Tech Transfer Stars highlights those making a difference in the federal tech transfer community. This week's Tech Transfer Star is Samantha Zhang, a Technology Transfer Specialist with the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), within the Department of Energy.
How did you get involved in technology transfer?
It was by accident. In 2006, I applied for a budget officer position at the Bureau of Reclamation within the Department of the Interior (DOI) and was selected for an interview. After the interview, I was told that the budget officer position was offered to someone else; instead, they offered me the technology transfer coordinator position. I’d never heard of a technology transfer coordinator and didn’t even know what the job entailed, but I accepted the job and have loved tech transfer ever since.
What does your job at NETL involve?
I prioritize reducing the burden of paperwork for scientists and engineers, allowing them to focus on the development of clean energy, carbon capture and storage technologies, tools and materials to expand the use of intermittent renewable energy sources to power the grid and other breakthrough technologies.
Your background includes work with the Bureau of Reclamation and the Agricultural Research Service. How have those experiences helped you in your current position at NETL?
I worked at the Bureau of Reclamation as a technology transfer coordinator from 2006 to 2020. During that time, a funded interagency agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Office of Technology Transfer enabled us to learn about tech transfer from their T2 specialists, patent advisors, and license specialists. Within the Department of the Interior, I helped develop a policy and procedures document for the bureaus within the department, and I began to build and reshape the Bureau of Reclamation’s technology transfer program. My experiences with the Bureau of Reclamation and ARS helped me hit the ground running at NETL by expanding partnership opportunities, minimizing risks, strengthening the NETL brand and streamlining processes to ensure the execution of agreements with greater efficiency.
What does a typical “day at the office” look like for you?
I am the team lead for NETL’s technology transfer agreements group, a team of five that manages more than 200 active partnership agreements. I also interact daily with a diverse and broad range of experts across the Department of Energy and NETL, including legal counsel, scientists, engineers and other technical experts as well as their associate directors and supervisors, and others specializing in finance, communication, counterintelligence and international affairs.
What do you love about your job?
It is a privilege to assist NETL’s researchers get their technologies adopted and witness the impacts their technologies have on our society.
What do you wish more people knew about tech transfer at NETL?
Knowledge is wealth, and I hope to spread this wealth to whoever wants to receive it at NETL.
You and your colleague Leah Bower won an award last year from the DOE Tech Transfer Working Group for handling an interagency agreement between NETL and the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. What were some of the challenges involved in that project?
I have to credit Leah Bower for facilitating and coordinating that interagency agreement to the finish line. One of the main challenges we faced was coordinating efforts with NETL’s legal counsel and financial acquisition team to establish legal requirement to perform the research work and receive funding from Department of Transportation.
You’ve successfully implemented a number of process improvements at NETL. What’s been the secret to getting lab leadership to buy in on these types of improvements?
Being authentic and patient and allowing lab leadership to see I am here to help, even when I have to say no.
Which parts of the tech transfer process are most likely to be plagued by inefficiencies, and why?
The two main areas of the technology transfer process that are plagued by inefficiencies are 1) too much internal paperwork and too many processes required to execute an agreement, and 2) not having the appropriate subject matter experts to negotiate/review/approve the agreements, which leads to the process being bogged down by approvers who do not know their role.
What advice would you give to someone who is new to the tech transfer profession?
Technology transfer is fun and complex. It’s a profession where it is impossible to know everything and important to stay curious and rely on subject matter experts who can help. It is a rewarding profession where you get to witness how your help in transferring a technology can impact society in positive ways.