You find the word “innovation” everywhere lately. It has become a buzz word that people use to describe practically anything new. While some look at innovation as describing something new, or often even something considered “better” than another product or service, these ideas fall a bit short of the mark. Being innovative implies something even more powerful - it implies there is some creation of value, and it is this value that creates economic growth.

From a federal laboratory’s perspective, this idea of value creation is not a trivial matter. A look at the federal research and development (R&D) spending in the United States[1] shows that federal laboratories spend between $130 and $140 billion annually. That investment in R&D supports the United States’ leading role in the world economy and keeps our nation on the cutting edge of technological development by many accounts. Despite the large investment, the government generally does not make or sell consumer products or services. Even the most technologically advanced fighter aircraft in the world, the F-22 Raptor, is something that the government buys, not makes. Simply put, the value of innovation from our federal R&D dollars relies on private partners. 

Among the government’s several Cross Agency Priority Goals is an initiative titled “Lab to Market,” focused on the idea of finding private partners that can take technologies created from federal research, and turn them into products and services that create jobs and drive economic growth. Commonly called technology transfer, these activities have been supported over the years by people from all sides of the political spectrum, with bi-partisan-base legislation and Executive Orders. While technology transfer leverages the enormous potential of federally funded R&D, it relies on partnering with the private sector, not providing federal funds. Technology transfer activities are based on the concept that the opportunities created by new research and development needs to be discovered by the private sector, funded through outside investment, and ultimately built and delivered by the private sector. The federal government recognizes that innovation occurs when the results are transitioned to someone that creates value from the technology.

The results of this transition from federal labs to the private sector are apparent in the products around us.  Numerous pharmaceuticals, that have come directly from work within labs at the National Institutes of Health, prevent and treat diseases spanning from AIDS, to cancer, to Lyme disease[2]. The internet itself is well known as a product of work done at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)[3], and the iPhone application Siri is a product that ultimately resulted from a DARPA project. Those technologies are just a glimpse. The genesis of these ideas are not always so obvious. For example, a platinum/chromium alloy developed in a Department of Energy lab focused on fossil fuel energy found its way into a coronary stent[4] that has made billions of dollars in sales worldwide.

With all of these ideas coming from hundreds of federal labs, finding partners to work with and identifying what ideas exist can seem like an impossible task. The Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer (FLC) was created through an act of Congress to help with this task. The FLC website at hosts a number of free tools that can help to find available technologies through a one-stop search tool that can look for technologies across the government. If you need technical assistance or are looking for a research partner, the site offers a way to search laboratory capabilities and facilities available for outside use. 

Despite all of the capabilities and ideas at government laboratories, the federal R&D investment relies on American businesses and private investment to see new products and services reach the marketplace and create the jobs of the future. There are tremendous opportunities, and strong partnerships are needed to lead to true innovation.   







Paul Zielinski

About the author: Paul Zielinski is the Director of the Technology Partnerships Office (TPO) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). He is also the current Chair of the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer. Prior to joining NIST, Zielinski worked at the EPA, the DOE, and served on active duty in the United States Army. He has a Master of Science degree in civil engineering and Master of Business Administration with a specialization in entrepreneurship.