How Technology Gets Transferred by the Agriculture Department
Federal agencies across Washington are working harder than ever at technology transfer, especially since President Obama issued a memo in October demanding they do so. The Department of Agriculture, however, doesn’t need presidential prodding. Technology transfer has been embedded in the department’s mission since its inception under President Lincoln 150 years ago. The Agricultural Research Service—the research arm of the USDA—even has tech transfer contained in its mission statement.
“The Agricultural Research Service conducts research to develop and transfer solutions to agricultural problems of high national priority,” the mission statement reads in part.
Richard J. Brenner, director of the ARS’s technology transfer office, explained in a wide-ranging interview that moving government-funded technology to the marketplace is integral to the work of almost 2,000 USDA scientists working on more than 1,000 research projects at more than 100 locations across the United States.
“The whole culture of USDA always has been to solve problems for the agricultural sector and deliver that,” said Brenner, genial and armed with a seemingly endless supply of facts and anecdotes about the USDA’s tech transfer mission. “If you look at the mission of ARS—the stated mission on the website—it talks about finding solutions and transferring the technology. Because of that, the culture of tech transfer has always been regarded at the highest level of administration within the department. The bottom line is: this is taxpayer-invested agricultural research.”
The ARS has wide-ranging responsibilities and capabilities for transferring USDA-developed technology to the marketplace. It administers a patent program (with eight in-house patent agents). It also operates the technology licensing program for all intramural research conducted by the agency. ARS isn’t located solely in Washington, either. The service has seven technology transfer coordinators located strategically across the United States to help ensure equitable and effective transfer of USDA technologies. “They become principal points of contact for the scientists in that area for the universities and the private sector,” Brenner said.
The ARS science effort is organized into four national programs: plant production and protection, animal production and protection, food nutrition and sustainable agricultural systems. Within those four segments are 20 different research programs.
The ARS budget represents 1 percent of federal R&D expenditures, yet routinely ARS scientists receive somewhere between 18 percent to 25 percent of the national Excellence in Technology Transfer Awards presented by the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer. At the time of this publication, the ARA had 323 active licenses for technology, with more than half of those representing small businesses. Of those, 125 were producing commercial products and services. About 35 percent of patents and subsequent licenses are co-owned with research partners, primarily land grant universities that are then licensed to U.S. businesses through the partner.
Additionally, more than 250 CRADAs reflect more formal research partnerships, usually with small businesses.
Brenner used the goal of sustainable animal health as an example of a critical USDA objective that can be commercialized through the ARS.
“This would be a program coordinated across the Agricultural Research Service toward specific goals,” Brenner said. “For example, in a five-year research cycle they might identify that 60 percent of their (new technologies) are going to be vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. Well, these are all things that require, ultimately, private sector delivery. So, we shape the partnerships to ensure that the research outcomes are adopted.”
Brenner said the technology transfer mission infuses everything USDA scientists do. In fact, the agency’s employee performance reviews are, in part, a measure of how much research is moved to the marketplace.
“In the broadest sense, my definition of technology transfer is the adoption of research, it’s not just patent and licenses,” Brenner explained. “Our scientists do world-class science and they conduct the research and publish the results. The next question is, so what? Who’s used it? Has it made a difference? What’s the impact? That’s the role of technology transfer. Every single USDA scientist and engineer has a technology transfer element in his performance review. It’s based on impact—not on the number of publications the scientist completes, but impact.”
Brenner explained that technology transfer—with the exceptions of NASA, USDA and the Department of Energy—wasn’t even recognized as a priority until the 1980s. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 began to change that, and then the Federal Technology Transfer Act of 1986 built upon Bayh-Dole. Bayh-Dole gave small businesses and nonprofit organizations a statutory right to retain title to inventions made during federally assisted research and development, as long as they patented and attempted to commercialize their inventions. The Technology Transfer Act of 1986 created the CRADAs that are now so important to tech transfer efforts government-wide.
“Prior to that the federal agencies were built to be pure, to stay at arm’s length from industry,” said Brenner, a 20-year veteran of the ARS. “The problem was you had all this great science and innovation that was sitting on the shelves because we’re terrific researchers but what did we know about commercialization?”
Brenner said the USDA’s longstanding commitment to technology transfer is likely due to the “nature of agriculture” and the fact that more and more people need to be fed—and there must be commercial mechanisms to grow, harvest and distribute that food. He said the challenge and the need for cutting-edge science is only growing.
“In 1862, 50 percent of the population of the United States lived on farms,” he said. “Today, it’s less than 2 percent. If you look at the projections for 2050, we’re looking at 9 and a half billion people in the world but our agricultural productivity has increased has increased about 2 percent a year. For us to meet the proteins and standard and living increases, we’ll have to see a 70 percent increase. How are we doing this when most of the land that can be farmed is already being farmed and a quarter of the remaining land is compromised (because of lack of water or fertility, or environmental degradation)? This isn’t developing the next generation light bulb. This is sustainability of the human species on this planet.”
Nothing less than world peace could hang in the balance. “If we can develop the technologies that will allow us to meet that productivity and have them available through the private sector and through public release, this is also how you secure peace,” Brenner said. “When a population is fed they are a whole lot happier.”
The USDA and especially the ARS works hard to determine which innovations are best suited to the marketplace.“There are two ways this can work,” Brenner said. “We develop an invention and say ‘gosh, who might find this to be of interest?’ The other way is we partner early on in the research. If we’re going to produce vaccines, biologics and therapeutics, it’s better to partner with the private sector early in the research process. We develop it along those lines—where it can be adopted—and we look for a partner who can fast track it.”
Those familiar with federal technology transfer protocols will recognize that Brenner is describing the CRADAs that have become such an important tool in the trade. “In these partnerships, the private sector contributes to the cost of the research and in exchange for that they have the right to negotiate an exclusive license for any invention that arises from cooperative research that is either solely or jointly owned by the federal government,” Brenner said. “It’s a huge advantage to small business.”
Of the 250 active CRADAs, at least a third of them have produced products that are currently on the shelves. “We use it judiciously,” Brenner said. “The bottom line is if we don’t get the research out to the marketplace in way that is palatable—adoptable—then we’ve failed.”
Brenner stressed that the partnership between ARS and the private sector is just that: a partnership. Businesses hoping to take advantage of USDA technology transfer efforts must bring some resources of their own to the table. “If you’re going to apply for a license of technology at a federal agency—it doesn’t matter what the agency is—you have to submit a complete and sufficient business plan,” he said. “You must address your manufacturing capacity, the marketing and distribution capability and the fiscal resources and the technical expertise.”
In 2007, the ARS established the Agricultural Technology Innovation Partnership program, which works with select local, state and regional economic development organizations to create and enhance opportunities for private sector partnerships. Some of the organizations working with the ATIP program are the Maryland Technology Development Corporation, the Mississippi Technology Alliance, the Wisconsin Security Research Consortium and the National Association of Seed and Venture Funds.
“For us to be successful in tech transfer we needed to have a network than can provide these complimentary assets to assist our partners and that’s where we establish the agricultural and technology program,” Brenner said. But despite the different mechanisms for getting USDA science to the marketplace, Brenner stressed that USDA, successful technology transfer starts with the scientists.
“Our scientists are held accountable for technology transfer,” Brenner said. “It’s in their best interest to ensure that what they are working on is adopted. That’s what it is all about.”
Tom Michael is Innovation’s Washington bureau chief.