Yesterday I went to Washington with about two dozen other North Carolina small businesses to meet with several of our country’s legislative and executive leaders. It was a great opportunity—one that I hope will eventually lead to genuine action that supports the transition of innovations developed with federal funding into commercial applications. And I have a few ideas about how to do that.
The day’s early meetings were with N.C. legislators Sen. Kay Hagan and Rep. Brad Miller, where members of the delegation focused on small businesses’ need to access capital in order to grow as companies and create new jobs. Their frustration with the current banking and regulatory environment was palpable, and I offered the suggestion that a meeting with all three parties (small business, banks, and regulators) in one room might help convert the finger-pointing into a productive conversation and progress.
The delegation also had a policy briefing at the White House, where we had the chance to talk with several officials in the Obama Administration. Aneesh Chopra, associate director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the president’s chief technology officer, was the most relevant for me in terms of Fuentek’s activities and the interests of our clients. And we were able to talk a bit about how the administration could better support the transfer of technology out of government-funded R&D.
Mr. Chopra highlighted some of the new incentive programs recently introduced as an alternative to the old models of tech transfer:
- The Dept. of Energy’s program intended to give startups easier and lower cost access to DOE innovations (I blogged about the DOE program and others of its type back in June.)
- A new prize to recognize successful university-based commercialization activities, which is jointly offered by the William H. Coulter Foundation, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
- The NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) which grants $50K awards to NSF-funded researchers “to help [them] determine the readiness to transition technology [they] developed by previously funded or currently funded NSF projects” (provided in partnership with the Kauffman Foundation and the Deshpande Foundation)
These new programs have their benefits, particularly as related to university-based technologies. In fact, I specifically mentioned to Mr. Chopra that, in my role as VP of strategic alliances for the Association of University Technology Managers®, I would like to discuss how AUTM can support the Coulter-NSF-AAAS prize program. And the programs that look to non-government institutions to overcome the “valley of death” (for DOE it’s startups, for I-Corps it’s university researchers) have value.
But there’s more that can be done.
Innovations abound in the Dept. of Defense labs and the NASA field centers, and the above programs don’t address the transfer of those. Implementing similar incentive programs is certainly a reasonable option. But I happen to think that federal tech transfer offices/programs would benefit greatly from taking a proactive, phased approach to commercialization that would quickly, cost-efficiently, and effectively achieve the Administration’s goals.
In fact, Fuentek outlined some specific recommendations in April 2010 in response to a White House request for information (RFI) regarding the commercialization of university research. We noted:
The proactive, phased approach to commercialization outlined in this RFI response is applicable to all types of organizations—universities, government labs, and even private companies—to commercialize all types of innovations—from computer software and manufacturing systems to biotechnology and pharmaceuticals to advanced materials and electronics—developed under all types of funding programs—federal grants and contracts, agency budgets, university endowments, venture capital, corporate internal R&D, etc.
To help ensure the wide and successful adoption of this practice, Fuentek recommended that:
- The U.S. Department of Commerce offer training programs in the proactive methodology to all universities receiving federal R&D funding as well as across all federal agencies’ TTOs
- University and even federal government TTOs establish effective internship programs
- The White House implement a policy for federal funding whereby a percentage of the total R&D funding in contracts and grants be set aside for the express purpose of funding proactive, phased commercialization activities by a team of trained technology transfer professionals
I am hopeful that in my follow-up conversations with Mr. Chopra we can discuss further how to ensure that all recipients of federal R&D funding can have the support they need to effect the successful commercialization of their innovations for the benefit of the American taxpayer and beyond.
Update: Fuentek has updated and released its response to the 2010 White House RFI as a new white paper, A Roadmap for Commercializing Federally Funded Research: Guidance for University and Government Lab Technology Transfer. You can read more about it in Laura’s blog post, or you can download the paper for free from our In-Depth Insights section.