Imagine, for a moment, that there were a research apparatus available to your company with 200,000 engineers and scientists working with the most sophisticated equipment, with an annual budget of some $20 billion. Too good to be true? Not really. For such are the assets of the federal government's 400 national laboratories -- labs that now have a mandate to share their knowhow with U.S. business.

National labs work on everything from particle beams to cures for cancer. They can be world-renowned, such as the megamedical center National Institutes of Health, and Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the first atom bomb was made. Or they can be positively obscure. (Ever heard of the Neutron Depth Profiling Facility? Or the Boll Weevil Research Laboratory?) But no matter their profiles, until recently nearly all of the federal laboratories, by tradition and federal regulation, had kept their distance from private companies. Their researchers has spent very little time trying to turn their discoveries into commercial products. And private companies had been wary that any association with such government-owned facilities would tie them up in endless red tape.

"Institutionally, R&D for the government had always been that you do a specific job and then stop," explains Edward Lehmann, who works at the U.S. Commerce Department's Center for the Utilization of Federal Technology. "It had always been assumed that the transfer of the knowledge will occur through publications or presentations at conferences. That was a very passive approach -- a misconception." The upshot: of the 30,000 patents held by the federal government, 28,000 lie dormant.

Now, things are changing. Washington, showing rising alarm over the country's eroding technological land, is seeking more bang for its research buck. In a series of changes in federal law and regulation dating to 1980, the President and Congress have made it clear that they want the national labs to become more like a national R&D resource (see box on the following page, "Tapping into Federal R&D"). And although the research priorities will still be set by the government, the benefits are now supposed to be shared more quickly, and more readily, with U.S. firms. Already, one in nine government patents is being licensed within a year of its being issued.

Perhaps no federal lab has had a more clear-cut mandate to share its research and technology with private industry than the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI), in Golden, Colo., just west of Denver. The lab opened in 1977 to develop new technologies that could blunt the effects of OPEC's rising oil prices. But it is only now, after nearly a decade, a drop in world oil prices, and the changes in federal law, that SERI is finally channeling some of its efforts into commercial ventures and profitable products.

"For the most part, we have not been that good at judging what is marketable," concedes Harold Hubbard, SERI's director. In the beginning, the institute suffered an image problem with businesspeople who looked on it as a refuge for backpacking, pot-smoking solar fanatics to whom business was a dirty word. But even as that image began to fade with the arrival of researchers from top universities, private firms were still wary about collaboration.

Ask David Benson. Benson, a SERI physicist, has developed a new vacuum window -- two panes of glass with a vacuum in the middle. Whereas normal windows have an insulating value of R-2, his window has one of R-16 -- or roughly the equivalent of a wall. Research shows that about 5% of the total energy used in the United States is lost through windows. "And with some 350 million square feet of insulating windows added each year, this new window could make a difference," he says.

Benson pitched his product to all the major window companies, but none were interested. So he tried striking a deal with the industry as a whole, making a presentation to the Sealed Insulating Glass Manufacturers Association convention held last summer in Denver.

"We offered to conduct a collaborative research program, which they would partially fund and, in return, would receive proprietary rights to all the technology," Benson explained. They said, 'Thanks, but no thanks.' Their justification was that their association represents both large and small manufacturers, but by far the largest number are small firms manufacturing their windows locally. And you couldn't possibly do that with a vacuum window. It has to be made at a big plant that would cost around $10 million. So you'd need big companies."

It was much the same story when Benson tried to stir up some interest in his electrochromic windows, which operate similarly to sun-sensitive eyeglasses, turning darker on hot days to shield out sunlight and lighter on cold days to let in the passive solar heat. Only 3M Co. has shown an interest in the concept, but it hasn't provided funds yet.

In the meantime, SERI has found itself fighting other battles. A budget crisis has prompted Congress to slash the lab's $112-million budget nearly in half, forcing a staff reduction from about 1,000 to fewer than 500. One casualty: the industrial-applications program charged with technology transfer. Then came the end to the solar tax credit and the collapse of world oil prices, which together have helped to wipe out 80% of the solar energy industry, SERI's core constituency.

In the face of all this adversity and neglect, SERI has hung on grimly, the righteousness of its efforts embedded in its culture. And with the added flexibility provided by the new law governing federal labs, its prospects may finally be improving.

Spire Corp., for example, a publicly traded, $14-million electronics firm in Bedford, Mass., is working with SERI on a program to develop cheaper amorphous silicon cells, devices that convert sunlight to electricity. Today, a residential solar system using silicon cells would cost a homeowner $30,000 to $40,000. Spire hopes to get the figure down to around $6,000.

To win a three-year contract from SERI, Spire had to chip in $900,000 to obtain what amounts to a $2.1-million SERI grant. And should the collaboration yield a cheaper silicon technology, Spire -- not SERI -- will hold the patent and with it the exclusive right to profit from government-sponsored and -subsidized research.

Not surprisingly, Roger Little, Spire's president, likes these cost-sharing deals with government laboratories. "What happens is you get people in the business interested in doing the research themselves, as opposed to the Washington Beltway bandits," he says, referring to the scores of research firms located on the highway that rings the nation's capital. "The government-contract dollar goes to people who are really serious about the work. So that's a big step toward commercialization and technology transfer."

But others ask why the free market can't provide for its own R&D, and why taxpayers should foot the bill to develop a technology from which they will never benefit directly. Among them is Arun Madan, one of the pioneers in the field of amorphous silicon who spent 18 months at SERI before leaving to establish his own company, Glasstech Solar Inc., just outside of Denver.

Madan agrees that "when a technology is in its infancy, government needs to encourage industry to get into it, because it's a very high-risk situation. But at a certain point," he continues, "the technology goes beyond high risk, and then it's time to ask whether companies are just using government money for their own ends." Madan says that with amorphous silicon products already on the market, and with some 35 commercial applications envisioned, the technology has clearly shot past the high-risk stage.

SERI officials, reflecting the new enthusiasm for technology transfer, dismiss concerns like Madan's. "Some people think that nobody should make a buck off the public's money," says director Hubbard. "The problem with that is that if nobody can make a buck from the public's money, nobody is going to do anything with the public technology."

Larry Flowers, manager of SERI's solar buildings program, points to the erratic interest of big oil companies, which jumped into the solar industry when the price of oil was high, then bailed out at breakneck speed when the near-term prospects turned sour. Without government subsidy, he says, "You can't depend on industry to sustain an effort."

Providing a reliable stream of research money, however, is only one method by which government labs can speed up the pace of technology transfer to commercial applications. Providing an incubator for would-be entrepreneurs, and sophisticated equipment for private research, are others.

Take the case of Industrial Solar Technology, founded by former SERI engineers Randy Gee and E. Kenneth May. Located near Denver, the fledgling $390,000 company manufactures parabolic-trough collectors -- curved devices that reflect sunlight to heat circulated fluid. In one application, these collectors produce warm water and hot showers for a community swimming pool. In another, the device produces hot water and electricity for a county jail.

"SERI gave us a lot of experience in this area. It got the pot boiling," says Gee. Moreover, when Gee and May were ready to go out on their own, personal contacts formed at the lab helped them find financial partners. "The network system really makes a difference," Gee claims.

Outsiders, however, are also welcome. SERI, for example, has provided a windtest site, hardware, and consulting technicians, at no charge, to Four Winds Energy Systems, a wind-turbine manufacturer in nearby Englewood, Colo. "Without the help," admits vice-president John Kunz, "I doubt that we would still be in operation."

Of all the entrepreneurs who have taken advantage of the new commercial orientation of the national labs, perhaps none has been as resourceful as Gilbert Brassell. A chemist and materials specialist, Brassell worked at the Sandia and Oak Ridge laboratories before landing at Rocky Flats, a Department of Energy nuclear-weapons installation near Denver. While at Rocky Flats, Brassell ran across a problem with the containers in which nuclear waste was stored: as hydrogen gas built up inside, there was a risk that they could explode. To solve the problem, Brassell developed a carbon-composite filter that vented the gas while trapping 99.97% of the radioactive particles that otherwise would have escaped with it. Rocky Flats managers were some what blase about this discovery until they found out that Brassell had made a move to patent his idea. Quickly, they moved to assert the lab's right to the filter, but then agreed to transfer it to Brassell for the cost of patent application, about $4,000.

In keeping with its federal lab origins, Brassell's Nuclear Filter Technology Inc. set up shop in a small-business incubator that SERI helped to found right next door, in Golden. SERI has also made its lab space and equipment available to Brassell, services that might cost him tens of thousands of dollars -- money that he could not otherwise afford. And now, the government's help is beginning to pay off. In 1986, its second year, Nuclear Filter logged sales of $300,000, up from only $60,000 a year earlier. Among his clients: E. I. du Pont de Nemours, EG&G, Her Majesty's Ministry of Defence, and the U.S. Navy. And, oh yes, the national laboratory at Rocky Flats.