The Department of Energy’s national laboratories are extraordinary, large-scale repositories of technical capabilities and expertise, but to contribute more effectively to clean-energy innovation, they need to be better connected to private sector partners who can bring technologies to maturity. On Wednesday, July 27, 2018, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) hosted an expert discussion on how the Department of Energy (DOE) can best foster innovation. The event was held in partnership with the American Council for Capital Formation, Bipartisan Policy Center, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Third Way.
The event began with three members of the House of Representatives speaking on the impact of DOE national laboratories; all three touted the innumerable social and economic benefits of the laboratories. To begin, Representative Randy Hultgren (R-IL) expressed his interest in sparking young people’s interest in STEM subjects; he believes that Fermilab, which is in his district, could be a tool in doing so. He also discussed the NIMBLE Act, which passed the House of Representatives the afternoon following the event. The bill gives directors of national laboratories the power to enter research and development agreements with third parties without prior approval if the deals are less than $1 million, ultimately opening the door for more private-public partnerships.
Representative Chuck Fleishmann (R-TN) spoke next about how his district’s lab, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, has established Tennessee as a leader in supercomputing. By partnering with businesses of all sizes, the national labs will help the United States to maintain its competitive edge in innovation. Because of the benefits that national laboratories deliver, any future legislation on energy should provide more funding for them.
Lastly, Representative Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) spoke about the economic opportunities that national laboratories offer. Even though the country depends on these labs, they are still largely untapped resources. He believes that DOE laboratory partnerships with private businesses will increase small business innovation and greatly impact the economy.
Representative Lujan also discussed the Impact for Energy Act, which is currently in the Senate. The bill proposes the establishment of the Impact for Energy Foundation, which according to Representative Lujan’s website would “engage with the private sector to raise funds that support the creation, development, and commercialization of innovative technologies that address tomorrow’s energy challenges.”
Following the representatives’ remarks, the event’s moderator, ITIF senior fellow David Hart, introduced an expert panel. Each speaker represented diverse stakeholders and points of view, particularly on how private-public partnerships have benefitted their organizations.
Richard Schilke, chief of U.S. government operations for Nishati, Inc., began the panel by explaining how small business vouchers (SBVs) have helped his organization. The SBVs have provided Nishati the opportunity to develop its solar technology with experts, particularly since the company is partnering with Sandia National Laboratories. According to Schilke, working with experts has helped Nishati add value and avoid extra costs, ultimately enabling the company to innovate faster and more effectively.
David Wholley, senior vice president of research partnerships at the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH), spoke next. FNIH is a non-profit extension of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and forms partnerships with the private sector to enhance health innovation. According to Wholley, in order to make sense of all the health data available, collaboration among multiple sectors is necessary. FNIH helps develop research projects and manage privately-donated funds, ultimately expediting the process of getting new medical developments to market and bringing new research and products into fruition.
Lastly, Rita Baranwal, director of the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) at Idaho National Laboratory, spoke about her experience with public-private partnerships. Years ago, when she was working at a for-profit lab, she thought it was difficult to work with national labs. However, since then, she believes the DOE has realized that industry is leading innovation and has thus pivoted to support the private sector. Her organization GAIN provides financial, technical, and regulatory assistance to commercial entities in order to help them innovate more effectively. This, in turn, helps GAIN reach its three goals: to enable DOE and industry to lead global technology commercialization, to enable global leadership by updating the supply chain and infrastructure, and to ensure the United States has an optimized domestic energy portfolio.
Ultimately, partnerships between private businesses and DOE national laboratories could lead to amplified innovation, which in the end would benefit the entire country.
Follow the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #ITIFenergy.