VENTURE CAPITALIST DAVID Silver just wanted to buy technology from Los Alamos National Scientific Laboratory, in New Mexico, a few years ago. But from the response he got, you'd think he was after secret computer codes at the Pentagon."They said, 'We absolutely won't do it, we've never done it, and we can't do it," he recalls. Eighteen months and 11 contracts later, Silver owned the technology.
A new bill could make federal laboratories much more receptive to such deals. The proposal, which the House of Representatives passed unanimously last December, urges the government's 380 labs to cooperate with private industry and give "special consideration" to small businesses. The labs, which spend about $18 billion in federal fund a year and employ nearly one-sixth of all U.S. researchers, cover such fields as health, agriculture, and defense. They could be a seedbed for innovative products and new companies.
Until now, though, most lab scientists have shown little interest in marketing their innovations -- probably because they can't share in any profits. "Generally, if the labs develop research that doesn't apply directly to their mission, they just abandon it," says Rep. Stan Lundine (D-N.Y.), a sponsor. Few federal scientists even bother to get patents. The result: foreigners help themselves to the labs' ideas, which are regularly published. "The Soviets and the Japanese take best advantage of federal research," says Eugene Stark, industrial initiatives officer at Los Alamos.
To prevent this hemorrhaging, the bill gives lab scientists an incentive to think commercially. It sets up a system to reward their contribution. The scientists' exact take could be controversial when the Senate considers the bill; many companies resent having to match a government standard when they pay employees. But bysinesses are likely to be more interested in developing ideas that are patented -- making them safe from competitors.
If the bill passes, more labs may resemble Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee, where commercialization already is priority.Last year, the lab spent about $250,000 polishing up eight new technologies for private industry. It also spawned four start-ups.