Ready for Transfer

New DOE Tech Transfer Bill Introduced in the Senate

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Greetings from D.C. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM), a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, has introduced a bill “to accelerate technology transfer by establishing off-campus microlabs that would serve as the ‘front-door’ to national laboratories [read DOE labs].” The Microlab Technology Commercialization Act (S. 2932) would give academia, local government, businesses, and communities direct access to equipment, facilities, and personnel at Department of Energy (DOE) labs.

According to Senator Heinrich, “[I]f we are going to realize the true potential of technology transfer, our national labs must be able to collaborate effectively with business, entrepreneurs, investors and research universities. Obviously, we can’t tear down the lab fences and security precautions that have historically limited these interactions, but we can and should create spaces in the communities where our labs reside that facilitate collaboration and commercialization.”

He went on to add, “My legislation will help to build a ‘front door,’ literally and figuratively, where the community can interact directly with the scientists and engineers who are our laboratory’s greatest assets. This will eliminate many of the barriers that have historically limited commercial technology transfer and incentivize the private sector jobs that result from successful commercialization projects.”

The bill derives in part from a recent Brookings report focused on better connecting the DOE labs to their respective regions (by forming regional technology clusters) to enhance opportunities for innovation and economic growth. This particular report, like others before it, highlights perceived weaknesses and barriers in the ability to get the greatest national benefit from the technical capabilities at the DOE labs, and provides a number of solutions to overcome those perceived challenges. This report focuses specifically on the concept of creating more effective regional technology clusters.

The 14 recommendations presented in the Brookings report fall under the larger categories of “improving the labs as economic assets” (e.g., task the labs with a regional economic development mission), “open the labs to SMEs” (e.g., extend the same user support resources to DOE applied technology offices that exist within national user facilities), “increase labs’ relevance to regional and metropolitan clusters” (e.g., create off-campus microlabs to provide a front door to the labs), and “provide greater flexibility in terms of DOE oversight and funding” (e.g., allow labs to engage in nonfederal state and regional funding partnerships that do not require DOE approval).

The Heinrich bill clearly focuses on the “microlabs” component of the Brookings report, which states “[D]OE, Congress, state governments, regional consortia, and other federal agencies that utilize the lab system should work together to create and co-fund a number of off-campus, small-scale ‘microlabs’—co-located within or near universities or private-sector clusters—that would cultivate key strategic alliances with regional innovation clusters. Microlabs would help overcome both the problem that most labs are located outside of major metropolitan areas, and the fact that most lab research occurs ‘behind the fence’ of main campuses. … Congress should legislate the creation of microlabs and require state buy-in, or state governments or regional consortia could create voucher programs in concert with DOE and particular labs.”

Given the timing of the new bill (dropped with less than a month to go in the current congressional session), its chances of success this session seem limited. But it is yet another bill introduced this session that is focused on some aspect of DOE tech transfer (see DC on TT, July 28)—any or all of which (or parts of each) could certainly be reintroduced in the next session under a new Congress. We’ll keep an eye on it.

For more information, read the Senator’s press release, download a copy of the bill, or read the referenced Brookings report.

Note (12/12/14): Senator Heinrich has now introduced a second DOE-related tech transfer bill in partial response to the Brookings report. The National Laboratory Technology Maturation Act (S. 2973) is designed to “provide funding to each national laboratory to be used by small businesses with a licensed technology from a laboratory, such as Sandia National Laboratories or Los Alamos National Laboratory, to purchase up to $250,000 in assistance from lab scientists and engineers to help commercialize the lab-developed technology.” See Sen. Heinrich’s press release for more.