Battelle: Taking Invention to Market
Although “Battelle” might not be a household word nationwide, if your household happens to be near a laboratory owned by the Department of Energy, you are likely to have more than a passing familiarity: Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit corporation based in Ohio, operates seven of them.
Battelle says it’s in the innovation business. “The idea,” says Jeffrey Wadsworth, the institute’s new president and CEO, “is to execute research and development for the purpose of taking invention to the marketplace.”
The organization was founded through the will of Gordon Battelle who died in 1923 at age 40 due to a failed appendectomy. Battelle was the son and heir of his father’s steel fortune; as a young man he became interested in the applied sciences and how to make research facilities more accessible to industry. His will called for the formation of a foundation to perform research and development. The initial investment was $1.6 million.
“Of course, in the will he talked about issues important to the time, which were metallurgy and mining,” Wadsworth says. “However, the will is periodically updated to keep up with contemporary times and research needs.”
Over the years, Battelle, headquartered in Columbus, has done a lot of work for industry. “One of our famous products was the result of buying the intellectual property from Chester Carlson, the inventor of the Xerox machine,” Wadsworth says. “In fact, the word xerography came from a brainstorming session between Battelle and Ohio State University people.” No one was interested in Carlson’s IP portfolio until Battelle took an interest. It signed a royalty-sharing contract with Carlson in 1944 and was instrumental in developing the xerography process.
In 1965, Battelle was awarded operating rights for its first national laboratory through competition, the Pacific Northwest National Lab. “This was a new line of business for us, operating a laboratory for somebody else. Up until then, we were doing contract research and development,” he says. To stay on the cutting edge of research, Battelle became more aggressive in competing for laboratories in the 1990s and now manages six DOE labs, with various degrees of involvement: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (sole manager), Idaho National Laboratory (managed through a Battelle subsidiary, Battelle Energy Alliance), National Renewable Energy Laboratory (managed in a 50-50 partnership with the Alliance for Sustainable Energy), Brookhaven National Laboratory (managed through Brookhaven Life Science Associates), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Battelle is a subcontractor to an LLC whose principal member is the University of California) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (managed in a 50-50 partnership with the University of Tennessee). The labs employ 21,000 people with a research and development budget of $5 billion.
“If the DOE is going to give you money, they want you to be the best in the world,” Wadsworth says. “If they are going to give you a half-billion dollars to build a better neutron source, they want you to be better than anyone else in the world.” And the labs back that up. Oak Ridge is home to one of the world’s most powerful computers. “We edged out Los Alamos for this week,” Wadsworth says. “But that competition goes on.”
The National Synchrotron Light Source operates two electron storage rings, one of the most advanced light sources in the world, at Brookhaven, while the most powerful laser is at Livermore. Nuclear science research takes place in Idaho.
“These investments through the government, particularly DOE, give us access to cutting-edge science, and we want to get those capabilities and innovations that come with it, into the marketplace,” Wadsworth says.
Battelle frequently partners with major research universities that also help in the governance of the labs. Brookhaven is affiliated with SUNY-Stony Brook. Lawrence Livermore is managed by an LLC that includes the University of California and Texas A&M.
“The purpose is to extend the reach in basic research and in technology transfer of information,” says Erik Pearson, vice president for strategic planning of lab operations. “We’ve also begun to expand the industrial partnerships.”
“Battelle has a broad approach to laboratory management that goes by the shorthand —€˜simultaneous excellence.’ This phrase refers to excellence in science and technology in mission impact, in laboratory operations and in community service,” Pearson adds.
“I want to stress that our engagement with the private sector at the laboratories has to be done in the context of the DOE’s missions,” Pearson adds.
“These are the DOE’s labs, and achievement of the specific mission goals of each laboratory is the first priority.”
To bring products to market, Battelle formed a $250 million independent venture fund, Battelle Ventures, which invests in technology companies at the early stages of development. Along with its affiliate fund, Innovation Valley Partners, it invests in health and life sciences, energy, environment and security. The fund competes for ideas and creation for new companies. Battelle is also invested in nine leading energy, health and life sciences and homeland security energy funds, bringing its business portfolio to over $400 million over the funds’ life cycles.
The fund has been around for just five years and it is a long process. Much is not on the market yet because they are long-term investments in early stage technologies. Before the fund, the institute tried to commercialize technology through licensing agreements.
Battelle Ventures portfolio companies spun out of the DOE labs include Ampulse (Oak Ridge), Planar Energy Devices (NREL) and Nell-One Therapeutics (Oak Ridge).
When looking to invest in a venture, Battelle wants to know how the research and development of the facility or partner will bring commercial value. For example, when Battelle took on management of NREL, it considered how the lab would fit into its energy line of business, as well as focusing on the lab’s application and commercial activities.
Battelle considers the impact of partnering with a venture in a variety of ways, says Alex Fischer, senior vice president for business and economic development.
“The most obvious is income and the creation of value that comes in royalties or license fees in a transaction.” But, he adds, while the investments are meant to earn a return on investment, they are also designed to bring strong attention to the technology within Battelle’s reach.
Fischer feels that Battelle is in a good place when it comes to taking inventions and discoveries from the lab to the public. Part of that has to do with the very different missions of each of the laboratories.
“It starts with thinking about the management of the lifecycle,” Fischer says. “It starts with basic research and ends with its application in industry. And add to that our ability for a multi-disciplinary approach.”
Gordon Battelle believed that by leaving money to create a research lab that would work closely with industry, there would be a more effective transfer of innovation into the marketplace. Since the Battelle Memorial Institute’s founding in 1925, the goal has been to make money to reinvest in R&D and in philanthropic giving specifically for education, returning a minimum of 20 percent of its net income to communi ties to meet its obligations as a charitable trust.
“People ask about the greatest success that I’ve seen and they always think I’m going to mention something related to money,” says Fischer. Instead, he mentions the national lab systems collaboration to create an artificial retina to bring sight to the blind. “I can’t imagine a more noble and important thing for an organization like Battelle and the Department of Energy in partnership with the private sector to be doing. That’s not one likely to produce any financial returns for our organization, but it is an example of putting our technology to work for the betterment of society.”
Sue Poremba is a feelance writer based in State College, Pa.