By Kyle Jaros
to right: Marcia Diggs, Patrick Lui, Jim Simpson and Fred Murphy
(all OTT) (Photo by Diana Rogers)
SLAC physicists call science, not business, their
specialty. But SLAC does not exist in a vacuum, and when hardware and
software developed to support specialized research find wider audiences in
industry, relations with the private sector can prove very useful.
Coordinating SLAC’s interests with commercial interests—without getting in
the way of science—is the specialty of the
Office of Technology Transfer
The OTT, a four-person group with both technical knowledge
and business savvy, operates in SLAC’s Business Services Division. The
office drives the recognition, protection and transfer of
laboratory-developed technologies with commercial potential, and spends
much of its time arranging and managing technical collaborations involving
SLAC projects and private companies.
"Our role is to take technology we develop here at the lab
for our own purposes and get it out into commerce," Technology Transfer
Administrator Jim Simpson said. Born more than a decade ago of federal
legislation and changes in the Department of Energy (DOE) mission, the OTT
and its counterparts at other federal labs have made technology transfer,
once a peripheral mission of national science, a channel for intellectual
and financial symbiosis.
Keeping a careful pulse on technological innovation at
SLAC, the OTT sifts each year though roughly a dozen software programs and
a similar number of inventions to identify items that might be useful for
industry. "What we build here is for our own purposes. We have to define
its commercial use, put together documents and apply for a patent,"
Simpson said. Typically, the OTT singles out for development roughly a
half-dozen technologies that it considers commercially promising.
Technology transfer is not simply altruism on the part of
SLAC. When SLAC technologies are protected and licensed, the lab and
inventors gain compensation and royalties. In addition, the OTT has helped
SLAC scientists and engineers win DOE grants and industrial support to
develop their technologies.
Collaborating With the Private Sector
Much of the OTT’s work involves arranging collaborations
with private companies to co-develop promising technologies. "We leverage
SLAC resources for research and development," Simpson said. The agreements
serve the common interests of SLAC and industry and make use of the
complementary resources of SLAC and the industrial partners, usually small
businesses. "It’s not a one-way street," Simpson said.
By helping private companies coordinate their own work
with SLAC’s technical projects, the OTT gives private companies access to
SLAC technology and brings both private innovation and funding into SLAC.
"For an investment of a half million dollars spread over a handful of
projects and two or three years, SLAC is able to obtain from these
collaborations research and development results worth 10 or 15 times as
much," Simpson said. Collaborative R&D projects for 2002 were valued at
nearly $2.5 million, but OTT Associate Patrick Lui sees other important
reasons for this cooperation. "There is the intangible benefit of being
able to import technology," he said. "There is the possibility of new
The OTT staff use their broad base of experience to deal
with technological, legal and business-related elements of their cases.
"It’s a really interesting mix of problems to solve. It’s necessary to
understand the technology thoroughly—the physical principles," said Lui.
Expert in SLAC’s technologies, the OTT functions as a
liaison to the business community and U.S. government, but also deals
in-house with large portions of commercial negotiation and legal protocol.
Said Murphy, who like his colleagues joined the office from a physics
background, "It’s a much more human and complicated negotiation atmosphere
than I expected."
Developed in the 1980s
SLAC first codified its goal of technology transfer in the
1980s—the OTT took on its present name and role in 1990. According to
Simpson, the combination of U.S. industrial rivalry with Japan in the
1980s and the Cold War’s close in the early 1990s pushed the DOE to
increasingly focus its resources toward civilian applications.
A sequence of legislation—including the 1980 Stevenson-Wydler
Technology Innovation and Bayh-Dole Acts and the 1989 National
Competitiveness Technology Transfer Act—provided legal infrastructure for
technology transfer and collaboration with the private sector, leading to
the opening of similar offices throughout federal labs.
Electron Gamma Shower
Of a number of technologies the OTT has ushered into
industrial development, Lui has been particularly involved in the transfer
of a revolutionary software program, Electron Gamma Shower (EGS), first
released in 1978 by SLAC physicist Ralph Nelson and a colleague at
Stanford, and later improved at low energies by colleagues at the National
Research Council of Canada.
The EGS software, which models the dissipation of energy
produced as high-energy electrons and photons enter various media, found a
perfect niche in the radiation therapy industry. Since its introduction,
numerous companies have integrated EGS into cancer treatment systems or
relied on it as the ‘gold standard’ against which to test their own
Over the course of several hard-fought years, the OTT
helped Nelson, along with an international group of collaborators, secure
product protection, substantial DOE grant money and commercial licensing
for newer versions of EGS, including the EGS 5 system currently under
development. "What is gratifying is that we are a national lab, and our
job is to do fundamental research," Nelson said. "If, in the process, we
can make a contribution to society, that’s great."
Creating an Entrepreneurial Culture
According to Murphy, the culture at SLAC, where
specialized science takes the front seat, is inherently less
entrepreneurial than the culture of Stanford University, where technology
transfer is endemic. In spite of that, said Murphy, "[The SLAC
environment] is slowly changing."
According to Lui, DOE efforts in recent years to
streamline bureaucratic elements of technology transfer as well as
research programs like Stanford’s inter-disciplinary Bio-X enterprise,
which may take a foothold at SLAC, should further encourage technology
transfer at SLAC.
Looking ahead, said Lui, "I find it most exciting to see
the possibility that something we do that is so esoteric may find
commercial application, sometimes in areas beyond our wildest dreams."
For more information on technology transfer at SLAC, see: