The U.S. is currently home to a suite of national laboratories that conduct cutting-edge research. Throughout the country, this network of 17 labs (overseen by the Department of Energy) focuses on a wide array of basic science and engineering questions. The results of this research have spurred innovation and technology development for more than seven decades. And, through the technology transfer process, the discoveries unearthed within these institutions – from low-e window coatings to hybrid solar lighting - have the chance to leave the research world and make significant impacts in the marketplace.

In order to move cutting edge research from labs to markets, these research institutions agree to let their discoveries leave the nest under technology transfer agreements. The general process for a technology transfer from the lab to a commercial organization is pretty straightforward:

  1. Department of Energy (DOE) National Lab (or, more specifically, their research staff) discover something new and are issued a patent for their invention.
  2. This patent is identified as a potential candidate for a technology transfer and so its information is placed in the DOEpatents database.
  3. Companies that are interested in commercializing a technology from within the DOEpatents database.
  4. An agreement is reached between the patent holder (normally DOE or, at times, the individual laboratory) that allows the company to license the technology for commercialization purposes.
  5. Typically, proceeds from the licensing fees are then used to fund further research at DOE laboratories.

Lets take an example -

Northern California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL) recently licensed the rights to an aerosol technology that could revolutionize building energy efficiency retrofit programs by making leaky ducts a thing of the past. Under a transfer agreement, between LBNL and Auroseal, the latter will be able to develop an aerosol technology that can disperse a sealant throughout a building’s existing ductwork, effectively sealing any leaks. This technology, developed by LBNL researchers, could vastly improve the energy efficiency of buildings by reducing energy losses due to inefficient distribution of air through the system.

This aerosol technology is just one case of discoveries from within the national laboratory system moving into society’s wider sphere. Over more than 7 decades, researchers within these national labs have developed technologies to harness nuclear power (both electric and geopolitical). They have discovered the foundational components for advanced battery technologies (think Lithium Ion), and how to make car airbags an economical option for all Americans (with MEMS technology).

Last year, during the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, scientists and engineers from around the world analyzed technologies that could have the potential to help stop the oil leak and also assist in the cleanup the oil that has already escaped. One of the technologies that received significant attention was a large device capable of effectively separating oil and water using centrifugal acceleration. Owned by actor Kevin Costner’s company (Ocean Therapy Solutions), this technology was licensed to Costner for commercialization purposes through the tech transfer process.

The technology transfer program allows the discoveries resulting from basic science research to have significant impact outside of the laboratory. Through the technology transfer process, inventions funded by federal research dollars can be used to create new companies within the U.S. economy. And, with the funds received from licensing these technologies, the national lab system can help ensure its continued ability to fund cutting edge research.

Photo credit:

1. Map of DOE laboratory locations courtesy of the Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.