Dan and I recently had the privilege of visiting Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) to learn about research and development conducted at the site.
The reason for our visit was to hear from lab employees about "technology transfer", or bringing technology developed at LLNL to the public market where it can benefit both the developer and the consumer.
Each year, over $100 billion of government money is invested in R&D to grow the United States' economy. 1
With the help of the Federal Lab Consortium (FLC) and a little thing called a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), scientists and engineers can tap into this government finance stream.
Former lab employees have found a great deal of success by taking advantage of technology transfer. There are currently 142 active commercial licenses and CRADAs, over 1000 active patents and $300 million annual product sales as a result of this effort. 2
A network of mentors and procedures has been established to provide a structure to the complex process.
LLNL's structure encourages the entrepreneurs by allowing them to:
- Utilize the lab's work space
- Consult with experts
- Connect with investors
The lab provides for shared use of their facilities. Since these individuals are in the early stages of forming their product, they are not sufficiently capitalized to afford work space and/or specialty tools required for the complex technology being developed.
Commercializing technology from a federal laboratory is not something you do on your own; LLNL has a special team to assist. The Industrial Partnerships Office (IPO) team is a robust group of 10 staff who offer the expertise necessary to navigate such a unique process. Members include Ph.D. scientists, intellectual property experts, founders of startups and many veterans of technology transfer. The intelligence level amassed by this group of people is remarkable.
To see some technologies that are currently being developed at the Lab and prepared for entrance to the public sector, you can watch the series of videos on the IPOs YouTube channel.
As you can imagine, the number of people wanting to take advantage of LLNL's resources is quite large. Not all of these scientists and engineers are equipped with the business acumen that will take them to market most efficiently. Make no mistake, these men and women are incredibly intelligent; but just like any other entrepreneur, they can benefit from a bit of coaching.
The National Lab Accelerator program, launching at ten facilities nationwide, will give aspiring entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch to investors in the Bay Area. To reach that stage, they will need to first advance from an initial pitch session at their local laboratory. LLNL's pitch event took place on September 27. A list of participating companies for that pitch can be found here.
Pitching investors is the final stage of the program. To prepare for this event, participants will first receive formal education on business models, weekly mentorship sessions with experienced entrepreneurs and introductions to influential members of the lab community.
Participants will also have the opportunity to participate in the Department of Energy's Energy I-Corps program: a mentoring process similar to the NLA.
According to Roger Werne, Ph.D. at LLNL, "Ultimately, the goals of the program are to connect a laboratory with its surrounding business community; prepare Lab [scientists and engineers] with the business knowledge to connect effectively with the business community; and thus increase the probability that new technology will be effectively transferred to the private sector."
Our tour ended with a visit to the scientists who are tasked with creating nuclear fusion that will result in sustainable energy. Their work takes place at the largest building on site at LLNL, the National Ignition Facility (NIF).
The building itself is a monument to innovation. Twice a day they take 96 lasers, accelerate them through crystal and glass, and collide them against an elemental sphere. This creates an environment that is 100 billion times the pressure of Earth's atmosphere. This creates a fusion reaction that burns at 100,000,000°. It pretty much simulates our Sun. If they can make this process more efficient, the energy problem on Earth will be forever solved.
Needless to say, the facility is incredible and resembles a sci-fi film. J.J. Abrams must have thought so too, since he filmed a Star Trek movie inside!
Technology Transfer is not exclusive to Lawrence Livermore National Lab. The practice is commonplace among institutions with such high level assets. The FLC partners with over 300 organizations nationwide including other laboratories, the National Institute of Health and academic institutions. The goal of all these groups is to increase competition in the market which will ultimately provide greater economic benefits to the nation.
I'd like to end this blog with a quote from our friends at Innovation Tri-Valley, "In the innovation ecosystem, the entrepreneur is the biological host. Without the unique talents, traits and tenacity of the entrepreneur, bold new ideas would never see the light of day."