The Federal Government invested $146 billion on research and development (R&D) during FY 2016, much of it conducted at universities and Federal laboratories. All of this research activity contributes to the storehouse of human knowledge, and sometimes the pursuit of new discoveries yields new technologies with the potential to become commercially valuable products and services – a new vaccine, a new manufacturing process, even a new mass-market apple.
This process, typically described as “Technology Transfer” or “R&D commercialization,” is often measured in terms of patenting and licensing activity. However, there are many ways to accelerate promising technologies from the laboratory to the marketplace, including the flow of human capital – exchanging talented people with complementary skills among government, academia, and industry.
That is why, as part of the President’s Lab-to-Market initiative, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently published a final rule to update and clarify personnel exchange pathways among private companies, academic institutions, and Federal laboratories. Personnel exchange programs can be a “triple win,” providing numerous benefits for the individual, the Federal government, and the home or host organizations.
Federal laboratories have a number of mechanisms available for exchanging personnel to advance technology transfer:
Cooperative Research & Development Agreements (CRADAs): A CRADA is a written agreement between a Federal laboratory and a non-Federal party that legally binds them together in joint research that is consistent with the laboratory’s mission. CRADAs are the dominant channel for technology transfer between Federal laboratories and the private sector – and can also serve as the basis for personnel exchanges. The non-Federal party could be an individual from a state or local government, public or private foundation, university, company, or non-profit organization, any of which could also be the licensee of a government-owned invention.
Entrepreneurial Leave Programs: A Federal laboratory may set up a mechanism that permits staff to take “entrepreneurial leave,” spending time focused on commercializing a technology developed in the laboratory. With current examples at the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Defense (DOD), this type of personnel exchange is also called an “Entrepreneurial Separation to Transfer Technology.”
Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR) Programs: Entrepreneurs from outside of government who wish to apply their skills for the benefit of the public good can do so through EIR programs. EIRs are typically mid- to senior-level professionals and may be academics, technology entrepreneurs, software designers, policymakers, business experts, or non-profit leaders who have demonstrated a significant record of innovative achievement in their field. NIST, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Homeland Security, and other Federal agencies operate EIR programs. Federal laboratories may create EIR programs internally, or may utilize the General Services Administration’s Presidential Innovation Fellows to implement an EIR program and recruit outside personnel with commercialization expertise into the laboratory for technical consulting.
Public-Private Entrepreneurial Partnerships: A number of entrepreneurial partnerships have been instituted between Federal laboratories and the private sector for placement of personnel. For instance, the DOE’s Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory provides a home for entrepreneurial clean-energy researchers through Cyclotron Road, a $5 million public-private partnership to advance energy technologies until they can succeed beyond the lab. Similarly, the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) is an agreement between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and DOE, where candidates such as students, post-graduates, or established scientists can be hired into a variety of research-related positions.
Strategic Partnership Programs: A contractor-operated Federal laboratory may advise a U.S. company or researcher on problems for which the laboratory has special expertise or equipment. Work is done under a formal agreement on a full-cost-recovery basis if the assistance requires more than an incidental amount of time.
Use of Facilities Agreements: Outside entities such as universities, technology incubators, private companies, and individual inventors may be able to use specialized equipment, specialized rooms, testing centers or other unique experimental property of the Federal laboratories. Costs are typically paid by the user. While this arrangement provides the opportunity for outside entities to place personnel at a Federal facility, it does not provide a mechanism for those personnel to consult with government personnel.
Visiting Scientist Programs: Personnel from private industry can arrange to work for limited periods of time in a Federal laboratory. These arrangements are usually limited to 6-12 months and, depending on the arrangement, costs can be borne by the laboratory or by the organization sending the personnel. Intellectual property arrangements can also be addressed in the exchange agreement. Ames Laboratory (DOE) and the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research (NIH) currently administer such visiting scientist programs.
Educational Partnership Agreements (EPAs): An EPA is an agreement between DOD and educational institutions to encourage and enhance the study of scientific disciplines. Under an EPA, DOD laboratory directors may make laboratory personnel available to teach science courses or to assist in the development of science courses and materials. Directors may also provide for sabbatical opportunities for faculty and internship opportunities for students at the institution, and cooperate with the institution in developing a program under which students may earn academic credit for working on DOD laboratory projects.
Together, these personnel exchange mechanisms can increase the economic impact of Federally-funded research and development by accelerating and improving the transfer of new technologies from the laboratory to the commercial marketplace. They serve as a platform for innovation and economic growth that benefit the United States economy and the American people.
Marc Wynne is a White House Leadership Development Fellow at the Office of Science and Technology Policy