Many American research universities significantly outperform the Department of Energy's 10 national laboratories in moving technology from the bench to the marketplace. Indeed, each of the top 10 universities earns more licensing revenues than do all of the DOE laboratories combined.
Alex Fischer, director of ORNL's Technology Transfer and Economic Development office, aspires to position the Laboratory to compete with top universities on technology transfer metrics. Impressed by her successes at two universities, he recruited Casey Porto to direct ORNL's technology transfer effort in early 2005.
Porto headed Carnegie Mellon University's technology transfer office in the last two years of her seven-year stint in the 1990s. "Our office at Carnegie Mellon, which ranked number one in the world for computer science, started 46 companies," Porto says. "At the time many venture capital firms were interested in web-based start-ups."
In 2002, Porto left for a position as associate vice president of technology transfer at Case Western Reserve University. "We had to build a technology transfer team almost from scratch," she says. "I eventually hired 11 people. During my three years there, our office averaged about three start-ups per year."
According to Porto, universities often have more freedom to set and follow their own agenda, whereas national labs must follow the rules set by their Department of Energy customer, which in some cases must focus on research missions that take priority over aggressive technology transfer. Historically, national labs have not recruited researchers based on their track records as entrepreneurs. Porto seeks to help reshape ORNL's culture through three activities that could enable the Laboratory to compete more effectively with universities in the tech transfer arena.
Recruiting more entrepreneurial researchers.
Championing maturation funding.
Modifying ORNL's entrepreneurial leave policy.
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