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Congressional Tech Transfer Caucus Spotlights Federal Tech Transfer

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Greetings from D.C. As further evidence that tech transfer has gained visibility on the Hill in recent months (reference current tech transfer legislation—potential and introduced—noted here in November and September), the Congressional Technology Transfer Caucus, along with ITIF and Innovation Associates, is currently hosting a series of three panel sessions on related issues. While sessions like these are a common occurrence on the Hill, they are not intended to highlight specific congressional action necessarily, but to educate those interested in these issues, particularly Hill staffers with that topic in their portfolio of responsibilities.

This column highlights the second session in the series, entitled "Strengthening National Laboratory Commercialization," which focused specifically on Department of Energy (DOE) tech transfer and had as its foundation the recent ITIF report concerning technology commercialization from the DOE labs (see the August "DC on TT"). Panelists included several former DOE HQ and laboratory managers and staff with responsibilities for tech transfer during their tenure with the Department, and a former lab scientist who successfully spun-out technology created in a DOE lab to commercial success.

Congressman Ray Lujan (D-NM), founding member of the Tech Transfer Caucus, opened the session by noting the tremendous investments in R&D made across government, and the need to overcome barriers to tech transfer at the national labs (mentioning issues associated with licensing, the "valley of death," and others). He highlighted recent legislative attempts (introduced and in-process) aimed at addressing these potential barriers, and commented that one area on which he would like to see tech transfer focus is reporting metrics, in particular, looking at the longer term impacts of tech transfer events.

The panelists provided insights into DOE tech transfer from their perspectives as former tech transfer professionals at DOE HQ and labs. One speaker noted that three primary challenges to tech transfer the DOE faced a few years ago were: 1) lack of information (no one knew were to find DOE technologies), 2) lack of capital within DOE to help mature developing technologies within the Department, and 3) lack of entrepreneurial talent within the labs. The respective solutions to these were the development of a DOE tech portal (deemed successful), the Tech Commercialization Fund written into the 2005 EPACT law (still waiting), and the introduction of the Entrepreneur-in-Residence program at several DOE labs (mixed results to date, according to the speaker).

According to a second speaker who spoke from her experience at a DOE lab, if you want to make tech transfer successful, it must: 1) be a priority from the start, not an add-on effort after the technology effort has moved down the road, and 2) be easy for people to access the technologies available for transfer. She went on to highlight specific means by which one can accomplish these goals, including engaging senior management from the beginning, having an intellectual property (IP) strategy that begins with an end in mind, and being willing to entertain risks along the way. Making it easier involves actions that range from developing ways for potential partners to find the technologies, to making the contracting process less complicated and easier to implement. She noted that the rules for CRADAs and Work-for-Others have not been revised in more than 20 years, and it might be time to look at them again.

A third speaker identified three actions that would be beneficial to improving the success of DOE lab tech commercialization: 1) work to discover the commercial potential as early as possible for any technology under consideration, 2) use pilot projects as often as possible to ascertain market viability and other questions, and 3) find ways to move technology ‘further down the road’ to commercialization than labs typically do now. The final speaker provided a fascinating example of how a technology was spun-out of a federal lab to great commercial success.

In general, some common themes of the panel included it’s never too early to start looking at commercialization possibilities, make tech transfer a priority of senior management, take a fresh look at the heavy oversight and regulatory challenges in lab contracting, and find funding and resources necessary to help technologies mature. Interestingly, several speakers specifically mentioned the recommendation in the ITIF study to make tech transfer a part of the lab’s Performance Evaluation Management Plan (PEMP). This was challenged by several audience members, noting that would amount to an unfunded mandate put on the labs by DOE HQ.

Although the session may not have provided specific policy or legislative solutions (other than commenting on the proposed recommendations in the ITIF report), the forum provided an opportunity to discuss and question current DOE tech transfer practice and oversight. You can listen to that session here and see the ITIF report here.

The first session, "Enhancing Technology Commercialization Through SBIR/STTR Reform," focused on “reforms that are needed to advance SBIR/STTR and boost commercialization through small businesses.” It was held in early December. You can watch a video of the session here.

The third and final session, "Enhancing University-Industry R&D Partnerships," will “investigate avenues to strengthen University-Industry R&D Partnerships.” It will be held in late January. You can find more information on that upcoming event here.

Finally, rumor has it that in addition to the tech transfer legislation already introduced in the House, additional proposals are currently being discussed (both in the House and the Senate). Some of these may, in all likelihood, include some items identified in the ITIF report on DOE tech commercialization, as well as others yet to be determined. Stay tuned.

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