Tech Transfer Awakens at DOE
Two years into the job, Karina Edmonds—the first-ever, fulltime technology transfer coordinator at the Department of Energy—seems to be hitting her stride. Edmonds, an aeronautical engineer who worked to beef up technology transfer at Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory before landing at DOE in April 2010, has injected new life into the previously listless DOE effort to move its cutting-edge science to the marketplace.
It was about time. Congress mandated the creation of Edmond’s job in 2005. After a five-year lull, Edmonds was finally hired and is apparently shaking things up.
The America’s Next Top Energy Innovator Challenge, a new innovation initiative that launched in May, was a success under Edmond’s guidance, attracting 14 companies that partnered with DOE’s national laboratories to launch innovative new businesses that tapped into DOE-generated technologies. To support these startups’ efforts, the competition made it easier, faster and less costly to obtain option agreements to license some of the 15,000 patents and patent applications held by DOE labs. Edmonds and DOE launched the second round of the challenge in February. The deadline for submissions is Dec. 10.
In another stroke of good news for the a rejuvenated tech transfer effort at DOE, Edmonds said she is working to make sure that the federal department finally makes good on a provision in the 2005 law that requires the establishment of an Energy Technology Commercialization Fund. The money is supposed to amount to 0.9 percent of the budgets of the national laboratories. Edmonds said that instead of creating an independent fund within her office, she’s insisting that relevant divisions within the DOE, such as the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office, set that amount of money aside within their own budgets for tech transfer activities.
“We want the programs to be actively engaged in tech transfer to own the responsibility rather than just money that they send up to this one office and we decide how to spend it,” Edmonds said. She believes this meets the intent of the law. “I think what congress ultimately wants is an effective tech transfer program,” Edmonds said. “If we show that’s an effective way to manage those funds I think they will be okay with that.”
In addition to new programs and policies, Edmonds said she’s working with DOE labs to foster a new overall climate of cooperation with respect to technology transfer. In the past, the national labs have been criticized for resisting entreaties to partner with industry.
“We have to move from the gatekeeper mindset to facilitator, from looking at these technologies as intellectual property they must absolutely protect and guard under any circumstance to enabling technology to get out to the market as soon as possible,” Edmonds said. “I don’t think it was something they were not interested in doing, but there were certain barriers in the way that really prohibited them from fully supporting the creations out of the laboratory.”
Edmonds said representatives from some large companies have complained as DOE tech transfer initiatives, under her leadership the past two years, have focused intently on small companies and startups.
“When I came to DOE I found that startup creation was almost impossible,” Edmonds said. “What we try to do is remove barriers to company creation. Everything we’re doing greatly benefits established companies and everything we are doing for startups is also good for big established companies.”
Another tech transfer initiative underway at DOE is an improvement on the way it handles Cooperative Research and Development Agreements, known as CRADAs in industry parlance. Edmonds said DOE is doing a “complete rewrite” of its CRADA policy and introducing a small, short-form (seven pages) CRADA for any work that costs less than $500,000. “The intellectual property is handled the same way, as are the approvals and even for companies that choose to use the standard boilerplate the approval is much faster,” she said.
A year ago, Edmonds’ office did a formal assessment of the DOE CRADA process that identified bottlenecks in the process. They weren’t impressed. Some CRADA applications were taking about six months to receive approval. She said that time could be cut, for companies that are being responsive to DOE in the process, to 60 days—maybe even 45 days in the best-case scenario.
“We know it’s ambitious but we also believe it’s doable,” Edmonds said. “Ambitious” and “doable” are two words we didn’t hear much a few years ago when talking about technology transfer at DOE. Edmonds said she’ll keep working to keep the adjectives in the department’s tech transfer vocabulary.
“It makes a big difference when you have a dedicated person who is looking to improve the process and is an advocate for the labs and our stakeholders,” she said.
Tom Michael is Innovation’s Washington bureau chief.