Making sure there is a practical application for research and technologies is not just a cost- and effort-saving measure. It’s a way to ensure that projects continually innovate.
With that goal in mind, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) provides grant money to national laboratories in its complex to help the labs continue to find innovative ways to connect with industry. This year, Idaho National Laboratory, the nation’s nuclear energy research lab, won funds for three yearlong projects that total nearly $1 million through DOE’s Practices to Accelerate the Commercialization of Technologies (PACT) Laboratory Call, administered through DOE’s Office of Technology Transitions.
The awards vary in their purpose — from promoting technologies in nuclear or cybersecurity to instilling a stronger innovation mindset — but they all share the goal of making sure the technologies produced at INL and partner labs serve a need in the market.
Here’s an overview of what INL hopes to accomplish with the three awards:
One award INL received was to partner with a Boise-based nonprofit business accelerator called Trailhead Boise, and to establish a new accelerator in downtown Idaho Falls called “Trailhead East @ Idaho National Lab.” This new business accelerator is designed to help commercialize INL technologies and ultimately create a local innovation ecosystem.
As part of this $271,000 project, entrepreneurial INL researchers will compete to join a “Trailhead East” cohort where they will be provided with mentoring, business acumen and financial support to continue with customer validation and further develop and refine their business models.
Cohort finalists will participate in the Trailhead Pitch Competition in Boise, where they will aim to attract industry partners or secure private investments for potential startup businesses. Trailhead East will leverage Trailhead Boise’s extensive network of companies, entrepreneurs and investors to increase the likelihood of commercialization.
“In this way, we’re taking our chocolate and mixing it with their peanut butter,” said Jim Keating, manager of commercialization and entrepreneurial programs at INL. “This ensures there is a market for a new technology before we invest all the time and money into developing it.”
The project is designed as a follow-on for a DOE program called Energy I-Corps, which trains INL researchers to incorporate commercialization strategies throughout the beginning phases of technology development. All Trailhead East applicants will have participated in either Energy I-Corps or INL I-Corps Lite.
INL also received grant funding to roll out cybersecurity projects to sectors like government agencies and infrastructure protection.
The $350,000 project includes a network of four national labs that research cybersecurity: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories and INL. This project will allow the labs to work with a company called Cyber Capital Partners to identify where promising laboratory technologies will fit in the market and match them with the Cyber Capital Partners industry and investor network.
The project will advance the established cybersecurity research relationship between INL, ORNL, PNNL and SNL.
“This project will help leverage the Cyber Capital Partners network in collaboration with the established technology transfer efforts at the laboratories,” said Jonathan Cook, manager of licensing and commercialization for INL’s National and Homeland Security Directorate.
A culture of innovation
Another award will promote practices that develop entrepreneurial mindsets, innovative cultures and supportive policies within DOE’s national laboratories. It abides by a quote often cited by business management strategists: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
“Most people are not aware how many breakthrough technologies are first discovered with federally funded research,” said Jason Stolworthy, INL’s Technology Deployment director. “For example, many of the technologies we see in the modern smartphone — from GPS to LED to fingerprint and voice recognition — were initially researched and developed through federal funding.”
This effort is about increasing the number of breakthrough innovations and making sure taxpayers get the most out of federal research funding.
“To succeed in increasing innovations and making sure they transfer outside the lab atmosphere, the right culture and environment needs to be created,” he said. “This project will help define what that looks like.”