Examining Tech Transfer- Washington D.C. Region Looks to Turn Public R&D Into Private Business

Chesapeake PERL Inc. had an audacious-sounding technology: Create proteins needed for biotechnology research by growing them in the cells of caterpillars, then pureeing the bugs into a sort of caterpillar smoothie from which vital proteins could be refined.

By Neil Irwin
Washington Post Staff Writer

But without its local ties, the College Park company would probably have gotten nowhere. It was founded by two professors at the University of Maryland, got its start with help from the university and had its technology tested at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Despite Chesapeake PERL’s progress, the region’s economic development officials say that repurposing research funded by universities or the federal government for the commercial sector is rare. Even though the Washington area is a national leader in federal and university research spending, few of the fruits of that work make it into the private sector.

Senior business, government and nonprofit leaders pledged yesterday to change that. The executives were meeting at the Potomac Conference, sponsored by the Greater Washington Board of Trade, an annual event where top local leaders discuss major issues facing the region. The conference participants are looking to what’s known as technology transfer — turning public research and development into private enterprise — as a key to the region’s economic health.

Although it’s one of the world’s leading research centers, the Washington area continually trails such places as Silicon Valley, Boston and Seattle in measures of innovation and in creating companies building cutting-edge technologies — the sort of firms that typically pay the highest wages and achieve the greatest growth.

"In terms of our R&D infrastructure, we look like Massachusetts," Phillip A. Singerman, executive director of the Maryland Technology Development Corp., said at the conference yesterday. "In terms of our R&D performance, we look more like Missouri."

Among the big reasons for the gap, attendees said, are cultural and legal barriers to commercializing technology developed at federal research labs and local universities.

Attendees urged universities and federal research centers to do more to encourage tech transfer. They formed a regional task force to increase commercialization of this technology, including setting up a mentor network. The Greater Washington Initiative, which markets the region, also plans to begin tracking data on technology commercialization here.

Federal labs typically have few incentives to sell or spin off technologies that they develop. Their focus, after all, is not on figuring out how their innovations would sell on the open market.

"Our people are not motivated by [return on investment], but by return on technology," said Alan S. Rudolph, a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Moreover, a federal researcher might have a weapons technology with potential use outside the government, but not know it.

"We often are not the best judges of what technologies are most economically productive," said Alphonso V. Diaz, director of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. "There are no incentive systems for identifying and transferring a technology," he added.

That is doubly complicated in agencies involved with defense research, when safeguards must be taken to ensure that technology does not end up in the hands of potential enemies.

Similar problems exist with research conducted in universities. Conference attendees representing local schools said that Washington area institutions have been slower than those elsewhere to encourage the commercialization of research conducted on campus.

Many major technology companies got their start with close ties to universities, such as Hewlett-Packard Co. with Stanford, Polaroid Corp. with MIT and Qualcomm Inc. with the University of California at San Diego. Local schools have few such ties.

"On the West Coast, and in Boston, you see professors work half time at a company and half time at their university," said Wayne T. Hockmeyer, chairman of the Gaithersburg-based biotechnology firm MedImmune Inc. "That seems to be absent here, and that has puzzled me for some time."

"Tenure requirements seem to preclude contract work with companies" said Edward M. Rudnic, chief executive of Advancis Pharmaceutical Corp. in Gaithersburg. "It’s perceived as less than academic."

Nonetheless, federal and university ties are essential for many young tech companies, Terry E. Chase, president of Chesapeake PERL, said in a phone interview. "As a very young company, we didn’t have labs, and needed to have proof of principle for our technology," she said. Aberdeen provided that. The company also got access on the base to proteins it needs for research. "They’ve become an extension of our company," Chase said.

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