Making Tech Transfer Work

The Politics of Innovation

There are hints that the issue could gain ground at the national level. Likely Republican presidential candidate in 2016, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, for example, is proposing to exploit research breakthroughs to create more jobs. Unfortunately, at least for now, ideological gridlock is likely to prevent much action at the federal level. On the opposite side of the policy debate from Moro are basic R&D proponents who argue that any shifting of increasingly scarce federal dollars toward commercialization would reduce spending on basic research and therefore destroy the “seed corn” of future breakthroughs. It’s at the regional/state level that the issue has generated the greatest attention because cities and states are trying to use technology from universities and national labs to create “clusters” of technology companies, as San Diego has done in biotech, genomics and wireless communications; the Denver area has with “clean” environmental technologies; and Orlando, Florida, has with computer simulation programs.

“This is a crucial, huge issue in the regions,” says Moro. “Regions are on their own now. The fact that Washington is gridlocked and that adjustments to federal programs won’t be forthcoming means they are taking ownership of regional, economic development with increasing sophistication. Regions are taking stock of their assets; and at the top of list are their research universities and their national laboratories—along with their community colleges and other entities.”

One of the states taking the subject very seriously is Colorado, which is home to 10 federal laboratories, including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, just west of Denver. NREL is one of three Department of Energy labs dedicated to tech transfer to the private sector, and it is one reason that Colorado boasts 300 companies in the clean-energy field with 30,000 employees. Companies from many other states also have licensed its technology. But commercialization of NREL’s technologies “doesn’t happen as easily as people think it ought to happen,” says Bill Farris, NREL’s associate laboratory director for innovation, partnering and outreach.

Part of the problem is simply informing the business world what ideas exist in the lab. The DoE came up with an Energy Innovation Portal (techportal.eere.energy.gov) where it posts 18,000 patents in the energy field and provides summaries of how about 1,000 of those ideas work. However, there is still a huge gap in the mentality and operating style of scientists on the inside and business leaders on the outside. To help bridge this breach, NREL created an Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center, a kind of half-way house.

Nevertheless, putting together the entire “ecosystem” to support the commercialization of ideas has been challenging, particularly as it relates to capital. “I can provide some funding to help prove the technology,” says Farris. “But I’m not going to help capitalize the company. I wouldn’t make the best investor. Investors are pure of heart, in the sense that they are interested in making money. They don’t get emotionally attached to a technology; but left [on] our own, we get enamored with the technology.”

One entrepreneurial company that benefitted from NREL’s research is Natcore Technology. Natcore’s Chairman, Brien Lundin, and CEO, Chuck Provini, met three scientists whosework with solar energy fascinated them. They raised some funds from family and friends. Then, they avoided taking on large amounts of debt or selling a large piece of the company to venture capitalists by listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange, through a platform called the TSX Venture Exchange, in 2009. The company’s first promising technology for possible commercialization came from Rice University in Houston, a process called liquid phase deposition. This technology held out the prospect that solar wafers, the building blocks of a solar panel, could be made by immersing them in a liquid bath that created various layers of receptors. That approach was simpler and cheaper than using a furnace that burns at temperatures as high as 1,200 degrees Centigrade and generates toxic waste.