Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find the way. ~ Abraham Lincoln
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Countries, like people, have inherent potential assets for achieving success. The question life poses is what is actually done to utilize them. A tremendous potential asset the U.S. enjoys is possession of the greatest public research system in history. It’s staffed by some of the most creative people in the world working in state of the art facilities performing cutting edge research in every field of science. The system designed after World War II does exceedingly well in what it was intended to do: pushing forward the frontiers of science; and helping federal agencies meet their mission needs.
However, neither goal is oriented toward the commercialization of resulting discoveries by our private sector. And therein lies the rub. The Lab to Market Summit at the White House Conference Center held on May 20 spent a day looking to solve that conundrum.We have made significant strides over the past 30 years through laws like the Bayh-Dole Act, the Federal Technology Transfer Act, and supporting Executive Orders leading to the creation of 9,000 new companies around university inventions, the development of 153 new drugs from federal funding now protecting public health world-wide, the leadership of the U.S. biotechnology industry, the addition of $836 billion to our gross domestic product supporting 3million good jobs from university patent licensing between 1996-2012, etc.
Still as far as we have come, it’s clear that we could be doing even more to reward the hard earned taxpayer dollars spent on public R&D.
The rapid increase of international economic competition coupled with a cutting back in basic research by U.S. industry makes it imperative that we better integrate government funded research into our economy. Any country would love to have this “problem,” but moving from potential to realization is not at all simple. Looking for the best path forward led to the Lab to Market Summit.
When I received an invitation out of the blue asking me to serve as a co-chair for the Summit along with my friend and colleague Diane Palmintera (President of Innovation Associates), I immediately agreed to help. I assumed we’d just have to moderate a panel leading up to some new policy announcement with a free lunch thrown in for good measure. I was wrong on both counts. We were being asked for ideas for improving the federal system– and we had to pay for our own lunch.
We soon received information on innovative programs developed by several agencies geared toward moving more federally funded technologies into the marketplace. When I asked if the goal was just a critique of these programs, it turned out I had seriously underestimated the target.
Rather, we were to focus on how to improve the commercialization rates from our federal R&D system, considering topics like are commercialization programs meeting stakeholder needs; how can we better leverage agency capabilities, how can we measure success, and better identify what’s not working so well.
Each agency invited one or two experienced commercialization experts from industry, investment, academia, research foundations, etc. to participate. We were joined by representatives from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the various research agencies interested in improving their commercialization success rates. There were no constraints put on us other than those inherent in running a one day meeting with a panel coming together for the first time.
Prior to the Summit, Diane and I worked with the agencies on the agenda to maximize the time for discussion. We settled on starting with quick “elevator speeches” on several innovative federal programs designed to bridge some of the gaps where federal research ends and industry pull kicks in.
After that we went into considering “What’s Working and What’s Not?” It immediately became clear that this group was not going to focus on tweaking existing programs, but on a more fundamental question: how can we increase the commercialization of new products, the formation of more technology companies, and the creation of good paying jobs arising from government/industry R&D partnerships?
We established ground rules that there would be no speeches or advertisements, and that everyone was encouraged to speak candidly. From the first comments we were off and running. Some fundamental issues quickly surfaced:
- We need agencies with complimentary research/programs coordinating to leverage resources to better partner with industry;
- We need more “technology translators” bridging the cultural divide separating bench scientists from industry needs;
- We need more publicly funded technologies taken to a later stage of development so they are more attractive to industry;
- We need better utilization of venture capital, angel investors, crowd funding, and philanthropic organizations to get more technologies to market;
- We need to insure that technology commercialization really is a priority of the federal system;
- We need to remove bureaucratic resistance preventing the full and uniform utilization of the legal tools already provided for technology commercialization.
Despite the problems, it was clear that the federal participants had a very real passion for their programs, and were dedicated to moving forward despite the obstacles.
This passion was matched by the outside expert panel that saw the economic health of the United States depending to a large degree on breaking down barriers preventing the commercial development of federal research. At a time when our foreign competitors are rapidly closing the gap between us, it is imperative that our $140 billion a year public research system operates at its full potential.
When we asked the panel what should be done, it was impressive how everyone was essentially on the same page. After papering the room with insightful recommendations, we spent the last hour grouping and boiling them down into broad categories with specific goals. It was remarkable that in just one day the panel found immediate suggestions for greatly improving the system. We steered away from the classic Washington formula of just asking for more money, although resources are always an issue. We will soon begin turning our thoughts into a paper for White House and federal agency leaders to consider.
Fundamentally, we need to show that the United States is indeed serious about maximizing the economic impact of the federal R&D system. If we don’t have the will to change our own systems, we need only look in the mirror to place subsequent blame.
The personal highlight of my day was receiving a White House badge labeling me as an “Expert.” Unfortunately, we had to return the badges at the conclusion of the meeting. Fame is fleeting in Washington.