The U.S. economy has added more than 13.5 million private-sector jobs since 2010, extending the longest streak on record, and technology remains an important foundation for continued economic growth and broad-based prosperity. From 1948 to 2012, over half of the total increase in U.S. productivity growth—a key driver of economic growth—came from innovation and technological change. That’s why the recently updated Strategy for American Innovation reaffirms the economic imperative of strong Federal investments in research and development (R&D), and the Administration’s Lab-to-Market initiative seeks to accelerate the transfer of promising technologies from the laboratory to the marketplace.
Earlier this month, the White House hosted senior leadership from some of the nation’s most innovative labs—including research centers supported by NASA; the National Institutes of Health (NIH); and the Departments of Energy, Defense, Agriculture, and Commerce—for the White House Forum on Connecting Regional Innovation Ecosystems with Federal Labs. These lab directors joined universities and state and local economic development officials to hone strategies for connecting the expertise and advanced tools found at our Federal labs with businesses in order to promote innovation, R&D commercialization, and regional economic growth.
Turning research discoveries into new products, new jobs, and even new industries does not happen automatically—it requires collaboration across Federal departments and agencies with industry, academia, and entrepreneurs. The Forum highlighted a number of novel models to accelerate such R&D commercialization by promoting robust relationships between Federal labs and industry. For instance:
- The Air Force Research Laboratory’s entrepreneurship-opportunity program allows employees and technical experts on staff to take time outside the lab to build their own enterprises and take a product to market. Entrepreneurial-leave programs help transfer knowledge from labs into new companies, and strengthen labs’ ability to recruit and retain entrepreneurial talent.
- NASA’s Glenn Research Center hosts industry workshops with local automotive suppliers to improve their understanding of technologies with transportation applications, and works to “adopt” entire municipalities, like the City of Cleveland, in order to align NASA’s research with the manufacturing needs of that town. These efforts, complemented by the Department of Commerce’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership Centers, can help create and retain jobs in the region.
- NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) promotes access to capital for small businesses by entering into agreements with the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Southern California, Caltech, and Pasadena-based incubators to connect entrepreneurs with the investment community, organizing “pitch sessions” to demonstrate technologies to investors.
- Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL), operating out of the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), uses incentive prizes to harness the power of the crowd in developing new ways for sensors to make measurements in the far depths of the ocean.
- The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory helps businesses in regional supply chains source new customers through its Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, and by piloting a $20 million Small Business Voucher program with four other labs to help small firms access lab facilities, capabilities, and experts.
- The Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory provides a home for entrepreneurial clean-energy researchers with Cyclotron Road, a new $5 million public-private partnership to advance energy technologies until they can succeed beyond the lab.
- The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) is expanding the I-Corps at NIH training program, which puts teams of Federally funded small-business founders through a highly effective entrepreneurship boot camp. The I-Corps program, pioneered by the National Science Foundation, has been adopted by a growing number of Federal agencies.
The Forum allowed Federal leaders to explore the benefits of these new models, and also encouraged new collaborations with regional economic development leaders across the country. Such efforts will continue to connect communities, industries, and entrepreneurs with the treasure trove of expertise resident at our Federal labs; will encourage research institutions inside and outside of government to focus their R&D commercialization activities primarily on longer-term public and economic benefit, rather than the immediate generation of patent royalties; and will ultimately increase the economic impact of America’s essential investments in innovation.
Jason Miller is Deputy Director at the National Economic Council.
Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation at the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Ali Zaidi is Associate Director for Natural Resources, Energy, and Science at the Office of Management and Budget.