Finding New Ways to Foster Clean Energy Partnerships
With expanding DOE support and enhanced business agility, NREL is better positioned than ever before to help move big ideas to market.
A U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) initiative unveiled in summer 2014 has the potential to strengthen NREL's stellar record in the technology transfer arena, positioning the lab to multiply the societal and economic impacts of its leading-edge clean energy innovations.
Launched by DOE Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) David Danielson during a visit to NREL in July 2014, the EERE Lab Impact Initiative aims to increase the market impact of the research conducted at DOE's national laboratories by doubling the intensity of successful lab-industry engagement over the next three years. The initiative is part of DOE's drive to deliver on President Obama's 2013 directive to accelerate the transfer of federally funded research and innovations to the private sector.
Danielson introduced a variety of proposed concepts and pilot programs that signal DOE's intent to expand its support of "tech-to-market" activities among its network of national laboratories, including:
- Allocation of 1% of EERE's annual $800 million laboratory support to a fund that will advance new technology transfer efforts, focusing on big ideas
- A $10 million to $20 million "Small Business Voucher Program" to encourage labs to assist small businesses' commercialization efforts
- A $2 million "Lab-Corps" pilot program to empower lab teams to identify market applications and create business models for commercializing high-impact technologies
- A national lab "Technologist-in-Residence" program featuring laboratory-industry exchanges of "embedded" researchers.
Such programs will allow NREL to augment its robust slate of technology transfer achievements. Many of these achievements stem from internal process improvements that have enhanced NREL's ability to bridge the gap between scientific discovery and market adoption.
Increasing the Speed and Scale of Commercialization and Deployment
For NREL, developing clean energy technologies is only the beginning. Building on its 37-year history of demonstrated innovation and achievement, the laboratory is pursuing its vision for a clean and sustainable energy future by not only delivering market-relevant innovations but also increasing the speed and scale of their commercialization and deployment.
"NREL is uniquely situated to partner to get technologies to market because of the agility, impact, and creativity found in our science and technology organizations and our partnering approaches," said Associate Laboratory Director Bill Farris.
These are not attributes NREL stumbled upon by accident. Viewing their development as mission-critical, the lab has made a concerted, organization-wide effort to address industry's demands, including speed, rapid capital growth, flexibility, innovation, and sustainable competitive advantages.
Exceeding Goals and Building Momentum
In 2009, NREL set a year five-year goal of tripling its innovations—a goal it surpassed in just three years. Driven to parlay that achievement to advance the nation's clean energy goals, NREL's Technology Transfer Office (TTO) sought to shorten the path by which NREL-developed technologies move from the laboratory to the marketplace. By focusing on streamlining the patenting, licensing, and partnering processes, TTO was able to reduce the time it takes to establish a partnership agreement with a company interested in commercializing an NREL innovation to about 60 days, positioning the laboratory as a leader in transferring technologies to the marketplace.
"The technology transfer momentum continues to accelerate as NREL scientists and engineers apply their breakthroughs to further our gains in energy systems integration and industry-changing energy solutions," said TTO Director Kristin Gray.
At NREL's 2014 Innovation and Technology Transfer Awards in May, Associate General Counsel for Intellectual Property John Stolpa noted that the lab filed more than 60 new patent applications and had 23 issued in 2013. The patent trends are pointing upward: the previous year there were 10 U.S. patents issued, and there were 43 issued in fiscal year 2014.
On the partnering side, the numbers are equally impressive. NREL is a standout among national laboratories with 186 active cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs)—representing a quarter of all the CRADAs in the DOE system. In fiscal year 2014 alone, the lab initiated 240 new partnerships.
Streamlining the Path to Market
For a laboratory that works on up to 700 active agreements each year, it's essential to continuously enhance the processes by which those partnerships are established and the mechanisms used to enable commercial partners to move NREL-developed innovations to the marketplace. Recent TTO efforts to make the partnership agreement process easier include:
- Piloting DOE's newest agreement type—the Agreement to Commercialize Technology (ACT), which was created to address industry requests for greater flexibility in partnership agreement terms than is possible under a CRADA or Work-for-Others agreement
- Streamlining NREL's licensing agreement process and refining its licensing agreement template to make it easier for commercial partners to access DOE-funded innovations developed at NREL
- Identifying and implementing licensing agreement improvements that better align NREL with industry best practices, and contributing to an effort to standardize those best practices across all of DOE's national laboratories through publication of DOE's Licensing Guide, which aims to provide prospective licensees with an understanding of the typical terms and conditions across most DOE laboratory intellectual property license agreements.
In addition to improvements to its partnership agreements, TTO developed the "Invention Evaluator" to assess new NREL innovations across eight parameters and provide a dynamic "score" that factors in elements of each innovation's patentability, commercial impact, and licensing potential.
"The problem we see in the marketplace in general is that if you don't know how to pick the winners, you file for patent protection on everything, and we don't want to do that," said TTO Senior Licensing Executive Eric Payne. This standardized evaluation allows NREL to "prioritize the innovations coming out of $350 million of annual research to pick the ones with the highest impact on DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy's mission space, as well as the clean energy landscape," he said.
Lastly, NREL developed the Innovation Portal, a centralized repository for all of DOE's innovations that enables users to locate technologies developed with DOE funding and available for licensing. This searchable database of more than 18,000 DOE patent records offers streamlined searching and browsing of patents, patent applications, and marketing summaries. NREL continues to develop capabilities that link complementary innovations across the national laboratory system, including a groundbreaking tool designed to identify bundles of related intellectual property system-wide.
Through such improvements, NREL is continually learning, refining, and becoming more nimble in how it does business. The result is more industry partnerships and greater success in moving NREL-developed innovations out of the lab and into the marketplace where opportunities to impact the economy, energy security, and the environment abound.
"By partnering with NREL," said Farris, "commercial entities—along with other manufacturers, industry partners, and clean energy sector representatives—are able to reduce the risk of bringing innovative technologies to market faster and with more success."