To mark Women’s History Month, which took place in March, Research News spoke with two women at the Lab who are working to bring their solutions to the marketplace. Inventor Marca Doeff, who is the Division Deputy of the Energy Storage and Distributed Resources Division (ESDR) in the Energy Technologies Area, and software developer and inventor Mariam Kiran, a research scientist with the Energy Sciences Network (ESnet) and the Computing Sciences Area’s Scientific Data Division, shared their thoughts about the process of commercializing Lab technologies.
The Importance of Commercializing Lab inventions and Software
Marca’s research focuses on materials for batteries, with an emphasis on solid state batteries for electric vehicles. Solid state batteries potentially offer higher energy density, longer cycle life, and better inherent safety than state-of-the-art lithium ion batteries.
Her team developed a method for fabricating ceramic solid state batteries, which to date has been challenging due to processing difficulties and interfacial challenges. With Marca’s fabrication method, first, ceramic electrolyte frameworks made up of alternate porous and dense layers are created. Electrode material and other components are then inserted into the porous ceramic layers of the battery and a soft solid electrolyte with a relatively low melting point is used to fill in the pores and establish good contact among the components.
“It was exciting to see the idea work in the lab setting, but to get it to the stage where it is useful to the market, there’s still work to be done in scaling up the size of the battery cell and on safety testing,” said Marca. She notes that there is a big gap between proof of concept in the lab and commercialization, and that the process can be challenging, but it is important.
“Being an inventor is part of my job at the Lab,” said Marca. “Our funders are seeking solutions to specific problems, so when we have something that is promising, we work with the Lab’s Intellectual Property Office on submitting a record of invention in the hopes that the technology can be made available for licensing. And of course, as a researcher I want to see my ideas get used,” she continued.
Mariam Kiran also was eager to share her work with the world. She and her team developed a network optimization tool called Hecate, which uses machine learning to learn data traffic patterns on a network and then generates the optimum path for traffic delivery time.
“We had developed this tool for ESnet, and my research indicated that there was real potential to embed it into hardware which could be installed on other similar wide area networks outside of ESnet. It really excited me to see how this could be useful to network providers and engineers across the world,” said Mariam.
“Commercializing this technology is important, not only because it helps solve pressing challenges that others outside the Lab are facing, but also because you can learn a lot through the process,” said Mariam.
Tips for Inventors and Developers at the Lab
Marca and Mariam offered some tips to other inventors and developers at the Lab.
“Many researchers, both men and women, suffer from impostor syndrome, where you feel you are just fooling others and your work is not worthy. Don’t sell yourself short. Do your research to see if your invention is novel, and submit the record of invention. That way you can see if it has legs,” said Marca.
Mariam agreed, “I think as women we doubt ourselves a lot, and there may even be people who doubt your capabilities, but you must believe in yourself and be confident in what you are researching and developing, because what you are developing may have a huge impact on society,” said Mariam.
Mariam also underlined the importance of doing research. “Once you come up with an idea, investigate why people may be interested in your idea, and then work on how to develop it. Talk to potential users of your technology.”
Marca had another piece of advice for researchers looking to commercialize their inventions: “Most inventions don’t make it to the marketplace, but you won’t know until you try. Be patient, and be prepared to pivot if necessary,” she offered. “One advantage of working on early stage research as we do at the Lab is that if one path doesn’t work out, you can explore a different path.”
She also explained that there are different ways to commercialize a technology. “You can start your own company if you are in a position to do so, you could license it to a company, or you could work with a company on a project. With the latter option, you are addressing a specific problem that they are trying to solve, so there’s already a market for your work.”
Mariam noted that ultimately, the process has been worthwhile. “As a scientist, I feel gratitude when I am able to develop or contribute to a solution the community finds useful. We all want to build science solutions that make the world a better place,” she said.