However compelling the technology, a gap often exists between government-funded research and its transfer to the marketplace. As a research project nears completion, federal dollars often dry up before an invention has progressed enough to spin out as a commercial product. Enter technology maturation funds, the means by which many promising technologies make needed advances toward becoming a commercial product.
Two sources of tech maturation funding are available to researchers: One is government dollars, generated by revenues Oak Ridge National Laboratory receives from previously licensed technologies, including royalties. The second source is "privately funded technology transfer," (PFTT) funded by UT-Battelle, which receives the returns from a technology after it is licensed. These private funds can be supplemented by Battelle corporate dollars and matching investments from the University of Tennessee.
In the case of government funded tech maturation, researchers apply for grants through an annual process, reviewed by the Laboratory's invention disclosure review committee, which selects the recipients. Awards typically average about $50,000. Privately funded maturation funds are available on an open-call basis, with an invention undergoing a business analysis to determine market potential before a final determination is made whether to supply private funding. UT, Battelle and, finally, the Department of Energy, must formally approve the arrangement before funding is provided. In addition, PFTT pays for patent and marketing costs as the technology progresses.
As part of last year's contract renegotiation with the Department of Energy, UT-Battelle agreed to invest $3.5 million between 2005 and 2010 in the Laboratory's PFTT program. Battelle can contribute separately to that pot. Likewise, the University of Tennessee has the option to put funding into PFTT projects. UT recently committed to match dollar for dollar the PFTT projects in which the university chooses to participate.
Of the returns from PFTT, 51 percent goes back into ORNL operations, while 49 percent can be used by UT-Battelle at other facilities for scientific R&D or education. "Having PFTT maturation resources at our disposal lets us take a strategic perspective in building portfolios of PFTT technologies," says Brett Bosley, commercialization manager in the Laboratory's Technology Transfer and Economic Development office. "This approach can build on the scientific research to deliver great commercialization outcomes," he says, noting how the private money also expands the Laboratory's total pool of dollars available to prepare new technologies for market. With private funding now available, "we have another tool in the toolbox," he says.
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