Energy Innovation Portal Bridging Information Gap

Energy Innovation Portal Bridging Information Gap

Database revolutionizes intellectual property transfer from DOE's national laboratories to industry.

Blue sky with light clouds, snow-covered ground, and a large, horizontal solar concentrator that is shaped like a trough is facing the low winter sun. Enlarge image

The SkyTrough® parabolic trough solar concentrator uses ReflecTech® mirror film instead of glass mirror facets. This technology, which is featured on the Energy Innovation Portal, was first developed by ReflecTech, Inc. in collaboration with NREL, and was tested on NREL's testing sites. Today, the image on the right shows this technology at full commercial scale.

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Courtesy of SkyTrough

Call the Energy Innovation Portal (the Portal) a Craigslist for technology transfer, aimed at entrepreneurs, investors, and corporate technology scouts. Hosted on the Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) website, this Web application created by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has rapidly grown into a cyber-marketplace, but instead of used bikes and weed whackers, users take advantage of cutting-edge clean tech.

Starting from the germ of an idea that was roughed out on a conference room whiteboard, the Portal has become the premier Web-based database for facilitating technology sourcing from multiple institutions through one access point.

The Portal, which includes more than 16,000 issued U.S. patents and published U.S. patent applications related to clean energy has many successes already including:

  • 1,300 leads from "technology seekers"
  • 18 separate transfers into commercial marketplace
  • 8,000 visitors each month.

Since its launch 24 months ago, the site has matured to the point where NASA and Sandia National Laboratories have adopted its architecture for their own tech transfer sites.

"The Energy Innovation Portal is designed for collaboration and partnership, and allows us to share innovations from our public-sector labs with private-sector business partners," said Bill Farris, NREL's Associate Laboratory Director of the Innovation Partnering and Outreach Directorate.

Finding the Path to a Tech Transfer Portal

As obvious and effective as that concept sounds now, the path wasn't always so clear. Farris first began pondering the prospect in 2008, his curiosity piqued by a single line of the DOE request for proposal to manage NREL. The document asked contractors, such as the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, what each would do to commercialize all the EERE technology.

"Just that simple sentence got us thinking," Farris said. He and others in the Alliance leadership wondered "how can we work with the other labs to assemble the intellectual property?"

Inter-lab competition was the rub. Prior to this request, the labs and intellectual property they produced were fragmented. For example, different labs might work independently on a similar solar technology, then each would seek to commercialize their own innovations. Something had to change for collaboration to begin.

"We saw an opportunity to make a difference for all of DOE, and reached out to peers at national labs," Farris explained.

The upside of bundling intellectual property was obvious. Each lab has hundreds—or in the case of bigger institutions, thousands—of patented technologies stemming from research and development, all at various stages of the licensing process. The national labs are eager to license their work because DOE has charged them with transferring early-stage and applied research to industry partners.

At the same time, outside the labs, technology-hungry investors are always looking for the latest clean tech breakthroughs. The problem was getting the two to meet. It turns out, the most effective solution was to create a virtual classified ad section, similar to what newspapers use to bring readers together.

Farris assembled a small team, beginning with Matt Ringer—a chemical engineer armed with an MBA—to begin evolving the vision. "I don't know how we could have anticipated the way this would turn out when we began three and a half years ago," said Ringer, who currently serves as NREL's Commercialization Program manager.

The process started with careful outreach to the laboratories—outreach devised to dispel any perception that the Portal would function as merely an NREL site. Then the team members had to figure out what barriers might prevent seekers from accessing the patents.

"They know the national labs are out there, and potentially have technologies that might be relevant to business. But how would someone approach a laboratory?" Farris said. He also realized that if a curious entrepreneur did figure out an avenue into one lab, doing so wouldn't provide clues to what might be on the shelves at the remaining national laboratories.

Developing a Web application seemed like a good route. Realizing they needed an ace at coding, Farris and Ringer turned to NREL's Information Services management to hire developer Steve Jones, who had experience with start-ups. As Ringer said, it was one thing to sketch ideas on a whiteboard, but another thing entirely to get it into code and roll out a working site. Jones was an ideal fit, and the Portal began taking shape.

Helping Technology Seekers Make Contact

"It took some smarts on how to build a relationship. It took some smarts on how to build a good Web interface," Farris said. "With EERE backing, we essentially created a referral engine." In keeping with their sensitivity to the other labs, the team created a site on which each lab manages its own content. This is reflected in the 675 market summaries the labs have added, each of which gives more detail about a patent or patent group.

The benefits of this collaboration are clear. "If you're a technology seeker, you gain direct access to the person at that laboratory who's responsible for that technology," Farris noted. After searching and finding something such as the latest in lithium batteries, a client can click on an available technology, fill out a form, and the Portal will send an email to the patent holder.

As a vote of confidence in the national site, NREL shut down its own site listing NREL's license-ready technologies. The lab, which conducts 20 to 30 licensing transactions per year, is benefitting from the inclusivity. "We've seen great value ourselves," Farris said.

Apparently, so have others. The site is currently drawing about 8,000 visitors a month. That number continues to increase as word gets out, and should gain even more traction as NREL continues improving the Portal's functionality. Recently, the Portal team unveiled a visual patent finder, based on a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) technology. The PNNL tool allows users to expand their quest to find technology beyond simple keyword searches. Users can now click on a technology category of interest and narrow their search to the patent that best suits their business needs.

These technologies are not the leftovers in the basement bargain bins, either, as the site lists many promising discoveries. As an added benefit, even if some of the innovations become licensed for one usage, there can be variations that allow new partners to try different commercial ventures with the same property.

As an indicator of its emerging prominence, non-DOE partners have also signed on to showcase their patented developments. Among those are the:

  • Battelle Memorial Institute
  • Colorado School of Mines
  • Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center
  • NASA
  • Naval Research Laboratory
  • University of Colorado.

NASA, which became a partner after Ringer approached them, appreciated getting hits on its renewable energy patents, and soon decided to open its own portal based on the Portal.

"The fact that NASA took [the Portal architecture] for its own speaks volumes," Ringer said. There's another added benefit. As the site gains prominence, the intragovernmental collaboration is a sign of efficient government spending, Farris said.

To drive home the idea that this site belongs to all labs, the design team worked to ensure that it in no way appears NREL-centric to visitors. Farris, who has shepherded the concept, is loath to be referred to as the "mastermind" of the Energy Innovation Portal. Instead, "it's all about getting visibility for the technologies," he explained. He expects continued EERE support for NREL to grow the Portal, which in turn should increase the number of tech transfers. Clearly, these days, there's nothing wrong with being tech transfer's Craigslist.

Visit the Energy Innovation Portal to learn more.

View NREL's Commercialization and Technology Transfer site for additional information.

Learn more about NREL's Spectrum of Clean Energy Innovation and how the laboratory's capabilities emulate the nature of the innovation process.

— Ernie Tucker

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