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The lab’s Innovation Corps helps researchers through the technology transfer maze
2015 was another great year for innovation at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, according to the lab’s Innovation and Parnership Office. In addition to a new startup based on lab technology plus a startup acquisition, the laboratory earned seven 2015 R&D 100 Awards for technologies in applications from batteries, sensors, seismic monitoring and nanotechnology to encouraging broader adoption of electric vehicles and integrating biotechnology research with high performance computing.
Looking long term, the office created a lab-wide organization, the Berkeley Lab Innovation Corps (BLIC), to serve researchers at any stage of the technology transition spectrum.
Commercializing technologies developed at national labs requires multiple strategies. Early stage research is rarely on a straight-line path to the marketplace. In fact, technologies that ultimately reach industry users and consumers often change features, even markets served, during the commercialization process. Added to the challenge of transitioning research in the wide range of disciplines addressed at the lab—from advanced materials to energy efficiency to biotechnology and more —is the reality that the researchers themselves have different goals. Those with an entrepreneurial spirit long to start up a company. Others—call them intrapreneurs —want their discoveries to benefit society while they move on to new projects and problems to solve at the Berkeley Lab. Yet, funding and mentorship programs supporting tech transfer tend to take a narrow focus serving only technologies for particular markets or startups already off the ground.
“Berkeley Lab didn’t need another program with another set of limitations,” said Elsie Quaite-Randall, the lab’s chief technology transfer officer. “Instead, we created the Berkeley Lab Innovation Corps to grow the innovation ecosystem using the network of resources available through DOE, the University of California, which manages the lab, and throughout San Francisco Bay Area communities.”
BLIC is open to all Berkeley Lab staff. The organization’s mission is to advance lab-to-market efforts lab technologies and provide entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial training and resources for researchers. To achieve this broad goal, BLIC connects technology teams and researchers to the programs that meet their needs and their unique point on the innovation path.
“Our tagline is ‘Generating Momentum’ because we will exponentially increase the lab’s impact in the world by providing researchers with resources and training opportunities that advance them beyond being outstanding inventors and researchers to also being outstanding innovators, ” said Robin Johnston, deputy chief technology transfer officer. “In other words, we will develop a corps of very smart people who know how to get the greatest value out of an invention or idea, and who might even apply what they learn to writing proposals and expanding lab funding.”
For example, BLIC matches inventors with entrepreneurial teams seeking a business point of view to advance technologies. More broadly, BLIC presents expert speakers at monthly meetings on topics from venture funding to startup incorporation and contracts.
The group’s first activity was promoting DOE’s Lab-Corps Pilot Program, entrepreneurial training based on the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps model, to transition energy-related technologies into products. Two lab teams were selected and trained in the business model canvas so they would get the most out Lab-Corps’ six-week training program. For Lab teams not working in the energy space, BLIC and IPO successfully sought out space for three lab teams in I-Corps regional training offered at Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.
In 2016, BLIC will continue to offer resources and activities to meet all levels of researcher interest. Topping the most-wanted list from the BLIC kick-off was mini Lab-Corps training so more Lab researcher teams could learn the business canvas model and customer discovery techniques and begin shaping their technologies to meet true market interests. For BLIC members just starting to consider lab-to-market projects, monthly programs featuring expert speakers from the Bay Area innovation community and from within the Innovation and Partnerships Office itself, on topics such as licensing and intellectual property protection, will continue. BLIC will also create a library of commercialization case studies for Lab scientists to review and grow their understanding of technology’s business side.
Suzanne Storar leads communications and outreach for the Berkeley Lab’s Innovation and Partnerships Office.