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Git’er Done! Take the Brake Off Federal Tech Transfer


Written by Joseph Allen
Allen & Associates
Posted: Apr 7, 2014 @ 1:00 pm

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After seeing how the federal agencies intend to implement the recommendations from The White House Lab to Market Summit the difference between product and process oriented people really hit home.

Product people burn with a passion to get the job done. Process people focus on rules and procedures to minimize risk.  Thus, product people are like the accelerator and process people are the brakes.  You need both in your car, but if the brakes run the show you’ll never get out of the driveway.  Similarly, whenever deal makers are subservient in a system to process people, frustration is sure to follow.

Last year the White House put together its Lab to Market Summit and asked Diane Palmintera and me to co-chair a panel of external experts to review several innovative agency technology transfer programs and come up with “transformational, not incremental” ideas to increase the commercialization of $140 B of federally funded research.

It might have been expected that the panel would praise the programs (which were impressive) and simply say that more money should be put into them.  Instead, the first comment from a panel member was that the government faces serious systematic problems that go far beyond merely tweaking individual programs.  That resonated with the entire panel and we were off and running.

Because the Bayh-Dole Act removed federal micromanagement from university tech transfer, we focused primarily on intramural R&D.  Rather than writing another Washington report asking for more tax dollars for pet projects, we focused on maximizing current resources by implementing fundamental changes that could be made without legislation.

We only had a half day to devise our plan.  This would be daunting for any group, much less one like ours that had never even met before.  Thus, it was astounding that we quickly discovered we were all on the same page in identifying why the federal system was not more effective and creating recommendations that would make the commercialization of taxpayer funded research a true national priority.

We saw:

  • There was no system identifying and capitalizing on cross agency research capabilities;
  • That the government lacked knowledge of market needs and how they align with agency R&D;
  • That agencies have little experience dealing with the private sector (which views the government as too difficult to work with to be a reliable research partner); and
  •  Despite Presidential directives and Congressional mandates providing significant legal authorities for partnerships with industry, many agencies continue to make technology commercialization a low priority.

The panel’s unanimous report to the White House was a product persons approach to these formidable problems.  A key element was the creation of a high level leadership organization in the White House to assist and monitor agency commercialization efforts staffed by product oriented people and backed by an advisory group comprised of experienced entrepreneurs.  We realized that this was certainly not the only possible solution, but one that would revolutionize the system, forcing the bureaucracy out of its comfort zone and sending a clear signal that business as usual was over.

After learning that our recommendations would be reviewed by an interagency committee, my expectations for implementation were muted at best. Having chaired an interagency committee, I know they are usually dominated by process people seeking to protect existing programs, defend current agency policies and only supporting proposals guaranteed to not upset the applecart.  Anyone looking for fundamental change in such venues is likely to be sorely disappointed.

However, the initial White House announcement which included the intriguing sounding action items below seemed hopeful:

  • Optimize management and ease of licensing for 100,000+ federally funded patents;
  • Increase the utilization of Federally-funded research facilities by entrepreneurs/innovators;
  • Incentivize federal institutions/employees to prioritize R&D commercialization;
  • Identify steps to develop human capital with experience in tech transfer, expand entrepreneurship education, and
  • Maximize economic impact of SBIR/STTR programs

Unfortunately, when the details behind the dynamic sounding bullets emerged it was evident that the bureaucracy’s plan was anything but “transformational.”

For example, the idea for improving the licensing of federal inventions turns out to be listing them in a government data base. A similar approach is taken for alerting industry to federal research facilities they can use. Some new language related to technology transfer will be included in federal performance reviews for researchers and administrators. Regarding the development of federal entrepreneurs, they propose expanding existing programs.  In short, these actions are a process person’s idea of change.

It’s a truism that passion is the most important ingredient in innovation. The passion of entrepreneurs (all product people) drives our economy, creating the richest nation in the history of the world.  Risk takers (in the most literal sense of the word) created the United States out of a pioneer society that highly prized boldness, leadership and achievement. However, these characteristics are hard to maintain in government when bureaucracies become entrenched and minimizing risk becomes the unstated goal.

Nothing kills passion faster than forcing innovators to run a gauntlet of federal committees and lawyers. When nations smother creativity under reams of self-imposed red tape, innovation flees to greener pastures abroad.  Those left behind can hope for a genteel decline, at best.

Fortunately, human nature being resilient the embers of passion still glow in the government system. Anyone who has had the privilege of working with federal researchers knows that they are driven by a consuming desire to see their discoveries make a real impact on society.  However, unless these technologies are transformed by the private sector from ideas in the lab into products, good inventions just wind up as interesting research papers stockpiled on the shelf.

Until we inject a sense of urgency into the federal technology commercialization system with real rewards for success– and consequences for resistance– we will continue to see much of the marvelous creativity arising from agency supported research going unused.  Facing similar problems, a foreign minister said he wants to change their system from an obstacle course into a pole vault– one clean jump and you land in the market.  Not a bad goal.

Any government truly interested in commercializing its research must realize that time is of the essence, risk is inherent in the process and deal makers should be supported by process.  Napoleon adopted the motto:  “Not a moment must be lost.”  But quoting Napoleon may be too intimidating for times like these, so how about Larry the Cable Guy?  Perhaps we still retain enough of the American spirit to embrace:  “Git ‘er done!”  Time will tell (perhaps sooner than we imagine).

We’ve been trying to drive the federal R&D system with the parking brake on.  It’s time to put product people behind the wheel, buckle the process people safely in, release the brake, hit the gas and get rolling.  Those that used to be far behind are coming up fast in our rear view mirror.


About the Author

Joe Allen is a 30-year veteran of national efforts to foster public/private sector commercialization partnerships, and author of numerous articles on technology management for national publications. Joe served as a Professional Staff Member on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee with former Senator Birch Bayh (D-IN), and was instrumental in working behind the scenes to ensure passage of the historic Bayh-Dole Act. Joe has served as the Executive Director of Intellectual Property Owners, Inc., a trade association representing major R&D companies, he was involved in the creation of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and he also served at the U.S. Department of Commerce as the Director of the Office of Technology Commercialization. From 1992 until 2004, Allen was with the National Technology Transfer Center (NTTC), becoming President in 1997. Clients included NASA, the Department of Defense, EPA, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Commerce. Between 2004 until 2007, Allen was the Vice President and General Manager of the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation. In 2008, Joe founded Allen & Associates to continue to facilitate public/private partnerships between universities, federal laboratories and industry.

3 comments
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  1. Joe-

    Great article! I really like the image here, which speaks on many levels. The image is, of course, an American muscle car hot rod. It is stationary with the wheels spinning and spewing smoke. When the break is released it will scream forward like it is shot out of a cannon. We really have been running the system with one foot on the break. If the break is released the innovative research and development framework will rocket forward just like this muscle car.

    Cheers.

    -Gene

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  3. Why is any government agency creating patentable IP to begin with? In addition to a few percent for SBIRs, current government research should be outsourced to universities (who are learning to commercialize), and private companies. Let these groups create the patentable IP and then quickly go on and commercialize it. The government could take a percentage of the royalty income – that should get it through congress.