better connections with the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP);
  • Develop industry advisory boards;
  • Identify strategic R&D partnerships through mapping efforts; and,
  • Review researchers’ incentives and rewards regarding private sector partnering and commercializing R&D.

With regards to reviewing researchers’ incentives and rewards, the authors recommend that national labs review some universities efforts such as “allowing faculty to devote a portion of their time to perform external consulting, giving credit toward promotion, providing awards, using hiring practices that favor some corporate experience, providing entrepreneurial education, and facilitating opportunities for external networking.” Read the full report…

federal labs, commercialization, tech transfer