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PNNL shares the gift of innovation

Published in the Tri-City Herald December 25, 2016, authored by Lab Director Steven Ashby

PNNL shares the gift of innovation

December 25, 2016
Source: Tri-City Herald, reposted with permission from Tri-City Herald

  • Jason Zhang

    Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Shawn Hampton, left, and former PNNL employee Ryan Hohimer, now with Champion Technology Company Inc., look over cybersecurity software that they helped develop and that is available from Champion Technology. The effort to commercialize this technology was recognized by the Federal Laboratory Consortium with a 2016 Excellence in Technology Transfer award. Courtesy PNNL


It has been said that invention is the process of turning money into ideas and innovation is the process of turning ideas into money. At the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, we do both. Our scientists and engineers find it rewarding to make discoveries and develop technologies — as well as see them turned into useful products.

We transition our technologies and novel ideas — our intellectual property — to companies for commercialization. In many cases, we license our inventions and reinvest the royalties in further research and development. Other times, our researchers help companies overcome a technical challenge or even make inventions freely available to speed their adoption. Regardless, our goal is to ensure that taxpayer-funded research and development yields economic benefits for our fellow Americans.

Our researchers are incredibly prolific. In fiscal 2016, they averaged one invention disclosure every business day and two U.S. or foreign patents each week — with more than 2,500 patents granted since 1965. We have executed more than 860 licenses with companies seeking to further develop and market our technologies. We also help companies, big and small, through our technology assistance program. Since 1994, we have completed more than 1,250 such projects, more than two-thirds of which supported Washington-based companies.

For example, Malignext Targeting Technologies in Vancouver developed an approach to make it easier to identify breast tumor margins based on a polymer designed by one of our researchers. The polymer is liquid at room temperature but gels at body temperature. When injected into cancerous tissue, the polymer creates a marker for surgeons. Our researcher received a proof-of-concept grant from the Washington Life Sciences Discovery Fund, and worked with Washington State University and Malignext to conduct preclinical trials that produced results that will be helpful in future preclinical and clinical trials.

Locally, Champion Technology Inc. of Richland offers analytics software that enables real-time detection of suspicious cyber activity within a company's financial systems or health care records. The software was co-developed by a PNNL staff member, licensed to Champion Technology, and with PNNL assistance it was tested and advanced to become a commercially available solution.

Additionally, we shared our materials science expertise with Kennewick's Carbitex to test and improve its proprietary carbon fiber composite, which remains flexible once cured. The product is a strong substitute for leather and fabrics used in luggage and other products.

PNNL is responsible for new enterprises too. There are 179 companies that can trace their roots to PNNL technology, people or both — and 71 of them are operating here in Washington. One recent success is UniEnergy, based in Mukilteo, founded by former PNNL scientists who licensed our advanced vanadium redox flow battery technology. UniEnergy is selling large-scale energy storage solutions around the world and employs more than 50 people.

In some cases, we give away our technologies. For example, we developed an inexpensive but powerful smartphone microscope. We partnered with Plastic Injection Molding of Richland to make this device and give them away, mostly to students, in the hopes of inspiring tomorrow's innovators. We also published the design specifications so that anyone with a 3D printer can make one for themselves.

VOLTTRON™, a technology that optimizes energy usage within buildings, is another free download. By making it easy for developers around the world to create new applications for VOLTTRON™, we can speed its adoption. Beyond making it widely available, we are working directly with companies to integrate the technology into their existing building control products — creating additional value for them and their customers.

At PNNL, we go the extra distance to ensure that our research results get out of the laboratory and into the marketplace. These products may not have been under your Christmas tree this year, but they are one way we give something back to the American economy.

Steven Ashby, director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, writes this column monthly. His other columns and opinion pieces are available here.

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