Department of Energy: Improved Performance Planning Could Strengthen Technology Transfer
A Department of Energy national lab developed a battery that now powers some hybrid and electric cars. But how do new energy technologies get from the lab to the market?
Transferring technologies from the DOE to private companies isn't always easy. Barriers such as the "valley of death"—a gap between the end of public funding and the start of private funding—can stop a transfer.
The DOE has taken steps to address barriers, such as providing training on transferring technologies. But, it could better measure the progress of its technology transfer efforts.
We recommended developing performance goals and measures for technology transfers.
What GAO Found
The Department of Energy (DOE) and its national labs have taken several steps to address potential barriers to technology transfer—the process of providing DOE technologies, knowledge, or expertise to other entities. GAO characterized these barriers as (1) gaps in funding, (2) legal and administrative barriers, and (3) lack of alignment between DOE research and industry needs. For example, the “valley of death” is a gap between the end of public funding and start of private-sector funding. DOE partly addresses this gap with its Technology Commercialization Fund, which provides grants of $100,000 to $1.5 million to DOE researchers to advance promising technologies with private-sector partners. Further, DOE's Energy I-Corps program trains researchers to commercialize new technologies and to identify industry needs and potential customers. However, DOE has not assessed how many and which types of researchers would benefit from such training. Without doing so, DOE will not have the information needed to ensure its training resources target the researchers who would benefit most.
Illustration of Funding Gap for Commercializing New Technologies
DOE plans and tracks the performance of its technology transfer activities by setting strategic goals and objectives and annually collecting department-wide technology transfer measures, such as the number of patented inventions and licenses. However, the department does not have objective and measurable performance goals to assess progress toward the broader strategic goals and objectives it developed. For example, without a performance goal for the number of DOE researchers involved in technology transfer activities and a measure of such involvement, DOE cannot assess the extent to which it has met its objective to encourage national laboratory personnel to pursue technology transfer activities. Internal control standards for government agencies call for management to define objectives in measurable terms, either qualitative or quantitative, so that performance toward those objectives can be assessed. Moreover, DOE has not aligned the 79 existing measures that it collects with its goals and objectives, nor has it prioritized them. Some lab stakeholders said that collecting and reporting these measures is burdensome. Prior GAO work has found that having a large number of performance measures may risk creating a confusing excess of data that will obscure rather than clarify performance issues.
Why GAO Did This Study
Researchers at DOE and its 17 national labs regularly make contributions to new energy technologies, such as more efficient batteries for electric vehicles. Technology transfer officials at the labs help these researchers license intellectual property and partner with private-sector companies to bring these technologies to market. However, several recent reports have highlighted barriers and inconsistencies in technology transfer at DOE, including a 2015 commission report that found barriers related to the costs of collaboration and low maturity level of many DOE technologies.
This report examines (1) steps DOE has taken to address barriers to technology transfer and (2) the extent to which DOE plans and tracks the performance of its technology transfer and commercialization activities. GAO analyzed DOE documents on technology transfer and spoke with officials at DOE and seven national labs, as well as with representatives of universities and private-sector companies. GAO selected labs across a range of DOE activities and based on their technology transfer activities.
GAO recommends that DOE assess researchers' needs for commercialization training and develop objective, quantifiable, and measurable performance goals and a limited number of related performance measures for its technology transfer efforts. DOE concurred with the recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of Energy||The Director of OTT should assess whether researchers at the national labs, sites, and plants have the skills necessary to effectively identify and collaborate with technology transfer partners, and should provide training to address any skill gaps. (Recommendation 1)||
According to the Department's letter responding to the report, the Office of Technology Transfer (OTT) will assess whether researchers at the national labs, sites and plants have the skills necessary to effectively identify and collaborate with technology transfer partners, and develop plans to address any skills gaps. As of November 2022, the Department reported taking several actions in support of this assessment. In fiscal year 2022, the Department piloted an asynchronous Energy I-Corps training program that could allow the program to reach a wider audience. The department also commissioned an external study of the entrepreneurship and commercialization culture of DOE national labs. GAO will continue to monitor DOE's activities related to the recommendation.
|Department of Energy||The Director of OTT should develop objective, quantifiable, and measurable performance goals as appropriate, and a limited number of related performance measures or milestones, to assess progress toward the objectives in its technology transfer execution plan and signal priorities. (Recommendation 2)||
According to the Department's letter responding to the report, the Office of Technology Transfer (OTT) plans to coordinate with the DOE and NNSA programs that provide oversight to national labs, sites and plants in order to determine flexible, yet objective measures of progress toward DOE technology transfer goals. In November, 2022, the Department stated that an updated Technology Transfer Execution Plan was under development and would articulate goals and objectives. In addition, the Department stated that it had convened a working group to assess and make recommendations on incorporating technology transfer objectives in national laboratory performance evaluation and measurement plans, with an expected conclusion in early 2023. We will continue to monitor and update the status of this recommendation.