This past spring, I had the pleasure of serving as a panelist at the Lab-to-Market Inter-Agency Summit convened by the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP). This past week, the panelists’ recommendations were released (download the report), and they’re getting some well-deserved attention. And they deserve some elaboration.
As summit co-chairs Joe Allen and Diane Palmintera wrote in an article published on Innovation Daily, the summit had an unusual format, with federal research labs nominating external panelists based on their technology commercialization expertise. In addition, the White House asked for transformative ideas, placing no preconditions or limitations on the panel.
I believe this format greatly contributed to the quality and unanimity of the panelists’ recommendations, which Joe and Diane summarized as follows:
- Create an Office of Innovation and Federal Technology Partnerships within the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that could see the bigger picture and be able to help coordinate R&D and commercialization efforts with the aim of creating greater efficiencies and results.
- This Office would establish an External Advisory Board composed of private and non-profit sector representatives to provide ongoing review and input from an experienced practitioner’s perspective.
- Several recommendations related to strengthening capital investments and creating entrepreneurial resources for enhanced commercialization of federal R&D outcomes. These ranged from creating an early-stage “fund of funds” and scale-up and proof-of-concept tax incentives to providing researchers with “technology translators” (i.e., commercialization experts) and changing or expanding SBIR/STTR and other existing programs.
Plenty of details on these recommendations are included in the published report. In the rest of this post, I’d like to elaborate on some thoughts I briefly mentioned in my previous post about the summit.
Although some may bristle at the words “centralization” and “standardization,” the concept of identifying activities that are similar across many, if not most, agencies and providing access to best-practice capabilities to perform them can reduce cost and improve the outcome. (We have a blog post and a white paper related to this in a university context, but it absolutely applies to federal labs as well.)
Triage, or what we at Fuentek call preliminary screening — that is, the first look at invention disclosures to determine which should proceed with the next commercialization step — is one such activity where standardization and centralization across federal labs would be ideal for several reasons:
- There is tremendous variety in how this process is done (if it is done at all), and yet the output has a big impact on the size and viability of the portfolio and the resources available for further commercialization. Applying best practices and a market-based approach as the standard across all the labs would maximize this impact.
- Culling the portfolio to technologies that have been adequately screened on market-based criteria has a big impact on the ability of companies to find something of value. Not only are there fewer technologies to wade through, but (when screening is done right) one of the outputs is a technology description written in a way that companies can understand. (This relates back to the “technology translator” recommendation.)
- A standardized approach to triage/screening can be performed by properly trained graduate student interns, which not only provides them with valuable job training and resume building to be able to get a job after graduation, but also builds their skills in areas such as research, decision-making, and communication. (BTW, we have lots more insights on tech transfer interns.)
- Centralizing screening across the labs will result in the best technologies/opportunities being identified regardless of which lab originates them. For example, with decentralized screening, 10 technologies might emerge from one lab but only 2 from another according to the commercialization resources available at each lab. But it could be that the 10 techs from the first lab are not as good as many of the techs from the second lab which never emerged due to the lack of resources. Centralizing screening ensures that every technology gets a market-based evaluation and that the ones with the best market potential move forward regardless of which lab developed them. This is good stewardship of taxpayer resources.
Connecting with the Market
As many have noted over the years (including me), neither the government nor anyone in the innovation game should innovate in a vacuum. Rather, they should understand what is out there before they invest in creating something new. This requires both proactive and passive efforts.
Proactively Looking at the Market and Trends
Conducting research to understand the market and taking trends into account when innovating will lead to more relevant innovation by federal R&D labs and helps identify development partners. For example, say that the Defense Department is in need of a battery for a military system. Before getting started with the R&D, they look to see if someone already has what they need or something similar that could be modified through a co-development effort. If they need to do new development, they also examine what the battery/power needs are for the next generation car or cellphone so they can develop the military system with those needs in mind — killing two birds with one stone.
This example is Symbiotic Innovation at work.
Communicating with the Market
Creating effective communication about what technologies already exist and what needs the government has will help identify partners faster. We’ve blogged extensively about various marketing tools, but for now let’s focus on online tools.
Federal labs currently are using a variety of systems to manage their intellectual property (IP) and to post information about it as well as the needs they may have. Consolidating all agencies’ technology listings and need descriptions into a single database would allow industry to access all agencies at once, in much the same way that FBO.gov provides centralized posting for all government contracts, grants, requests for information (RFIs), etc.
The great news is that there is no need to spend taxpayer resources to create such an online database. There are several existing databases that the government can leverage at no/low cost, including the AUTM® Global Technology Portal (GTP) and Flintbox®. (Check out earlier posts with details about the GTP and about government access to GTP.) And if they don’t want to mothball their own systems yet, open them up to each other so their technologies are posted in many different sites — in this case more (exposure) is better.
I hope you’ll read the recommendations from the Lab-to-Market Inter-Agency Summit, and feel free to tell us what you think by sending me a message.