October 20, 2005
Vol. 25 No. 3

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    Argonne’s technologies show commercial value

    Argonne material scientists Orlando Auciello (right) and John Carlisle work with a new microwave plasma system that grows the diamond films used in artificial retina research.

    Scientists at Argonne National Laboratory constantly cultivate new technology, and this summer the laboratory reaped an especially promising harvest.

    In June, Advanced Diamond Technologies Inc. of Champaign, Ill., announced that it had licensed several U.S. and foreign patent applications for composite materials developed at Argonne, which the University operates for the U.S. Department of Energy. The licenses include the rights to commercialize materials made of Ultrananocrystalline Diamondª and carbon nanotubes, which together offer a variety of high-performance properties that will be useful in electronics and other products.

    In July, ADT, a startup based on Argonne technology, announced it had received a $500,000 small business grant from the National Science Foundation to pursue further development of the Ultrananocrystalline Diamondª technology, working jointly with scientists as the Argonne National Laboratory.

    Also in July, All Hazards Management LLC of Denver announced that it had obtained worldwide exclusive rights to the Sync Matrix technology, a set of emergency preparedness software and services developed at Argonne. The technology helps integrate, coordinate and synchronize multi-jurisdictional responses to terrorist attacks or natural emergencies of any kind. The $5.5 million license and research agreement, which was negotiated by Argonne’s Office of Technology Transfer, is the largest in the laboratory’s history.

    Later in July, Argonne announced it had received four R&D 100 Awards. Argonne now has received 90 of the awards since R&D Magazine began presenting them in 1964. The awards recognize the world’s top scientific and technological innovations that enter commercial use or are available for license in a given year.

    “We have received four R&D 100 awards each of the last two years,” said Stephen Ban, Director of Argonne’s Office of Technology Transfer. Only two of the other nine major national laboratories received as many R&D 100 awards as Argonne did this year.

    One of this year’s award-winning technologies was developed jointly by a consortium that included two private companies. Since 1990, Argonne has worked with more than 600 such companies. Ban looks to bolster those numbers by helping regional industry, both large and small, to improve their competitiveness through emerging technologies.

    “This can be done via cooperative projects, contract research, utilization of Argonne research and user facilities, licensing, and technical services,” Ban said. “If a company is involved in any form of technical development, working with Argonne can be rewarding in areas of common interest.”

    In the area of new business start-ups, the agreements with Advanced Diamond Technologies and All Hazards Management are the first to emerge under a new system of assessing the commercialization potential of Argonne technology. The Illinois Technology Enterprise Center at Argonne and its Office of Technology Transfer initiated the system.

    In 2002, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and the University established the Illinois Technology Enterprise Center with the goal of spurring entrepreneurial activity at Argonne.

    Robert Okabe, Director of the Illinois Technology Enterprise Center, said the new system is modeled after the “entrepreneur-on-call” concept of the venture capital industry, but tailored to the needs of Argonne and the University. Okabe calls it a transition program that develops a scientific idea into a viable business plan.

    Working jointly with the Office of Technology Transfer, projects are selected for consideration as start-up candidates. Okabe maintains a list of potential business consultants who can be tapped to help move a new technology forward. “When a project comes in, we interview a number of them, screen out the finalists, but let the researchers choose who they like best. Then that consultant gets paid a stipend for anywhere from three to six months to help refine and validate the business idea and help start a company,” Okabe said.

    The system has worked so well that in 2003 it led to the founding of ADT, a company based on technology developed by scientists in Argonne’s Materials Science Division. Using funds from the NSF grant, the technology is being applied to mechanical pump seals, which are used for pumps in the chemical, petroleum, food-processing, pharmaceutical and water management industries.

    In addition to the external work of the Illinois Technology Enterprise Center,officials from the University, the Argonne Office of Technology Transfer and the U.S. Department of Energy have worked internally over the last two and a half years to restructure commercialization incentives for Argonne scientists. Because it is a federal laboratory, neither Argonne nor its scientists are able to directly hold equity interest in technology developed there.

    Now procedures exist so the University’s Investment Office will hold equity on behalf of Argonne and its inventor scientists. When the University liquidates that equity, the benefits will accrue to Argonne and its inventors. “Argonne scientists get the same deal our scientists get,” said Robert Rosenberg, Assistant Vice President for Partnerships and Technology at the University. “Because we have so many joint appointments and research collaborations, we wanted to ensure that parity would exist if companies would be started based on discoveries by scientists from both the University and Argonne,” he said.

    A case in point is a start-up called Cold Core Therapeutics. The new company will be based on technology developed jointly by a team at the University Hospitals and Argonne. The team developed an ice slurry system to deliver rapid cooling to the heart and brain of cardiac arrest victims. When stricken outside of a hospital, these victims have only a one-in-50 chance of survival. Using slurries to rapidly lower body temperature reduces damage to cells, thus potentially improving a patient’s survival and recovery.

    In the future, the University and Argonne are planning to harness the expertise of interns from the Graduate School of Business to help evaluate Argonne technology for its commercial potential. In fact, many of the entries submitted to the GSB’s annual Edward Kaplan New Venture Challenge are based on technologies flowing through the University’s technology transfer office. That includes the winner of the 2004 competition, Midway Pharmaceuticals.

    The GSB’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship sponsors the New Venture Challenge to encourage students to turn their entrepreneurial ideas into reality. The Midway Pharmaceuticals team produced the best of 51 business plans submitted for the 2004 competition, according to a panel of judges consisting of venture capitalists and successful entrepreneurs from across the nation.

    Midway Pharmaceuticals is a biotechnology company that is attempting to commercialize preventative treatments developed at the University Hospitals to treat necrotizing enterocolitis and inflammatory bowel disease.

    “In putting the business plan together, which we were doing with the CEO of the company, we made him aware of the New Venture Challenge as a resource to try to accelerate that process,” said Alan Thomas, the University’s Director of Technology Commercialization and Licensing. “It’s not the first time that technologies associated with our office have been in the New Venture Challenge, but I think it was the first time we were that proactive.”

    The University has been Argonne’s manager and research partner since the laboratory was established in 1946. But that longtime partnership is evolving an entirely new, entrepreneurial character at the confluence of interaction between the University, Argonne’s Office of Technology Transfer and the Illinois Technology Enterprise Center.

    Said Rosenberg: “Linking a great research university and a great laboratory creates novel opportunities—in discovery as well as technology transfer—for scientists and for the nation.”