Sometimes a little money can go a long way. That is the hope of the Department of Energy’s new $2.3 million pilot program, Lab-Corps, which will attempt to accelerate technology transfer from the national labs to the marketplace.
The program is similar to the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, which has successfully ushered technology from universities to the commercial space.
For decades, each national lab has had a technology transfer office that helped develop patents and then offered licenses to interested companies when they come along. But that approach has grown stale in today’s robust, startup-focused technology world.
Lab-Corps intends to bring a more proactive spirit. It will provide the funds for lab researchers to go out and identify commercialization paths and industry partners to ultimately provide a better return on some of the $130 billion that taxpayers spend annually on research and development.
“The Energy Department’s National Laboratories are science and engineering powerhouses,” David Danielson, assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, said in a statement. “In support of the president’s Lab-to-Market Initiative, the Lab-Corps program supports the entrepreneurial spirit at our national labs and will bring new lab technologies to market that advance American leadership in clean energy.”
The pilot involves five national labs as test sites: Argonne National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The labs will build two teams each that will identify high-impact technologies that could be transferred to the private sector.
A sixth lab, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, will operate as the node for the pilot, developing the commercialization training curriculum, executing the training and coordinating the program across the other lab sites.
The funds, provided by the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), can be used for technology that serves its mission, including sustainable transportation, renewable power and energy-efficiency applications. The goal is for lab researchers to better understand the commercialization process and have the space, time and tools to seek out commercial applications when appropriate.
The ultimate success for the one-year pilot would be a licensing agreement or a startup spun off from a lab, but given the short duration of the pilot, success will be defined on a smaller scale.
One metric of success, for example, will be the pivots that a team might make during the process, such as deciding that different commercialization partners are a better fit for the technology than are the partners or pathways they had originally identified. The pilot has a goal that at least two teams will have entered into negotiations for commercial deals by the end of the process.
If the pilot brings even a single commercial success and some institutional cultural change, such as updated entrepreneurial leave policies, it could be expanded. If the labs had more commercialization programs in place, it could also help researchers bring in more money from ARPA-E, the DOE’s research agency.
The Lab-Corps announcement comes on the heels of other opportunities for early-stage cleantech looking to go to market. NREL just launched a $10 million Innovation Incubator program with Wells Fargo that will provide money to universities and regional accelerators in the Western U.S. Berkeley Lab also launched the M37 program earlier this year, which will bring in entrepreneurial scientists to help transition energy technologies from the lab out into the market.
The Lab-Corps curriculum will be developed in the first half of 2015 and launched later next year. If the pilot is successful, the DOE may seek funding not just from EERE, but also other offices such as the Office of Nuclear Energy or the DOE’s Office of Science.