February 21, 2003  


SLAC Office Manages the ‘Business’ of Physics

By Kyle Jaros

Shown left 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 (OTT).

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 inventions."

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 software.

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: http://www.slac.stanford.edu/grp/irm/techtransfer/techtransfer.html  


The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center is managed by Stanford University for the US Department of Energy

Last update Friday February 21, 2003 by Kathy B