Across the Lab, scientists are working to solve critical problems facing society, and there are different paths to achieving impact. One route is via the technology transfer and commercialization of the Lab’s intellectual property, software, and other innovations. Another route is when the Lab provides technical assistance, expertise, and facility access to companies and other organizations developing and commercializing their own technologies. A key part of the mission of the Department of Energy and the Lab, these activities bring many benefits to society. For example, more than 70 startups have been spun off by the Lab, creating more than 7,000 jobs in the U.S. These startups have offered advanced battery technologies, therapeutic and diagnostic innovations, energy efficiency technologies, and tools to accelerate scientific discovery, just to name a few. In addition to licensing technologies and spinning out startups, the Lab has also collaborated with and conducted research on behalf of hundreds of companies to develop and scale processes and launch new products.
Two offices within the Lab Directorate, the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) and the Strategic Partnerships Office (SPO), help facilitate this market and societal impact, working with Lab researchers. Jesse Kindra, the Lab’s Chief Technology Transfer Officer, and Todd Pray, Chief Strategic Partnerships Officer, shared their thoughts about commercialization and their offices’ roles at the Lab.
Why is technology transfer important to the Lab?
Jesse: Technology transfer gives the Lab the opportunity to have an impact on society with a product or service. Our innovations have contributed to better health, to the fight against climate change, to higher farm productivity, and to solving many other global challenges.
The Lab and researchers can also benefit directly from technology transfer. Licenses can result in revenues in the form of royalties, which contribute to research funds for the Areas and for the Lab, as well as to researchers themselves. Working with industry, which Todd’s team facilitates, often means additional funding for projects.
How do IPO and SPO support researchers at the Lab?
Jesse: The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) understands the importance of publication, and works with researchers to meet the dual goals of commercialization and publication. We identify technologies in the Lab’s portfolio that are patentable, and work with our attorneys to make patent filing decisions. We then collaborate with researchers to find licensees for the technology. If researchers are interested in entrepreneurship, in starting a company based on their technology, we can offer training and resources. Even if a technology isn’t patentable, we provide feedback to researchers and make suggestions for how researchers could move forward. Our team keeps a close eye on market needs by talking to industry players, and we can provide this feedback to researchers.
Todd: The Strategic Partnerships Office helps with the submission of proposals to any funding agency or partner outside the Department of Energy, including helping negotiate contracts and ensuring that research projects comply with DOE and UC policies. We also provide guidance and support for a subset of DOE proposals on an as-needed and as-requested basis, in particular when other partners or consortia are involved.
Of course, we also help develop industry collaborations and assist researchers identify and engage with industry partners. Researchers come to us, either with a specific company partner already in mind, or they ask us to help identify and engage partners. The reverse also happens: We get inquiries from companies who want to work with Lab researchers on specific projects, and then we help them identify and engage with Lab scientific staff. There are many types of research agreements and mechanisms available – we work with all parties to figure out what makes the most sense.
Can you give some examples of Lab successes working with industry?
Todd: Berkshire Hathaway Energy came to us through the Government and Community Relations Office with the idea of extracting lithium for batteries from their geothermal facilities near the Salton Sea. We helped ETA and EESA team up to collaborate with Berkshire. Hanna Breunig and Fabian Rosner from the Energy Technologies Area (ETA) did the techno-economic modeling while Patrick Dobson, William Stringfellow, and Michael Whittaker from the Earth and Environmental Sciences Area (EESA) explored efficient ways to extract high quality lithium from geothermal brines. The project has now attracted funding from the California Energy Commission, the DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office and Geothermal Technologies Office, and Berkshire Hathaway is looking to expand their scope of work with the Lab. We are now working with partners to identify the source of the lithium in the geothermal brine, quantify how much lithium is present and can be extracted, and evaluate any potential environmental impacts and their corresponding mitigation measures. This work has informed the Blue Ribbon Commission on Lithium Extraction in California’s draft report on lithium geothermal lithium extraction in the Salton Sea region, which is expected to be a guiding policy document for the burgeoning lithium industry in California.
Another example is from Cyclotron Road. Antora Energy is building a grid-scale energy storage system that uses thermophotovoltaic energy converters to generate power from heat stored in inexpensive thermal materials. Co-founders Justin Briggs and Andrew Ponec, who were part of our fourth Cyclotron Road cohort, were joined by David Bierman, who was part of our third cohort. With the support of ETA scientists Ravi Prasher and Sean Lubner, they have gone on to achieve significant milestones, the most recent of which was $50 million raised from funders including Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Lowercarbon Capital.
We are continuing to look for ways to deepen our relationships with industry; for example, working together between SPO and IPO, we are planning to create an industry advisory board at the Lab, to improve our understanding of industry needs and to ensure our partnerships align with DOE priorities.
Jesse: We have many examples of licensed technologies and Lab spinoffs that have had a significant impact in the world. In 2004, the Lab licensed a diagnostic technology to Berkeley HeartLabs (which was acquired by a company called Celera) and to Quest Diagnostics. This cholesterol screening technology identifies people at risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease. It measures the ratio between low density lipids (i.e. harmful cholesterol) versus high density lipids (i.e. beneficial cholesterol) to identify individuals who are at risk for cardiovascular disease, even if their measured cholesterol levels are normal. At the time this technology was licensed, no other test could provide this information.
Another example is a simple, inexpensive aerosol-based duct sealing system. Lab scientist Mark Modera and engineer Duo Wang developed this technology to address the 30% of thermal cooling and heating that is often lost to duct leakage. Mark started a company called Aeroseal to commercialize this technology. Today Aeroseal’s technology has now been used in 200,000 homes, and has collectively generated more than $1 billion in energy savings in the U.S. alone. According to Amit Gupta, CEO of Aeroseal, the impact of the licensed technology goes beyond the US and the company is on track to help remove 1 gigaton of CO2 from the world.
A more recent example is an infant warmer that helps prevent deaths related to hypothermia among newborns in developing countries. A second invention in 2020 by Berkeley Lab scientists Ashok Gadgil and Vi Rapp further improved the technology to include a reliable temperature indicator and optimized it for manufacturing. This built upon a 2015 design by Mike Elam, Jonathan Slack, Howdy Goudey, and others at Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley. A large randomized controlled trial in Rwanda showed that the infant warmer reduced ‘all-cause’ infant mortality by a factor of three, a huge impact. The technology is now being scaled-up in Rwanda and elsewhere in Africa.
How should researchers work with your team?
Todd: A lot of DOE and state-funded calls for proposals require working with partners, including large industry players or small businesses, so if researchers have an idea but aren’t sure how to find or engage these companies, they should contact email@example.com and we can help connect them or give them suggestions on potential collaborators. Of course, if researchers have already identified a potential partner for their project, we can help figure out the best partnership mechanism as well as help with the negotiations. All proposals, whether the Lab is the lead applicant or working with a partner as an intended subrecipient, require an official submission from the SPO Office as the delegated institutional official. Please work with your division’s Resource Analyst (RA) to enter a proposal in eSRA, allowing time for division approval and a minimum of five business days for the SPO CO to review and submit it to the sponsor.
Jesse: The first step is for researchers to let us know about the technologies they have invented or software products they have developed. Researchers should disclose them to IPO through our intake form, but if they have any questions or concerns about timing or the nature of their disclosure, they should just reach out to the technology commercialization associate assigned to their Area, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. We are very happy to talk to any researcher to answer any questions, and to get feedback on how we could improve the Lab’s technology transfer processes. Communication both ways is key to successful technology transfer.