Collaboration Between Start-Ups and Federal Agencies

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) is led by its president and founder, Robert D. Atkinson, Washingtonian Magazine has called a “tech titan,” and it is a nonprofit think tank. “Its mission is to formulate, evaluate, and promote policy solutions that accelerate innovation and boost productivity to spur growth, opportunity, and progress.”

It’s august research publication produced recommendations on accelerating “Collaboration Between Start-Ups and Federal Agencies”

Collaboration Between Start-Ups and Federal Agencies: A Surprising Solution for Energy Innovation

The climate-tech start-ups take more “patient capital,” and this report aims to identify “approaches that help ease barriers faced by climate-tech start-ups can ultimately catalyze their role in accelerating clean energy innovation.” The report claims collaboration with federal agencies and laboratories, such as co-development and technology-licensing agreements to yield better results than their collaborations with universities or other firms, as measured by patents received and follow-on financing.

The authors also note the willingness of the policymakers and the wealth of federal research expertise, infrastructures, and technologies to mandate more effective technology transfer policies for federal agencies and laboratories. “But present practices have not fully capitalized on the synergies between start-up potential, federal resources, and the technology transfer mandate.

Here are the summarized recommendations.

Most start-ups don’t have access to federal experts or laboratories because they lack networks and knowledge, or they confront bureaucratic barriers and high costs. Federal agencies have weak incentives to work with start-ups, with no metrics to reward collaborations and few ways to cover costs. Finally, there is a lack of coordination on climate and energy technology transfer within DOE and its laboratories and across other agencies.

Scale-up mechanisms for start-ups to collaborate with federal agencies and laboratories.

  • DOE should partner with incubators to organize annual climate-tech start-up challenges involving federal agencies, industry partners, and private investors focused on specific topic areas. These peer-reviewed competitions should be fast and streamlined. Finalists should win awards to use laboratory infrastructures, and be assigned a federal expert to serve as a consistent point of contact. Such challenges would be scaled-up versions of individual lab-linked incubators and one-off programs.
  • Congress should appropriate increases in funding for federal lab-linked incubator programs to scale them up. In parallel, Congress should authorize federal agencies to award grants for the creation of new lab-embedded entrepreneurship and lab-linked incubator programs. These programs would provide more innovators with access to laboratory facilities as well as expertise and mentorship. Programs such as Cyclotron Road, Chain Reaction Innovation, and IN2 that work with DOE national laboratories have shown great promise.
  • The DOE OTT should invest more in start-up-centered communication and convenings, building on existing models such as NREL’s Industry Growth Forum. Such convenings bring together diverse stakeholders, build awareness about federal technologies and experts, and lay the groundwork for future collaborations.
  • Congress should authorize the extension and expansion of the DOE SBV program across the entire federal government. Competition for these vouchers could be administered by DOE with the participation of other relevant agencies. The vouchers should be available to any start-up or small business working on climate-tech commercialization. The SBV program can help reduce costs and red tape for start-ups and was recommended by ITIF and others before it was piloted in 2015.50
  • Building on NASA’s model for start-ups, Congress should authorize agencies to waive fees for start-ups that seek to license federal clean energy technologies.

Incentivize federal agencies and laboratories to work with start-ups.

  • Congress should provide DOE OTT a budget line outside department administration and increase funding to laboratory technology transfer offices. Most of the labs today are funded out of overhead, which imposes strict limits. With greater resources, these offices would be able to more actively evaluate whether technologies are ready for commercialization, and market them to start-ups.
  • Congress should authorize entrepreneurial-leave programs for federal experts in agencies and laboratories. These programs allow government employees to explore entrepreneurship without giving up their positions for a fixed period of time. Entrepreneurial leave reduces the risk of taking the leap into a start-up by providing job security. These programs would build on experiences from the ESTT program at Sandia National Laboratory, among others.
  • Congress should authorize the Energy I-Corps program, which connects laboratory researchers with industry mentors, to also involve experienced climate-tech entrepreneurs.
  • DOE should incorporate metrics on technology transfer in the national labs’ PEMPs that capture collaboration with start-ups. These metrics should include measures of both codified knowledge transfer, such as licensing to start-ups and co-development contracts, and tacit knowledge transfer, such as the number and frequency of informal interactions with start-ups. ITIF and others have previously recommended similar improvements to these metrics.

Improve coordination between federal agencies, laboratories, and other entities in support of climate-tech start-ups.

  • The National Science and Technology Council, under the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, should lead an interagency effort to develop a repository of collaboration opportunities across major federal R&D agencies that is targeted to climate-tech start-ups. The repository should be made available through an online portal, which could be housed and managed by DOE or the Small Business Administration.
  • Technology transfer offices of federal agencies should encourage laboratories, federal research facilities, and regional offices to maintain active relationships with regional economic development agencies, incubators, and nonprofit industry networks that work with clean energy start-ups. For instance, technology-transfer offices can invite regional entities to participate in federal convenings focused on technology transfer, or represent their agencies in regional innovation convenings. When federal programs engage with regional innovation ecosystems, they can become more relevant to economic advancement and develop a larger network of start-ups across the United States.
  • Congress should establish a nonprofit Energy Technology Commercialization Foundation to would work closely with the DOE and entrepreneurs to help bring clean energy technologies to market. By catalyzing its connections with DOE, entrepreneurs, regional partners, and incubators, this foundation would foster collaborations among start-ups and federal entities.