With a budget of $1.1 billion for R&D, the government-backed facility is generating scientific breakthroughs that have been available to the public for licensing and commercialization for the past 55 years. In just the past 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 technologies currently available include:
- Oil-producing super microbes to make sustainable transportation fuel
- Software that helps power-grid operators prevent and manage outages
- A silicon-carbon composite for high-performance batteries
- Biomarkers for liver disease
- “Fitbit” for fish in search of safe hydroelectric dams
Beyond the discovery phase, PNNL has an infrastructure to support the technology transfer process. seattle based Sarah Hunt is one of six commercialization managers working for the lab, which is launching new technologies to the wider world.
We caught up with Hunt for this Q&A about PNNL’s role in boosting the startup pipeline and the lab’s efforts to make it easier for companies to commercialize new technology. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Geekwire: What role do PNNL and other 16 US Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories play in developing technology?
Hunt: “The research that’s normally being done in national labs is more of that high-risk, high-reward type of technology. We’re making scientific discoveries that are probably more risky than that industry and certainly Some entrepreneurs have an appetite. So we are the initial catalysts of that scientific discovery process.”
GW: How’s the journey from lab bench to pitching to companies?
Hunt: “We oversee ongoing research in the lab and also spend a great deal of time engaging with industry. It is the perfect sweet spot to work with the science side, industry, as well as legal.
“Once we have identified an invention internally, we look at what the opportunity is in the market. What are the viable avenues for implementing it? Who are the key potential partners, etc. And then we looked at that technology. Has put in place a commercialization plan that includes marketing outreach engagement with potential end users.”
GW: You have several programs to facilitate technology transfer, including $1,000 investigative licenses. Can you explain what that is?
Hunt: “We wanted to make these lab innovations more accessible to entrepreneurs and startups and so investigative license Creates license to test technology. During the past year we have made this [essentially] There’s no cost, so for six months they have access to information, a chance to talk to researchers, and during that time do their own market and technical due diligence, without having to sign up for a hefty license fee.
“We got a great response [on the program]. It was recognized and an award from the Federal Laboratory Association.”
GW: What kind of support does PNNL have for companies moving forward in this 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 up to me and says, ‘That’s wonderful. We’ve licensed the research-use and we’re still on x, y, z.,’ or ‘Can you get it down to this performance or this cost?’ We can make internal investments to help those technologies risk-free toward that commercialization opportunity.
“And the DOE has a variety of programs, including: technology commercialization fund. Each year DOE funds programs in all laboratories on the order of $20–30 million which is a direct cost portion. If a company is interested in a technology, DOE will do a 50% cost matching with that company to further explore that technology.”
GW: What do you love about helping launch these technologies?
Hunt: “The ultimate goal of licensing it and seeing something that was just a thought in someone’s mind – that they thought of when they were dropping off their kids on their way to work or whatever – and seeing that really Was posted in a commercial as a product or service… just a lot of fun.”