Tech Transfer Stars: Jean Schulte’s Strategic Focus on Software Innovation and Copyright Licensing Increases NREL’s Impact

Tech Transfer Stars: Jean Schulte’s Strategic Focus on Software Innovation and Copyright Licensing Increases NREL’s Impact

May 22, 2023

Tech Transfer Stars highlights those making a difference in the federal tech transfer community. This week's Tech Transfer Star is Jean Schulte, a Licensing Executive with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), within the Department of Energy. Schulte won a 2021 FLC Regional Award for Outstanding Technology Transfer Professional.

How did you get involved in technology transfer? 
I started as an intern on the Patent and Market Assessment team at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) and transitioned into a full-time role focused on gathering information about markets and competing technologies for WARF’s Intellectual Property (IP) portfolio. My goal was to provide analyses that would support the portfolio managers’ decision making on marketing and licensing strategies as well as filing and maintenance fee decisions. Working at WARF was an incredible introduction to the field of technology transfer. I am grateful to that team for teaching me how impactful tech transfer can be in bringing academic innovations to the marketplace.

What does a typical “day at the office” look like for you?
It varies, which I love, but the core of my role is managing our software portfolio. This entails reviewing software disclosures and discussing deployment strategies with the developing researchers. I also meet with a cross-functional software team of folks from NREL’s Technology Transfer Office (TTO) and Office of General Counsel about the status of in-process copyright authorizations and license negotiations. I often consult with our Partnership Agreements team about data rights provisions for new Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) and sponsored research contracts, and with prospective project partners about terms of software licensing arrangements.

What do you love about your job?
Hands down, it’s the people–NREL’s licensing team, the broader TTO, my colleagues in our legal office, and the fantastic, engaged researchers who develop software. Managing the full breadth of NREL’s copyrightable subject matter means I get to work with researchers across the lab and learn about their cutting-edge renewable energy and energy efficiency-focused software technologies. These range from grid modernization tools to efficient vehicle routing to wind farm optimization.

What do you wish more people knew about the value of copyright licensing for federal labs?
There are a variety of ways for copyright licensing to have an impact! In some cases, open-source deployment is a great approach to scale software and grow its user base. Other times, maintaining a software asset for proprietary licensing can be key to developing a relationship with a commercialization partner because they benefit from the competitive advantage of receiving our software through a closed-source license.

You did not have a computer programming background before becoming involved with software licensing. What strategies have you used to effectively communicate with software innovators? 
Our software innovators do much of the heavy lifting–they are excellent at explaining their work to any audience. I always strive to understand what their technology does prior to meeting with any software innovator. Then I frame our discussion in terms of what questions I need answered: What does this software do? Who is an ideal licensee for the software? And how can we deploy it most effectively? By asking for the developer’s perspective on these important questions, I can effectively develop a framework for identifying the best path forward, without needing to belabor the technical specifics. 

What’s an example of a software licensing success story that you’re particularly proud of? 
I’m proud to see more software researchers engaging in the Department of Energy’s commercialization-focused offerings because it has led to the growth of NREL’s software portfolio as a whole. Numerous software technologies have gone through Energy I-Corps or have been the basis for Technology Commercialization Fund proposals. This engagement enables me to work closely with many researchers to develop strategies for maturing and deploying their technologies. NREL researchers are passionate about seeing their software have an impact outside the lab, and eager to discover the most effective path to market.

During the time you’ve been with NREL, you also earned an MBA. How has that been helpful for your work in licensing? 
My MBA curriculum pops up all over the map in my role as a licensing executive. An overview of business law provided a high-level orientation to contract law that helped me understand typical agreement terms and legal advice in contract negotiation situations. The accounting coursework gave me a better understanding of financial operations for our partner companies. I also had the opportunity to take a handful of courses focused on corporate social responsibility and sustainable business operations, which align with NREL’s mission and the visions of many partner companies.

What advice would you give to someone who is new to the tech transfer profession?
Tech transfer isn’t something many of us learned in school, and a great deal of my development has come from hands-on training and mentorship. Early on, my colleagues on NREL’s team of licensing executives invited me to inventor interviews and license negotiations and gave me the opportunity to review and revise licensing terms with them. This mentorship was crucial to my own professional development in learning how to manage an IP portfolio. I also recommend developing a network of peers from outside your organization. I am connected to many of my counterparts at other national lab and university TTOs, and these colleagues are tremendous resources for talking through common issues or collaboratively hashing out a plan to manage jointly developed software.