Boosting Business, Creating Jobs
Partnerships deliver technology to the marketplace
People don't usually think about the government's science labs as engines of economic development, but that's a role these scientific powerhouses are increasingly called on to play. In an era when private companies are cutting back their research and development divisions or sending R&D work overseas, ORNL is working with U.S. industrial partners to drive scientific and technological developments that support the economy and employ American workers. Every year ORNL's Partnerships organization hosts representatives from more than 100 companies, introducing them to the lab's capabilities and expertise and making them aware of the wide range of opportunities for scientific collaboration.
The laboratory's involvement with the business community has spiked over the last several years as the Partnerships organization has sharpened its focus on matching the laboratory's capabilities and research agenda with the needs of potential collaborators. Tom Ballard, who heads the Partnerships directorate, explains that his organization redoubled its efforts to make business and industry aware of the research capabilities of the laboratory, while at the same time helping individual scientists build or expand their relationships with business and industrial partners. "This is an enhancement of our traditional mission to license technologies and process research agreements," Ballard says. "I think this proactive approach to engaging both researchers and business partners has already benefitted the laboratory and will continue to pay dividends in the future."
Focusing on collaboration
The Partnerships organization's focused approach to collaboration with industry is characterized by developing closer relationships with researchers, actively engaging private companies and adopting more robust business practices.
Many experienced laboratory researchers, particularly those doing more applied work, already have a diverse mix of business relationships. Ballard's staff helps them build on existing relationships with funding sources at the Department of Energy, other federal agencies and the private sector, in addition to developing new ones. For younger researchers, Partnerships provides support in developing new connections with businesses. "We take the time to understand their research and its applications, so we can give them a hand in developing initial relationships that benefit their careers as well as the interests of our business partners," Ballard says.
Just as Partnerships is playing a more active role with ORNL scientists, it is also reaching out more aggressively to potential business and research partners nationally and even globally. Ballard's team is finding that companies are increasingly receptive to working with the laboratory to address specific research needs and gain access to world-class scientific facilities that will enable them to advance their research programs.
Ballard says his organization owes part of its recent success to what he calls "robust" business practices. That means taking a very proactive approach to implementing research agreements with the business community. "When we find opportunities to collaborate, we expedite all of the agreements that need to be in place for the research to begin as quickly as possible," he says. "It's like buying a car—you may shop around for a long while, but when you make a decision, you're ready to get the deal done. When the laboratory decides it's going to have a research relationship with industry, we work aggressively to get things started."
Companies work with the laboratory through either CRADAs (Cooperative Research and Development Agreements) or nonfederal WFO (Work for Others) agreements. Ballard explains that, in general, WFO agreements are made when ORNL will be doing most or all of the R&D needed to solve a problem. In a WFO partnership, the company usually has an R&D problem it wants to investigate, and ORNL has expertise or facilities that can't easily be found in the private sector. "Basically, the company is hiring us to do the research needed to solve their problem," Ballard says. CRADAs, on the other hand, happen when both the company and the laboratory have R&D resources. In these partnerships, scientists from both parties work together to solve the problem.
Building on success
The laboratory has always placed a premium on partnering with industry. However, Ballard recalls that the experience of competing for, and winning, the right to host a prestigious DOE collaborative research facility in 2004 raised the level of intensity of his entire organization and showed them what was needed to compete on a higher level. "Our transformation began with the competition that brought the Bioenergy Science Center to the laboratory," he says. "We had never pursued a research opportunity of that magnitude before. We had to develop a number of complex agreements among national laboratories, universities and industrial partners. This experience required close and dynamic interaction with a range of research partners. The intensity and pace of interaction that we developed on that project have become a part of our standard operating procedure."
Ballard recalls that before the BESC competition, Partnerships staff primarily waited for scientists to come to them with technological advances and then matched those advances with potential business partners. Their experience with BESC showed them the necessity of being more proactive and knowledgeable about the research being done at ORNL and more closely engaged with potential research partners. "Now we are much more in tune with the laboratory's R&D portfolio, as well as with the needs of business," he says. "In the longer term, this can only lead to more success in commercializing ORNL-developed technologies."
Pursuing economic development
Not long after winning the BESC competition, the laboratory began to establish itself as an important economic development resource for the region. In 2007, several years into this effort, Partnerships received what turned out to be a fortuitous request from representatives of the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County, Tennessee, asking for help in convincing Volkswagen to locate its new automobile factory in Chattanooga. "We're a 'national' laboratory," Ballard explains, "so if the people in Michigan or Alabama had asked us, we would have tried to help them, too; but it just so happened that the people just down the road in Chattanooga asked. Of course it made perfect sense for them to come to us. The laboratory has the largest transportation program in DOE, and we have many longstanding relationships with automotive industry through DOE's National Transportation Research Center."
After meetings with representatives of ORNL and a number of other organizations around the region, Volkswagen decided to locate its new factory in Chattanooga and has since hired 2000 workers. Ballard says he likes to think that the laboratory played a role in sealing the deal with the automaker. "It was obvious that the laboratory's research portfolio—particularly our materials expertise— was of great interest to Volkswagen," he recalls. "Since that time, we have set up collaborative research agreements with them to investigate lightweight carbon fiber components and battery storage. The big story here is that, by working with economic development organizations, we also opened up a pipeline of opportunities with a business that might not have otherwise explored a relationship with ORNL."
Ballard reasons that the biggest contribution the laboratory can make to economic development is to provide an incentive for companies to locate research divisions in the region. "Those facilities would provide good jobs," he says, "and there's some evidence that having a regional research and development base helps keep the associated manufacturing jobs in the region as well."
Partnerships has enjoyed continued success, playing a key role in bringing the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors to the laboratory. CASL is a collaborative effort among several national laboratories, the nuclear industry and the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute to accelerate the development of the nation's next generation of light water reactors using ORNL's supercomputing and simulation capabilities. Ballard notes that his organization was part of the proposal team and continues to work as an intermediary among the various players. Ballard expects Partnerships to play a similar role in the competition to host DOE's Batteries and Energy Storage Hub sometime in 2012.
"We are always working to identify the next big opportunity for the laboratory to collaborate with industry, based on market needs, the players in the market and our research expertise," Ballard says. "ORNL will only be successful in fulfilling its mission and expanding its research portfolio by engaging in mutually beneficial collaborations with industry. At the end of the day, our goal is to deliver ORNL-developed technology to the marketplace where it can grow U.S. business, create jobs and enhance our global competitiveness."—Jim Pearce