Tech Transfer Stars highlights those making a difference in the federal tech transfer community. David McFeeters-Krone finds joy in helping companies gain access to capabilities far exceeding their expectations. As the co-founder and West Coast lead for NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership Program (MEP) Advanced Tech Team, he helps small manufacturers overcome commercialization challenges through partnering with federal labs and participating in federally funded programs. He is also the principal of Intellectual Assets and an official connector for the American-Made Solar Prize Competition, a solar energy competition administered by NREL for the U.S. Department of Energy
How did you get involved in technology transfer?
I was two years out of college and I spotted a job posting in the PAPER seeking physics graduates with an interest in innovation to work at MIT’s Technology Licensing Office. At the time, I had no idea that technology transfer even existed. Of course, few did at the time; the Bayh-Dole Act still had that new legislation smell. I was surprised when I got the job as all of the licensing staff (except the director) had MIT backgrounds.
My next position was with one of NASA’s regional technology transfer centers. It was there that I learned about the vastness of federal licensing and CRADAs. After a short stint in industry, I came back to federal technology transfer in the mid-aughts and contracted to three of the original DoD PIAs [Privacy Impact Assessments].
What role(s) do you currently play in federal tech transfer?
I am the co-founder and serve as the West Coast lead for a national project funded by NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership – the MEP Advanced Tech Team. We help small manufacturers overcome commercialization hurdles through partnering. As we look for solutions, our first stop is federal labs and the federally funded Manufacturing USA Institutes. Along the way, we train MEP field staff on the breadth of opportunities and value of R&D partnerships with federally funded research. I also have served many years on the FLC Program Committee.
What does a typical “day at the office” look like for you?
The day has four main components.
1) Completing late-stage projects: This includes pushing projects over the finish line by contacting the company or R&D partner to ensure the project does not stall out.
2) Working on new projects: As projects come in, they are put into our bullpen for discussion and possible connections. These resources are then methodically contacted and presented with the company problem statement to determine if the resource can help and/or they can suggest other resources.
3) Contacting MEP Centers: We regularly contact our MEP Champions to draw out new projects from our colleagues.
4) Outreach: We contact manufacturing-oriented organizations to share the skills of the MEP network writ large, and the MATTR program in specific, seeking new projects.
What do you love about your job?
Helping companies get access to unthinkable capabilities that blow their minds is a never-ending joy. Plus, getting paid to learn about new technologies, solutions and business models all while talking to some of the most clever and interesting folks on the planet (by the way, I include manufacturers in that category particularly) is energizingly unbeatable.
What do you do for fun?
First of all, I enjoy my job immensely. To relax, however, I enjoy cooking and discussing politics with friends and, thankfully, working out to counteract all the food.
Your career has included work in both government and industry. How has that diverse experience helped you in your tech transfer work?
Not surprisingly, it gives me a great opportunity to help cross the cultural divide. It has also honed my insatiable desire for speed, coupled with an unwavering tolerance for bureaucracy. (The Marines have a maxim about marching toward gunfire — that’s me and bureaucracy). This also might be a good time to say that generally speaking, my issues with culture clash stem mostly from the industry side. My desire for speed is mostly to get traction before the company’s eye wanders.
Based on your experience, technology transfer would benefit if federal employees understood what one thing about industry, and vice versa?
On the federal side, it is tough to explain the lag in returning phone calls. I tell my business clients that it is not that they are being ignored, it is just priorities and workload. Businesses often wish that the government behaved more like them. I believe this would create more problems, not less. Maybe those problems would be more understandable, but they would be more intractable, as well.
You’re also involved with the Department of Energy’s American-Made Solar Prize competition, which awards millions of dollars for the rapid development of innovative solar solutions. What is your role in the competition, and why is it an important use of your time and expertise?
NREL runs a three-tiered contest to uncover new solar technologies. It is somewhat like SBIR, but much more open and much easier to submit. The first round has 20 winners of $50,000; the second picks 10 of those 20 to receive $100,000; and the finals are two winners of $500,000. They also provide $75,000 in R&D vouchers for use at DOE labs.
I am a connector for the contest, which designates me as someone who facilitates submissions and connects companies to other resources (like labs). It is a volunteer activity, but they have rewards if you support winning proposals. I’ve written grants before and spent decades building my network, so it is a natural fit for my interests and skills. Having been in the program for four rounds of Solar Prize, I am impressed by the way this organization seeks to move the entrepreneurial needle. While I would consider it enlightened self-interest, I love evangelizing the program and helping companies work through the submission. If any of you know a company (even fledgling) with a solar-related idea, contact me or the website.
You’ve helped commercialize a broad range of products, from motion sickness prevention technology to a fingertip-mounted ultrasound probe. How do you leverage your experience on seemingly unrelated technologies to achieve tech transfer success?
There are two things that help. First, my superpower is to not expend any energy on being the smartest person in the room. In this line of work, that is never the case. That frees me up to ask probing questions and find the underlying issues in a non-confrontational way.
Second, I have spent my career aggressively networking and cataloging capabilities. I don’t always have the answer, but I know where to find it.
What’s a favorite memory from a past FLC event or initiative?
In 2008, the FLC came to Portland. At the time (and still to this day), I believed that the local business community should be introduced to what an annual budget of $150 billion can create (though I think it was closer to $100 billion at the time). I created an FLC 101 session and networking reception for local businesses to learn and then mull around the FLC award posters. Frankly, I was not sure if it was going to work like I hoped, but we ended up with about 50 extra attendees and I remember Ed Linsenmeyer (program chair at the time) commented how the influx of new blood added adrenaline to the conference.
What advice would you give to someone who is new to the tech transfer profession?
During my formative years working at MIT, I was at first worried about how to engage with these luminaries with their highly technical ideas, but I came up with a construct that helped. I imagined the scientists as sitting on the top of the mountain and lowering a rope to help me to the top. It is a partnership, and they must be willing to help me get high enough to survey the area. Also, I know it is impossible to get to their level. They are at the peak of their discipline and I had to serve many, so getting boosted to the top of the foothills is enough. That means you don’t even know enough to be dangerous, and that is OK.