Impact Series

How a nationwide lab stokes the startup pipeline with ready-to-go improvements for commercializing

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researchers have innovated a better way to turn biomass into fuel in a single-step chemical conversion. This invention is one of many that’s available for licensing. (PNNL Photo / Andrea Starr)

Entrepreneurs with a yen for creating a business but who come up short on an innovation are welcome to take a spin through listings of technologies on offer from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

With a $1.1 billion budget for R&D, the government-supported facility has been generating scientific breakthroughs that are available to the public to license and commercialize for the past 55 years. In the last two decades alone, the Richland, Wash.-headquartered lab has issued more than 700 licenses of its intellectual property to everyone from startup founders to divisions of Fortune 500 companies.

Some of the currently available technologies include:

  • oil-producing super microbes for making sustainable transportation fuels
  • software that helps power-grid operators prevent and manage outages
  • a silicon-carbon composite for high-performing batteries
  • biomarkers for liver disease
  • a “Fitbit” for fish in the quest for safer hydropower dams

Beyond the discovery phase, PNNL has an infrastructure to support the technology transfer process. Seattle-based Sara Hunt is one of six commercialization managers working for the lab, launching new technologies into the wider world.

Sara Hunt, commercialization manager for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL Photo)

We caught up with Hunt for this Q&A about the role of PNNL in stoking the startup pipeline and the lab’s efforts to make it easier for companies to commercialize new tech. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

GeekWire: What role do PNNL and the other 16 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national labs play in developing technology?

Hunt: “The research that’s being conducted at national laboratories in general is more of that high risk, high reward type of technology. We’re doing scientific discovery that is more high risk than probably what industry and certainly some entrepreneurs have the appetite for. So we’re that early catalyst in that scientific discovery process.”

GW: How does the journey go from lab bench to pitching to companies?

Hunt: “We monitor the research that’s going on at the lab and also spend a lot of time engaging with industry. It’s a perfect sweet spot of working with the science side, the industry, as well as legal.

“Once we identify an invention internally, we look at what market opportunity is out there. What are the viable pathways to deploying this? Who are the key potential partners, etc. And then we put together a commercialization plan for that technology that includes marketing outreach engagement with potential end users.”

GW: You have multiple programs to facilitate tech transfer, including the $1,000 Exploratory License Agreements. Can you explain what that is?

Hunt: “We wanted to make these lab innovations more accessible to entrepreneurs and startups and so the exploratory license creates a license to test drive the technology. During the past year we made it [essentially] no cost, so for six months they get access to the information, they get to talk to the researchers, and do their market and technical due diligence during that time, without having to sign up for hefty license fees.

“We received a lot of great feedback [on the program]. It was recognized and won an award from the federal laboratory consortia.”

GW: What kinds of support does PNNL have for companies further along in the process?

Hunt: “For the royalties we receive, as well as some of our lab-directed research budget, we reinvest in further demonstrating and developing promising technologies. If a company comes to me and says, ‘This is amazing. We did the research-use license and we’re still trying to figure out x, y, z.,’ or ‘Can you get it down to this performance or this cost?’ we can make internal investments to help de-risk those technologies towards that commercialization opportunity.

“And the DOE has a variety of programs, including the Technology Commercialization Fund. Every year DOE funds programs on the order of $20-30 million across the labs that is a direct cost share. If a company is interested in a technology, DOE will do a 50% cost match with that company to help further explore that technology.”

GW: What do you enjoy about helping launch these technologies?

Hunt: “The ultimate goal of licensing it out and seeing something that was just an idea in someone’s head — that they thought of when they were dropping their kids off on their way to work or whatever it may be — and seeing that actually deployed as a commercial product or service … is just a lot of fun.”

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