UT students become a part of ORNL's technology transfer organization.
ORNL's technology transfer strategy has added a creative new element. In addition to investments in conventional technology commercialization efforts, ORNL also is making similar long-term investments in the development of "human capital" needed to sustain a successful technology transfer program. University of Tennessee graduate students in business and engineering work part-time nudging ORNL inventions closer to commercialization. The students are recruited and mentored by Pat Richardson, a former vice president at Motorola and director of strategy and business development for ORNL's Technology Transfer and Economic Development office.
Recently, Richardson delivered a lecture about the invention process and how inventions reach the marketplace as part of a course on consulting. "I told the UT students about the iPod, the popular portable media player designed and marketed by Apple Computer," Richardson says. "A consultant proposed the business concept to Apple's CEO. Steve Jobs liked the idea, which resulted in a patent for the iPod with Steve as one of the inventors."
The students work for Richardson on full scholarship paid for by ORNL. Most are pursuing master degrees in science or business administration. In the $100,000-a-year program, four MBA graduate students work full-time for Richardson in the summer at ORNL and 10 hours a week during the school year. Then they spend one day a week viewing the process up close at the Laboratory, with visits from Richardson one afternoon a week at the UT campus in Knoxville. A fifth student is assigned to ORNL's economic development program. Thirteen students have participated in the two-year program. One of them, Alex DeTrana, now works as an ORNL licensing executive in the technology transfer group. "A great catch," says Richardson.
The program is rigorous and designed to support the Laboratory's broader commercialization efforts. Each student meets with individual ORNL inventors, examines invention disclosures, conducts a preliminary market analysis and identifies potential companies that might be interested in licensing the new technology. The assignments involve studying marketing databases and developing strategies. A committee of experts reviews and critiques the students' preliminary market analyses. The students have completed 86 marketing studies this year.
Other projects seek to catalogue ORNL's capabilities and position new technologies for emerging commercial markets. Students have examined all of the Laboratory's invention disclosures since the early 1990s that today would be classified as nanoscience or nanotechnology. The result was an illustration showing ORNL's nano-tech invention disclosures of the past 15 years according to time of origin in different market sectors such as biology/life sciences, electronics, energy, materials, processing and sensors and analytical tools. "Equipped with this information, we then looked at projects at ORNL's new Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences to see how many fit into each market sector," Richardson says.
Richardson sees value in students working together in teams to solve problems, conduct research and update reports on licensees in which ORNL holds shares of stock. "I want them to have the team experience," he says. "I encourage them to build partnerships with other team members. I also try to give them a chance to exercise their leadership skills.
The decision to incorporate students into ORNL's technology transfer program reflects the growing partnership between the Laboratory and the University of Tennessee, a partnership in this instance made easier by the fact that ORNL's two senior technology transfer staff are UT graduates. The program also signals a belief that developing and sustaining a culture of commercialization at the Laboratory is an endeavor that must be viewed in terms of decades rather than months. Given the early returns on investment, the partnership with UT appears promising for the Laboratory's future.
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