The United States is turning the spotlight on the commercialisation outcomes from the more than US$150 billion invested each year in research in federal laboratories and federally-funded research and development (R&D) at universities.

A cross-agency initiative has been launched to review policies that govern the universities and particularly the labs of federal agencies such as the Department of Defence and Department of Health and Human Services. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) are jointly leading the initiative.

The Lab to Market/Return on Investment initiative is a response to challenges to US leadership in key technologies and industries. The last time that there was this level of concern about US innovation and the effectiveness of technology transfer was in the 1980s – when Japan was thought to be ‘in the passing lane’. The Made in China 2025 policy, announced in 2015, sets out a roadmap for Chinese firms developing leading positions in 10 priority knowledge-based industries. This has stimulated re-assessment of how well the United States is capturing the potential returns from R&D. An increasing awareness of how rapidly Chinese research and innovation capabilities are strengthening in leading edge areas, such as artificial intelligence, has added to US concerns.

At a symposium on April 19, launching the initiative, titled Unleashing American Innovation, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross observed that the commercialisation performance of US universities was much stronger than that of federal labs: for each US$100 million of R&D expenditure, US universities generate ten times as much income from licences and form six times as many start-ups as the federal labs. Wilbur Ross said: “to the directors of federal laboratories… I challenge you to make it clear to your legal, research, and administrative staff, that technology transfer must move as rapidly as industry does.”

The initiative aims to strengthen entrepreneurial skills in research organisations, develop more effective forms of collaboration, promote best practice technology transfer management, increase access for external innovators to federal R&D facilities and improve evaluation of impacts through better metrics and reviews. The review will include an assessment of the continuing efficacy of the technology transfer laws enacted in the 1980s — the Bayh-Dole Act and the Stevenson-Wydler Act.

A white paper will be published summarising the public comments and recommendations and an overall report will be released in September this year.

A review of technology transfer in 2018 begins from a different point to earlier reviews. The management of technology transfer has become increasingly professionalised and most large research organisations have dozens of experienced staff in this role. A great deal has been learnt and many programs support commercialisation and early stage start-up development. The level of venture capital available far exceeds that in the 1980s.

The scope of the review and of relevant policy is broader than in the past. Research organisations are now seen less as starting points of a pipeline leading to innovation, and more as key actors in complex ‘systems of innovation’, or innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems. It has been recognised that seeking to maximise profit from R&D through commercial transfers becomes self-defeating for research organisations and cripples the growth of the knowledge ecosystem. It is now seen that the most important channels for knowledge transfer are through students, publications and informal interactions.

Speakers at the symposium recognised the systemic influence government policy has on the supply and the demand side of innovation ecosystems. Deborah Wince-Smith, president and CEO of the Council on Competitiveness, suggested that deeper policy changes will be necessary to respond to the challenges to US technological leadership. Policies that support application-driven basic research, with public-private partnerships taking on more risk over longer time horizons and sustaining engagement through to application – perhaps a bit more like the approach in China. This is a policy debate that is just beginning.