The U.S. House has passed legislation to help move more discoveries out of Department of Energy national laboratories such as Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and into use in the marketplace.
"It is essential we update Cold War-era policies, acknowledge the rapid pace of technological change and improve the labs' capacity to partner with private enterprise and convert their cutting edge research into marketplace innovation," said Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill.
Streamlining the capabilities of labs to transfer technology will help push the private sector, not the government, to spend money to further develop promising technologies, he said.
The legislation is intended to enhance commercialization of technology, in part by forming more and stronger public-private partnerships.
The Tri-City Development Council said the proposed enhancements could be good for PNNL and the Tri-Cities.
PNNL has a stronger record of transferring technology to the marketplace than other DOE labs, as measured by Excellence in Technology Transfer awards from the Federal Laboratory Consortium.
The Richland lab has 78 of the awards, more than any other federal laboratory.
The new legislation follows the release of a joint report by the Center for American Progress, the Heritage Foundation and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation supporting updating national lab policies.
The national labs are the envy of the world for their technical leadership and historic ability to produce game-changing innovations, from the atomic bomb and advance batteries to supercomputing and next-generation solar power, according to a letter supporting the legislation from the innovation foundation.
But now the labs are often buried in bureaucracy and lack the tools to translate federal research into American innovations, the foundation said.
The legislation could give contractors at national labs increased authority to negotiate contract terms, such as intellectual property rights, payment structures and performance guarantees.
Lab directors would be allowed to sign off on agreements, such as cooperative research and development agreements, with a total value of less than $1 million, a provision intended to speed up the process.
Lab directors also would be allowed to charge more than the lab's cost for services performed under partnerships with private enterprises if extra money are used to support further research and development at the lab.
In addition, lab directors would be allowed to use money intended to support technology transfer to carry out early-stage and pre-commercial technology demonstration activities.
That could remove technology barriers that limit private sector interest and allow the labs to demonstrate potential commercial applications.
"Our national laboratories have been the birthplace of some of our most revolutionary technologies," said Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash. "When that research is harnessed by entrepreneurs and business leaders, startups with one or two employees can grow into companies that create hundreds of quality jobs."
A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate and has bipartisan sponsors.
"Too many transformative ideas and scientific breakthroughs never leave our national labs, which squanders enormous potential," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. "This bill will modernize critical aspects of our national lab system and give our labs new tools and flexibility to partner with the private sector."
One way PNNL transfers technology is through granting companies the rights to use innovations or ideas developed at PNNL.
Last year, PNNL put in place 23 licensing agreements with commercial companies and other organizations to use, advance or market the lab's technologies, said Greg Koller, PNNL spokesman.
Since PNNL began operating in 1965, more than 160 companies have gotten started with technologies or staff from PNNL, he said.
A recent example is UniEnergy Technologies, a company near Seattle that sells large-scale energy storage systems. Just one license of two patents on advanced battery technology developed at PNNL resulted in 45 new, well-paid jobs at UniEnergy, Koller said.
-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @HanfordNews