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National Labs Seek Closer Industry Ties

Berkeley Lab hosts workshop on materials for energy to advance links with private sector.

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The network of national laboratories run by the Department of Energy (DOE) has spawned countless scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs in the last 80 years. Now with the global economic climate more competitive than ever and the need for energy solutions more urgent, the labs are looking to develop closer ties with industry in an effort to speed up the pace at which discoveries reach the marketplace.

To kick off the conversation Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) is hosting the Materials for Energy Applications workshop from Jan. 30 to Feb. 1 in Berkeley. The conference will be an opportunity for representatives from all 17 DOE laboratories to have in-depth discussions with dozens of representatives from the private sector, ranging from startups such as Alphabet Energy to smaller Silicon Valley companies such as Nanosys to major corporations such as Chevron, Procter & Gamble, Honeywell and United Technologies.

“In this competitive international environment, we have to make sure that what the labs develop gets quickly into the hands of industry so industry can turn it to the benefit of the country,” said Berkeley Lab Deputy Director Horst Simon. “We need to be better at bridging the gap between the basic research done at the labs and the applied research done by industry.”

The goals of the workshop are tri-fold: to increase industry awareness of relevant capabilities within the DOE national laboratories, to deepen the national laboratories’ understanding of the technical challenges facing industry, and to identify and improve paths forward for collaboration.

“Public-private partnerships are absolutely critical to accelerating advanced materials developments, especially in the energy space,” said Theresa Kotanchek, Vice President Sustainable Technologies & Innovation Sourcing at The Dow Chemical Company who is also on the organizing committee for the conference. “Events like the Materials for Energy Applications workshop lay the foundation on which these innovative partnerships can be built.”

The idea for the industry-laboratory workshop was formed last year when Secretary of Energy Steven Chu hosted a dinner with senior industry executives and laboratory directors to discuss ways to strengthen the country’s innovation ecosystem. Executives expressed desire to work with the labs but also said it was difficult to access the labs and find the right contacts.

Thus was born the idea to hold a series of workshops to enhance mutual understanding and close cultural gaps between government-funded research and private enterprise. Some of the cultural differences arise from their fundamentally divergent missions—labs are engaged in more basic, long-term research while the private sector is looking to innovate for more business-oriented purposes.

“We have recognized over time there are very different cultures and missions between the labs and private industry, making alignment of interests sometimes difficult,” said Cheryl Fragiadakis, director of technology transfer at Berkeley Lab. “I think the direct face-to-face communication will really help improve the understanding of the two cultures. Also, many people in private industry do not know how open the labs really are.”

Simon added that many companies don’t realize how much intellectual property is available for licensing at the national labs: “We need to make sure our industry colleagues know that each lab has a technology transfer department and that there are literally hundreds of inventions ready to be licensed,” he said. Simon said he would also like to see joint public-private R&D projects come out of the workshop.

The Materials for Energy Applications workshop will include a panel on “Technology Gaps Ripe for Industry Collaboration” and poster sessions on areas such as lightweight materials, low-power electronics and carbon capture and sequestration. “We’re trying to do new things in areas such as photovoltaics, batteries and energy efficiency technology for buildings. All these depend on developing new materials,” said Simon. “This is one of the strengths of national labs; in particular, in the materials science area, the five nanoscience research centers created in early 2000s—including the Molecular Foundry at Berkeley Lab—have developed a lot of new ideas.”

The second workshop in the series will be hosted by Oak Ridge National Laboratory on the topic of modeling and simulation. It will take place March 7-8 in Austin, Texas.

Industry has responded positively, and representatives from at least four dozen companies will be attending the Berkeley workshop. “To effectively leverage our capabilities we must rapidly connect the talent with the energy opportunities and overcome barriers to collaboration,” said Ned Niccolls, Senior Consulting Materials Engineer at Chevron who is also on the organizing committee. “These are key to U.S. competitiveness, and to help meet the huge scale of the world’s future energy demands.”

Chu will give a keynote address on Feb. 1. From Berkeley Lab, Lab Director Paul Alivisatos and Molecular Foundry Director Omar Yaghi will give keynotes on Jan. 31. Speakers from industry include Michael McQuade of United Technologies, Steve Koonin of the Institute for Defense Analyses, and Vinod Khosla, whose venture capital firm Khosla Ventures has invested in dozens of cleantech startups. Several other venture capital firms will also be attending.

An added benefit of these workshops is that they will spur the national labs to work more closely together rather than in isolation of each other. “In the past, integration of the labs has been lacking,” Simon said. “Now we’re doing more to stress the lab complex as one system, and there’s a new collaborative spirit. Improved industry collaboration is just one way the national labs can help strengthen the country’s technology base.”