Three years after its inception, a competitive funding program created by the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS) has awarded nearly $3 million to promote technology transfer of the laboratory’s research.
The Innovation Fund, created in 2016 from licensing revenue by the laboratory’s Office of Technology Transfer (OTT), had completed nine rounds of funding at the time of award submission. Of 367 applications received, 117 projects have been awarded for a total of $2.9 million; the typical grant is for $25,000.
The funded projects are wide ranging and include developing a new website, conducting a stakeholder perception study, enhancing an animal germplasm database to be more user-friendly, purchasing equipment for scale-up testing, building or testing a prototype, and conducting field trials.
The two-page application for funding takes less than 20 minutes for a scientist to complete. An evaluation committee assesses each application based on seven criteria; the greatest emphasis is on the potential impact of funding on enhancing the commercial potential of an agricultural solution and/or the adoption of research findings by industry, academia and other stakeholders. Projects that are closest to adoption are most likely to get funded.
The OTT aims to track the progress and evaluate the results of each round as projects are completed and reports submitted.
In one example, a scientist received $25,000 to improve the taste of a low-calorie snack bar that provides nutrients missing in a typical Western diet. Because of taste issues, no company was interested in commercialization. Taste-testing panels revealed that bars containing fruit were more popular than others and that the texture of the bar was almost as important as flavor for acceptance. After the bar’s taste and texture were improved, negotiations for licensing the patented bar began; the potential licensee anticipates net sales of $15 million in the next five years.
Funded applicants have about 18 months to complete their proposed projects and then three months to submit their final reports to the OTT. For projects that are not funded, two members of the OTT call the scientists and offer comments and feedback on their proposals. As a result of this feedback, many of the scientists revise and resubmit their projects, most of which are then funded.
The OTT aims to track the progress and evaluate the results of each round as projects are completed and reports submitted. At the time of award submission, it had analyzed the first of the nine rounds of funding. That round resulted in two scientific papers; two prototypes; $420,000 of extramural funding for one project after a market and perception study; one example of equipment that can be used in other projects at ARS as well as the existing project; one example of customer-friendly website enhancements; and one example of consolidating rights and entering into an exclusive license to commercialize a new technology.