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How Agencies Are Turning Scientific Breakthroughs Into Jobs

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The federal government annually invests more than $130 billion in research and development. Conducted at federal facilities, universities and private companies, this investment has led to significant technology breakthroughs, including the Internet, the Global Positioning System, and decoding the human genome.

But turning those breakthroughs into jobs has long been a challenge. According to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, “Despite the critical importance of federal R&D to economic development, agencies historically have lacked the resources and interagency platforms to act together in the commercialization of their technologies.”

In response to this observation, President Obama in 2011 signed a Presidential Memo directing agencies to “establish goals, measure performance, streamline administrative process and facilitate local and regional partnerships” aimed at commercializing R&D. Agencies were given six months to develop action plans. In 2014, the national objective of moving discoveries and inventions from labs to commercial markets was designated as one of 15 cross-agency priority goals. In the intervening years, there have been a number of tangible successes.

The Lab-to-Market CAP Goal reinforces the efforts begun under the 2011 Presidential Memorandum and focuses on five areas:

  • Develop human capital with experience in technology and entrepreneurial skills
  • Empower effective collaborations through partnerships and tech transfers
  • Open federally-funded labs and other R&D assets to private users
  • Fuel small business innovation by streamlining grant programs
  • Evaluate the impact of these initiatives to identify best practices

Governance Structure  

The 2011 presidential memo drove agencies to create an informal cross-agency working group to coordinate efforts and share information, under the auspices of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The informal working group was formalized with the launch of the CAP goal in April 2014, and sub-goals were developed. While formal leadership rested with OSTP and the Department of Energy, Commerce’s National Institute for Standards and Technology became a center for the coordination effort, and the dynamics shifted from cross-agency conversations to cross-agency activities.

By March 2016, OSTP wanted to ensure sustainability through the upcoming presidential transition. It chartered the Lab-to-Market working group as a formal subcommittee of the White House’s National Science and Technology Council. That subcommittee’s charter will soon be renewed and extended by six months, awaiting further guidance from the Trump administration once OSTP leadership is in place. The subcommittee taps into the expertise of four interagency working groups that focus on issues such as technology transfer, access to government-created intellectual property, access to federal lab facilities, and engaging small businesses.

According to one staffer, the CAP goal-designation helped spur action on the part of participating agencies by crystallizing the goals, placing a higher priority and greater visibility on the issues, and requiring public accountability for progress. The quarterly progress reporting requirement was a catalyst, as well. But in the early days, the effort was unfunded and still largely voluntary between the agencies involved.  

In 2015, NIST requested funding for several sub-goal initiatives and received $6 million for interagency projects. A team of Presidential Innovation Fellows supported the working group on increasing private investment in commercially-viable projects. Other projects included supporting entrepreneurship among scientists and expanding external reporting on government inventions.  This focus on open data—related to another CAP Goal—led to improved search tools and data consolidation initiatives.

Progress to Date  

The most recently available annual report on federal lab tech transfers tracks the sharing of government-funded patents, invention licenses, and cooperative research and development agreements with private sector entities. The trend data shows increases in each of these metrics since 2011, and a study is underway to quantify the economic impact that results from these sharing efforts.

The Lab-to-Market initiative has spawned a number of specific projects that have helped transfer federal intellectual property. For example:

  • A tech transfer playbook was “developed to highlight existing agency resources and programs that facilitate commercialization activities” and document best practices from federal labs around the country so other agencies can see how particular legal authorities and transfer mechanisms can be used.
  • The Federal Lab Consortium, which is a professional network of federal labs across the country, launched FLCBusiness 2.0, which “provides a one-stop search for finding information on more than 300 federal laboratories and 2,500 user facilities and specialized equipment.”
  • A 2016 rule developed by NIST clarifies the use of cooperative research and development agreement authority to facilitate personnel exchanges between federal and non-federal scientists to enhance commercialization-based research.
  • The Small Business Voucher pilot program at the Department of Energy creates a single point of entry for small business to access the department’s various lab resources for clean energy projects.

The Innovation Corps

One of the highest profile success stories is the expansion of the “I-Corps” initiative, which evolved out of a 2010 effort by the then-director of the National Science Foundation Subra Suresh. He challenged his staff to teach entrepreneurship to the science community, and this was the genesis of the Innovation Corps initiative. The 2011 presidential memorandum, and the subsequent inclusion in the CAP goal, provided additional impetus.  

Since then, this initiative has trained over 829 teams comprised of over 2,500 researchers to be entrepreneurial, and who were provided direct experience interacting with potential customers.  According to a recent report, this has spawned more than 320 companies and an excess of $83 million in follow-on funding.  

How does this work? I-Corps is comprised of cohorts of 21 teams. There are  three components to each team: a faculty member who has been previously awarded an NSF research grant; a post-doc or grad student responsible for lead development; and a third party business partner who serves as a volunteer mentor. They conduct 100 interviews of people in their proposed industry who can provide valuable information on whether the team has a commercial opportunity, an innovation, and/or can start a business. They have six months to do this, and it includes seven weeks of classroom work with other teams in their cohort.

The classroom instruction is delivered through eight regional “nodes.” For example, the University of Michigan is the lead institution for the Midwest Node. The nodes provide NSF with I-Corps instructors: entrepreneurs, investors, and industry executives who teach the 14 I-Corps courses per year. Along with the instructors, I-Corps nodes engage program alumni for support and to mentor new research entrepreneurs. In addition to university-based programs, the I-Corps nodes offer community-based training as well and conduct periodic evaluations and research projects to ensure the instructional I-Corps program is effective. Each node uses its own approach to achieve maximal impact in the local regions.

NSF’s I-Corps has been replicated in different forms in 11 other federal agencies, with the support of the CAP Goal network. The two most robust are at the National Institutes of Health’s Cancer Institute, and the Department of Energy. The other nine agencies leverage NSF’s existing network of nodes, and use NSF’s training materials. In 2016, NSF’s I-Corps program was formally authorized via legislation. In addition, several state governments are launching I-Corps programs.

Going forward, the Lab to Market initiative is seen to be aligned with the Trump administration’s efforts to create jobs and new industries, provide U.S. leadership in commercial global markets, increase government efficiency, and reduce the paperwork for the private sector to work with the government.

This is the 12th in a series about the progress of the 15 Cross-Agency Priority Goals announced in 2014.

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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