A lot of cleantech startups spin out of research laboratories, whether at universities or the 17 U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories. But on the road to commercialization, many entrepreneurs get caught in the “valley of death” — a gap between the end of public or institutional funding and the start of private-sector funding.
A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office examines steps the DOE’s facilities take to track and address these types of barriers in transferring new technologies to private entities. Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and the Kansas City National Security Campus are among the seven DOE sites analyzed for the study. Argonne is highlighted as a key lab for commercializing new energy technologies, such as a lithium-ion battery now used in hybrid and battery-electric vehicles.
The top three barriers to successful DOE technology commercialization identified in the report are gaps in funding, legal and administrative barriers, and DOE’s research not aligning with private industry needs. The report notes the steps national labs are already taking and points to gaps in addressing roadblocks.
A Technology Commercialization Fund grants DOE researchers $100,000 to $1.5 million to advance promising technologies with private-sector partners. DOE also works to address legal and administrative barriers — such as “terms and conditions” — that hinder technology transfer.
An Energy I-Corps program trains researchers to commercialize new technologies, identify industry needs, and identify potential customers. But DOE has not analyzed how many and which types of researchers would benefit from this training, which prevents the agency from targeting researchers who could benefit the most.
DOE has an overarching mission and strategic objectives for technology transfer, but it does not have adequate performance goals to track progress on technology transfer.
The report recommends beefing up training to ensure researchers have the skills they need to bridge the “valley of death” and overcome other tech commercialization barriers.
The other main recommendation is to set objective, quantifiable, and measurable performance goals to track progress on the agency’s technology transfer plan.
Focusing on improving the two listed areas can help the DOE and its labs create economically feasible and worthwhile innovations that solve real-world problems. The improvements could ease the process of transferring that technology to private industry. DOE agrees with the recommendations and reports taking steps to address them.
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