The writer Wallace Stegner called the US’s national parks, “the best idea we ever had”. That is true. Not much further down any list of the best things about the US is its national laboratories.
The 17 national laboratories managed by the US Department of Energy (DOE) are the federal government’s preeminent centres for scientific research into energy and the environment. Researchers at the national labs are responsible for dozens of critical discoveries – from reducing the cost of wind power by boosting the efficiency of turbine blades to using magnets to levitate and propel high-speed trains.
The DOE’s Office of Technology Transitions (OTT) is charged with helping the national labs’ researchers license intellectual property and bring taxpayer-funded innovations to market.
The OTT’s new director, who also holds the title of chief commercialisation officer, is Vanessa Chan, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania before her appointment last month.
In conversation with Energy Monitor, Chan explains why she joined the Biden-Harris administration, insists the climate crisis will guide her work, and describes how programmes like the DOE’s Technology Commercialization Fund (TCF) can help promising climate solutions reach the market.
What persuaded you to leave academia for the DOE?
As a parent, our mission is to set up our children for success, which includes leaving them a world in which they can thrive. When I was tapped by the Biden-Harris administration for this role, it was an easy decision because I am now at the heart of one of the most aggressive climate agendas ever developed. As a parent, I am honoured to serve my country while helping to ensure that the next generation will have clean air to breathe and a more equitable energy landscape.
You have more than 20 years’ experience helping large companies commercialise their technologies and working with academic engineering departments. What lessons do you bring to the DOE?
I feel like I have spent the last 25 years preparing for this role. My own personal journey from PhD lab scientist to helping clients commercialise their technologies really evolved my thinking on how to innovate.
There are three critical things that innovators must keep front and centre if they want to have a real-world impact.
First, start with the market. Understand the problem you are trying to solve and why this technology is the best one to solve it. Second, engage and align the ecosystem or supply chain early. You need the support of everyone from a technical, strategic and financial angle, or the technology will languish on the bench. Third, call it quits sooner rather than later if a technology isn’t working.
There is no shame in stopping a project, and the nature of R&D is such that some things just won’t work. Get into a growth mindset and ask yourself, “What did you learn from this not working?” It is not a failure. It is an experiment with a result you didn’t expect, and that is OK. Stop and move on.
The Energy Act of 2020 formalised the OTT and the position of chief commercialisation officer. The first goal listed for the OTT in that bill was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. How will that mission guide your work?
Confronting the climate crisis head on is one of the guiding principles of the Biden-Harris administration, and the DOE has a central role in that fight. Our national laboratory system has the talent and facilities to advance our understanding of the world and our place in it. At the OTT, our primary goal is to help innovators tap into that incredible body of knowledge and transform discoveries powered by the DOE into technologies that reduce our impact on the planet and improve human health and well-being.
Given the administration’s ambitious climate agenda, one of our goals in the OTT is to find potential technologies that can empower those priorities. I am confident that within the more than 40,000 patents we host in our Lab Partnering Service (LPS), and the world-class talent of the scientists in our labs, we will find technologies and capabilities that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
One example of this process in action is Oak Ridge National Laboratory teaming up with Honeywell to develop a new refrigerant for supermarkets, which replaces a hydrofluorocarbon. The new product is non-toxic, has 68% less global warming potential and boosts the efficiency of supermarket refrigeration systems by 10% or more.
The chief commercialisation officer is a key adviser to the secretary of energy. What is the first piece of advice you have for the new energy secretary?
It is important to think really big. It is imperative that we get everybody from C-suite-level decision makers at the largest public companies to small businesses, foundations and academics to lock hands and make the strategic, financial and technological commitments to commercialise at scale while creating jobs. There is not a single stakeholder, the DOE included, that can meet the challenge on its own. However, if we can catalyse an alignment and commitments, we will start seeing real impact.
Attempts have been made in the past to boost the commercial impact of the DOE’s research investments, especially technologies developed at the national laboratories. What is different this time?
The OTT is a relatively new office, established six years ago, and the chief commercialisation officer role was only formalised in statute on 21 December 2020. Despite its size and youth, the department has already taken significant strides to make the commercialisation process more deliberate and purposeful.
I don’t have a government background, so I am grateful for a team that knows how to work effectively in this ecosystem. We have an incredible opportunity to bring my experience from the corporate, angel investing, start-up and academic sectors and ask, ‘How can we do things differently so that we can unlock even more of the potential sitting in our labs? How do we energise public-private partnerships to scale our technologies and create jobs?’
The Energy Act of 2020 also authorised the energy secretary to develop technology transfer programmes at the national labs such as clean energy incubators, small business vouchers and entrepreneurial fellowships. When will we see a roll-out of these programmes?
You can expect selections from the OTT’s Energy Program for Innovation Clusters funding – a $4m initiative to boost regional energy innovation – this spring. We are looking at ways to dig deeper into specific challenges, using our resources efficiently to deliver highly targeted outcomes in technology transitions.
How will the OTT’s new LPS pilot programme work and what is the DOE hoping to achieve with it?
The LPS is one of the OTT’s flagship tools promoting engagement with the national lab system. It allows users to connect directly with national lab experts on specific topics or technology areas. This service is in addition to offering streamlined access to our huge database of intellectual property ready for licensing by the innovation community.
We have already expanded LPS functionality to include more access to national lab expertise, intellectual property and facilities. This pilot is LPS supercharged, with likely enhancements including secure matchmaking, inter-agency connectivity and better access to all innovations coming from the national lab system. These innovations include IP, software, secure virtual workspaces, access to on-premises facilities and tools, not just at DOE laboratories, but across all of government.
What kinds of solutions do you hope to promote with the new TCF?
The TCF is a valuable investment that is made in labs with promising energy technologies on the verge of becoming real products. It allows the labs to engage directly with entrepreneurs, investors and innovators who can take this research and apply it to the biggest challenges facing us today, like climate change and equitable access to clean, affordable energy.
Argonne National Lab, for example, received a TCF award to commercialise its dual-fuel technology for diesel engines with Progress Rail, a Caterpillar company. Since 2016, the TCF has brought in more than $84m in matching funds from over 240 private partners that are interested in seeing these technologies come to life.
The DOE’s 17 national laboratories are a national treasure, but little known to the public. What else can be done to highlight discoveries made at the labs?
It is impossible to overstate just how much the national labs have contributed to the US and the world. We are keen to use the DOE brand to celebrate and elevate those contributions – through events, storytelling, and better programmes and initiatives.
In previous lives, I have seen first-hand the importance of broadcasting your story across multiple channels and engaging the public. I am also the mum of 12 and 14-year-olds and appreciate how much content delivery has evolved in recent years. Stay tuned as we think about ways to innovate how we share our stories and highlight all the things being done across our labs and agency.
As a starting point, feel free to follow @PoweredbyDOE on Twitter. It is important for our industrial partners to learn about what we are doing, but we also need to inspire the next generation to come to build their dreams at the DOE, and I am excited to help drive that.