The Department of Energy is cutting red tape on cooperative R&D agreements and is organizing technology showcases.
When Vig Sherrill, an electrical engineer and serial entrepreneur in eastern Tennessee, went looking for a technology for his sixth startup company, he found one at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s annual technology innovation showcase: a process that had the potential to slash the cost of manufacturing graphene by orders of magnitude. He hired the inventor of the process, Ivan Vlassiouk, from the lab and formed a company, General Graphene, which is now producing graphene sheets at “well below” $100/m2—compared with $10 000/m2 using other, more established manufacturing processes. General Graphene just completed a major round of fundraising and is working toward commercial-scale production in 2022.
Chicago-based LanzaTech, which produces ethanol through fermentation of industrial gases and other carbon-rich wastes and residues, turned to chemists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Together they developed a catalytic process to upgrade the ethanol to a jet biofuel, a 50-50 mix with conventional jet fuel. The company licensed the technology, and in April the Federal Aviation Administration approved the fuel for commercial flight. In October a Virgin Atlantic 747 made the first transatlantic flight using the synthetic fuel mix.
In 1992 Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company signed a cooperative R&D agreement (CRADA) with Sandia National Laboratories after the Department of Energy encouraged its labs to partner with industry. One result was the development of an award-winning all-weather tire made with innovative polymers, a success the company has said couldn’t have happened without Sandia’s help in developing modeling and predictive testing tools. Renewed multiple times since, that CRADA is now in its 27th year.
Licensing, spin-offs, and CRADAs from the DOE labs are hardly new, but they are receiving new attention and emphasis from an administration that hasn’t always been known for its friendliness to science and research.
“Making sure we get technology out to the marketplace, that it has an avenue with which to be commercialized, is very important to everybody,” says Conner Prochaska, DOE’s chief commercialization officer, a new title conferred in November by Secretary Rick Perry. Prochaska says the emphasis on technology transfer has come “straight out of the White House,” in the form of a 2018 memorandum issued by the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy to the federal agencies that support R&D.