The Lab’s mission, to bring science solutions to the world, often means working to license technologies to industry, directly collaborating with industry, or spinning out entrepreneurial ventures.
Three scientists who are working to bring their innovations to the market shared their perspectives and tips with the Lab community:
Marcos Turqueti, an electronics staff engineer in the Physical Sciences Area’s Engineering Division, invents sensors and data acquisition electronics for speciality sensors like radiation detectors. He notes that Engineering is often called upon to develop specific solutions for Lab research projects, but that sometimes the solutions may have applications beyond their original planned use. For example, technologies that help ensure magnets in particle accelerators are working as they should, may also be useful to ensure that medical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) magnets are working properly.
“Exploring paths to commercialization is very interesting because there is the potential for your work to be used more widely, for your research to have a greater impact,” he said.
He cautions that the path to commercialization can take longer than expected. He suggests, “As soon as you have an idea with commercialization potential you should start working with the Lab. The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) team and the Lab’s attorneys can help do the homework on whether your invention has utility, novelty, and non-obviousness (which are all necessary for a successful patent application).
“It’s also important to start talking to companies early, even while you are still developing the product, to assess potential interest and so that you can take into consideration the aspects that could make your technology more attractive to them,” he said. “If you wait till your research is completed, those options may be closed to you.”
The Importance of Listening
Deepti Tanjore, director of the Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts Process Development Unit (ABPDU), has two patents to her name, as part of collaborations with HelioBioSys and Fater (a plastics recycling company in Europe). In her work at ABPDU, which has a paid-for-service model, her teams collaborate closely with companies. So she is no stranger to industry collaboration. Still, when she participated in the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Energy I-Corps, a “customer discovery” training program (IPO also offers a shorter version of the program), she learned a lot about listening to industry. Deepti’s research focuses on how to conduct fermentation more efficiently and, as part of this, she was thinking about offering companies a service: to use Berkeley Lab’s machine-learning capabilities to analyze and reuse the vast amounts of data that they collect in order to design experiments better.
What Deepti learned, somewhat to her and her team’s surprise, was that companies didn’t need machine-learning help; they already had staff doing that. What they needed was a way to collect and clean the data, which comes from scores of different types of sensors, each with its own software. This continues to be a widespread problem in industry. “We realized that companies that develop the sensors will be key partners in creating some structure to the data. Once this issue of data collection is addressed, which is really where the industry’s pain point is, we can then pursue the analysis of the data,” said Deepti.
“I think all Lab researchers should participate in I-Corps training before trying to commercialize their technologies,” Deepti added. “Sometimes researchers may be wedded to their idea and don’t want to hear that industry doesn’t want it, but it’s important to be open-minded and to know what’s going on in the industry. It’s also important to understand that users and decision-makers are different and may have different interests. It is essential to identify these key stakeholders and their needs. These are the things that researchers sometimes struggle with.”
Patience, Persistence, and Partnering with Industry
Jessica Granderson, staff scientist and interim director for the Energy Technologies Area’s Building Technology and Urban Systems Division, invents technologies and processes for advancing smart buildings, including software to find and resolve problems in how buildings are controlled and operated. “There is so much hidden waste in buildings. On average, we can save 30% of energy used in commercial buildings just by fixing equipment and control issues, while still being very comfortable.” And, as the energy landscape evolves, we are bringing into our buildings more and different types of energy storage, vehicle charging, automation, and opportunities to optimize the entire system in coordination with a clean grid. Bringing innovations to the market is critical to managing energy and emissions in the building sector.
Jessica noted that the process of developing and commercializing inventions can be a long road. According to her, “One way to short circuit time to market is to partner with industry from the start. That way you can get input early. It also helps you to understand the key business drivers of your commercialization partners and the needs of end users. It is important to keep in mind that sometimes the business of saving energy is not someone’s principal job function; as scientists looking to offer solutions we need to make these solutions meaningful for what they are on the hook to deliver.”
“Patience and persistence are qualities that have served me well in my career,” she said. “Sometimes ideas that can have the greatest impact have to wait for their time. Or you may have to doggedly pursue your idea in many different shapes and forms. You need to have the right set of conditions, with the right set of partners and market needs. To get their innovations deployed in the market, scientists need to stretch themselves, to not be shy about promoting themselves or their ideas, and to extend their network to include a broad set of people.”