When Tom Ballard came to ORNL, he already had 35 years of experience promoting partnerships at the University of Tennessee.
He got the opportunity to put that experience to work at the laboratory almost immediately as a string of world-class user facilities came online in quick succession and demand for access spiked. Driven largely by the expanded capabilities of the National Center for Computational Sciences, the Spallation Neutron Source and the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, the number organizations having user agreements with the laboratory has increased five-fold in the last four years. In addition to managing user agreements, Ballard's Partnerships organization is responsible for the laboratory's intellectual property; licensing agreements; sponsored research; and building partnerships with businesses, industries, entrepreneurs, economic development organizations and colleges and universities.
We asked Ballard about his organization's role in supporting and promoting user programs at the laboratory across the region and around the world.
Q. You have worked at a research university and a national laboratory. How would you contrast ORNL's research collaboration program with that of the university community?
If I had to pick one word to describe ORNL's research collaboration program, it would be "intense." The user program here is more intense than I saw in 35 years in higher education, but that is because DOE has such a strong commitment to user programs. ORNL has a number of industry partners that we have cultivated over the years, and in the last five years the laboratory's collaboration with commercial entities in bioenergy, nuclear technology and other areas has become even more intense.
Q. What do you think users look for at a facility like ORNL?
They come to ORNL because we have unique expertise in addressing some of their most critical research and development problems. If they could find this sort of expertise elsewhere, we wouldn't be involved. Our users are looking for a customer-friendly, seamless process, so they can get in, get their work done and get out. That sort of experience is what we recently focused on with our User Facility Program Process Improvement Team. We spent a year examining every area of the laboratory that touched on the success of our users, and we looked for ways to ensure that the quality of our User Facilities Program is as high as that of our user facilities themselves. As a result of this effort, we made a number of improvements to ensure that our users can get into the laboratory quickly, get the resources they need and get their work done successfully.
Q. How do you view the role of user facilities within the mission of a world class lab?
I think user facilities are an easier way for universities and commercial entities to test drive a national laboratory before getting into a more substantive and longer-term collaboration. They can see what our capabilities are; they can see what our tools are; they can interact with our people, and they can see how we do business. Frequently, users who are introduced to the laboratory through a user program move on to other forms of collaboration, like our Work for Others program, our Cooperative Research and Development Agreement process or even executing a licensing agreement. I think user facilities play a very important role in helping us to build a larger and more robust set of collaborators. This helps the laboratory stay at the forefront of research and development in the areas in which we have nationally-designated user facilities.
Q. What is the biggest challenge associated with our user program?
Over the last few years, the biggest challenge has been managing the growth in the number of users. The exponential growth has come in three areas – our computing programs because of the expanded capabilities of the National Center for Computational Sciences, home of the world's fastest supercomputer; the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences; and the Spallation Neutron Source, the world's most powerful pulsed neutron source.
More and more, users want to engage these capabilities, so we have had rapid growth in demand for access to these facilities. For example, we processed 35 new user agreements in 2005, and in 2009 we processed 176. That's a five-fold increase.
Q. What opportunities do you see for future collaboration with the region's economic partners?
I have lived in this area my entire life, and I have worked on collaborations between major institutions in this region for 41 years. However, I have never seen a higher level of realization on the part of the economic development community of how important Oak Ridge National Laboratory is to the economic future of the region. Not only have they recognized this fact, but they are now pursuing economic development strategies that focus on collaboration with ORNL. That means the future for collaboration is bright.
Additionally, as we look at the regional economy, we have to consider the spotlight that Tennessee Governor Bredesen has shone on green energy and on the collaborative efforts between ORNL and the University of Tennessee in the areas of solar technology and bioenergy. He has also highlighted opportunities for research at the laboratory in other green energy areas, including battery storage. In the last few months, ORNL has also been the beneficiary of Department of Energy awards of $55 million in additional research funding: $20 million for enhancements to the Buildings Technology Center and $35 million to build a carbon fiber pilot production line.
All of these developments tell the academic, business and research communities that significant opportunities exist for them to take advantage of our user facilities and our research programs to address their research needs, as well as bringing benefits both to the local economy and to that of the broader region.
I think there are many significant collaboration opportunities on the horizon for ORNL. The challenge for the Partnerships group at the laboratory is to get up every day and focus on helping our researchers to be more successful through stronger external connections and to help the local and regional communities capitalize, in appropriate ways, on the unprecedented growth of research and development activities at the laboratory.
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