Technology Transfer:

Clearer Priorities and Greater Use of Innovative Approaches Could Increase the Effectiveness of Technology Transfer at Department of Energy Laboratories

GAO-09-548: Published: Jun 16, 2009. Publicly Released: Jun 16, 2009.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

David Trimble
(202) 512-9338
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

The Department of Energy (DOE) spends billions of dollars each year at its national laboratories on advanced science, energy, and other research. To maximize the public's investment and to foster economic growth, federal laws and policies have encouraged the transfer of federally developed technologies to private firms, universities, and others to use or commercialize. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 further emphasized the role of such technologies for addressing the nation's energy, economic, and other challenges. Congress requested GAO to examine (1) the nature and extent of technology transfer at DOE's laboratories; (2) the extent to which DOE can measure the effectiveness of its technology transfer efforts; and (3) factors affecting, and approaches for improving, DOE's efforts. GAO analyzed documents and data and spoke with officials at DOE headquarters and all 17 DOE national laboratories.

Although DOE's laboratories routinely share their technologies, capabilities, and knowledge with outside entities, it is difficult to assess the full extent of technology transfer efforts because policies defining technology transfer are unclear and headquarters and laboratory officials do not always agree on which activities should be included. Certain activities performed for or with private companies, universities, and state or local governments are widely regarded as technology transfer, including (1) performing research on behalf of or in collaboration with these entities; (2) licensing the laboratories' existing technologies for such entities to use or commercialize; and (3) allowing these entities access to the laboratories' unique facilities and equipment for their own research. Successful technology transfer efforts have focused on a variety of areas ranging from cancer treatment to biofuels. DOE and laboratory officials do not agree, however, on whether research sponsored by other federal agencies should be considered technology transfer, and DOE's policies are unclear on this. Although work for other federal agencies--worth about $1.8 billion in 2008--may result in technologies that are eventually transferred to the marketplace, in the short run, the work entails sharing federal research and technologies with other federal agencies for noncommercial aims. DOE cannot determine its laboratories' effectiveness in transferring technologies outside DOE because it has not yet established departmentwide goals for technology transfer and lacks reliable performance data. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 required DOE to establish goals for technology transfer and provide Congress its implementation plan no later than February 2006; DOE has not yet done so. While some DOE laboratories and program offices have begun articulating their own technology transfer goals, these vary widely. In addition, DOE performance data on technology transfer activities are problematic because data accuracy and completeness are questionable. A number of factors can constrain the extent to which DOE laboratories transfer their technologies, although some are using approaches to help increase the likelihood that promising technologies will be commercialized. Officials at the 17 laboratories identified three primary challenges: (1) competing staff priorities or gaps in expertise needed to consistently identify promising technologies or potential markets; (2) lack of funding to sufficiently develop or test some promising technologies to attract potential partners; and (3) lack of flexibility to negotiate certain terms of technology transfer agreements. Some laboratories have used innovative approaches, such as inviting entrepreneurs to evaluate their research and commercialize a technology or tapping into outside funding for the additional development needed to attract commercial interest. Approaches used by other federal laboratories may offer additional ways for DOE to improve its technology transfer. These efforts are especially important given the goals of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the additional funding provided to DOE to meet those goals.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To better measure, and improve, the effectiveness of DOE's technology transfer efforts, the Secretary of Energy, working in concert with laboratory directors, should develop a systematic approach to identify technologies with commercial promise.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2011, DOE's Technology Transfer Coordinator issued a guidance memorandum on ensuring fairness of opportunity for licensing DOE laboratories' technologies and partnering for technology transfer. The guidance reiterated the department's policy of providing widespread notice of such opportunities to help ensure fairness. In addition, the memorandum provided guidelines for ensuring widespread notice including by posting technology licensing and partnership opportunities on laboratories' technology transfer websites, the Federal Business Opportunities Website, and press releases, among other places, and by attending trade, industry, and technology transfer meetings.

    Recommendation: To better measure, and improve, the effectiveness of DOE's technology transfer efforts, the Secretary of Energy, working in concert with laboratory directors, should ensure sufficient laboratory access to both technical and business development expertise.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2011, DOE began its "America's Next Top Energy Innovator" program to promote new startup companies, in line with the President's "Startup America Initiative." The program allows entrepreneurs to license DOE laboratory technologies at a far reduced cost and provides for optional consolations with venture capitalists to help commercialize the technologies.

    Recommendation: To better measure, and improve, the effectiveness of DOE's technology transfer efforts, the Secretary of Energy, working in concert with laboratory directors, should collect reliable performance data and further consider ways to use the data to monitor the progress and effectiveness of technology transfer efforts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to this recommendation, in October 2009, DOE's Technology Transfer Coordinator released a reporting and appraisal guide for technology transfer activities. The new guide includes definitions to clarify laboratories' reporting on various types of technology transfer activities and associated funding, including Work for Others and Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs).

    Recommendation: To better measure, and improve, the effectiveness of DOE's technology transfer efforts, the Secretary of Energy, working in concert with laboratory directors, should clarify which activities qualify as technology transfer, including whether research sponsored by other federal agencies qualifies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2011, the Secretary of Energy issued a secretarial policy statement on technology transfer, in which he defined technology transfer as the process by which knowledge, intellectual property, or capabilities developed at DOE facilities are transferred to "other entities, including private industry, academia, and state or local governments," in the form of Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) or Work-For-Others agreements, among other forms. As such, the Secretary clarified the definition for technology transfer to implicity exclude work for other federal agencies. Furthermore, DOE's technology transfer public Website only mentions work for nonfederal entities as a technology transfer opportunity.

    Recommendation: To better measure, and improve, the effectiveness of DOE's technology transfer efforts, the Secretary of Energy, working in concert with laboratory directors, should develop clear goals, objectives, and performance measures in line with these priorities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2011, the Secretary of Energy issued a secretarial policy statement on technology transfer, in which he articulated departmental objectives for technology transfer at DOE facilities. These included ensuring "robust" technology transfer activities and research partnerships with industry resulting in commercialization; direct involvement from innovators at DOE facilities; and fairness of opportunity; among others. In his statement, he also articulated the need for measuring performance outcomes in line with the goal of ensuring widespread deployment of DOE technologies, rather than using measures that focus on financial returns, such as royalty income, from some of DOE's technology partnerships.

    Recommendation: To better measure, and improve, the effectiveness of DOE's technology transfer efforts, the Secretary of Energy, working in concert with laboratory directors, should explicitly articulate departmentwide priorities for DOE's technology transfer efforts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2011, the Secretary of Energy issued a secretarial policy statement on technology transfer, in which he articulated departmental priorities for transferring laboratories' technologies to ensure the "fullest use" of laboratories' federal research and development (R&D) investments through technology transfer.

    Recommendation: To better measure, and improve, the effectiveness of DOE's technology transfer efforts, the Secretary of Energy, working in concert with laboratory directors, should develop a comprehensive means of sharing information across laboratories and with private entities, such as a Web-based clearinghouse for technologies ready for further development or commercialization.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since our report, DOE has revamped its Technology Transfer Program Website to include links to the technology transfer Websites for DOE's laboratories. Also, DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy created an online "Energy Innovation Portal" with information on technology licensing opportunities related energy efficiency and renewable energy at all DOE labs.

    Aug 11, 2014

    Jul 17, 2014

    Jul 11, 2014

    Jun 23, 2014

    Jun 9, 2014

    Jun 5, 2014

    May 30, 2014

    May 16, 2014

    May 15, 2014

    May 7, 2014

    Looking for more? Browse all our products here