Help Ahead on Getting From Lab to Market

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M-Gary Seawright has a confession to make. "I'm probably an entrepreneur in scientist's clothing, and have been all along."

By | October 20, 1986

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M-Gary Seawright has a confession to make. "I'm probably an entrepreneur in scientist's clothing, and have been all along."

The experiences of the former virologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory demonstrate both the perils and pleasures of moving technological discoveries from the laboratory to the marketplace. That subject was the topic of discussion at a congressional hearing and a two-day conference here.

Seawright left Los Alamos in 1984 to join fellow scientists Randy Brown, Jeremy Landt, Al Koelle and Paul Salazar in forming Amtech Corporation. The company, with a staff of 13, will manufacture electronic identification systems to keep track of trucks, railroad cars, ships and cattle. Its projected sales this year, its first, are $500,000, and Seawright foresees annual sales of $28 million within five years.

The technology behind the product was developed at the National Laboratory. "It was a classic spin-off," said Seawright, "one of the first in this field to involve a national laboratory." But the taste for business and promotional talents that were needed to bring the technology into the commercial sector, he noted, are foreign to most scientists.

The Amtech story began in 1973, when Seawright went to work for the Department of Agriculture and also became a technical liaison with Los Alamos on a project to develop an electronic tracking sys tern for livestock. In 1978 he joined the Los Alamos development group full-time.

Then Seawright and his partners embarked on "a low-level, hand-to-mouth approach. Every year," he recalled, "we spent one-fourth of our time getting money for the next year. It was very inefficient." The Agriculture Department provided most of the funds, although the Department of Energy showed interest in applying to transportation.

When development was completed, in 1983, the patents were offered to private industry. There were no takers, however, so Seawright and his colleagues formed their own company.

Despite its shortage of capital, Amtech began with the knowledge that both the livestock and transportation industries were interested in its product. The company also benefited from the institutional support offered by Los Alamos, which included assistance with patent acquisitions, equipment loans and a liberal leave-of-absence policy.

Not every national laboratory is as cooperative as was Los Alamos, despite the Reagan administration's professed support for improving the country's economic competitiveness and obtaining a better return from federal research dollars. Some laboratories are still subject to restrictions that make such a transfer of technology difficult.

Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories, also located here, cannot serve as outside consultants and cannot collect royalties on inventions. Irvin Welber, president of Sandia, testified at the hearing of having received "mixed signals" from the government on such issues. He said the patent-waiver process is a particular burden, and suggested that it be streamlined.

The current policy allows such federal agencies as the Department of Energy and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to take title automatically to any invention created under contract to them. The title can be given back to the inventor only through a lengthy petition process.

The process was also attacked as cumbersome and unnecessary. Frank Lukasik, chiefpatent consul for the Air Force Systems Command, describes it as "elaborate, costly and a waste of paper." He estimated that as many as 90 percent of requests for waivers are ultimately approved.

The current method is designed to protect national security. But Welber and Hecker noted that the labs have successfully carried out their responsibilities to ensure lab security and said the waiver process could be simplified without raising any threat to security.

On October 7 Congress approved and sent to the President legislation to open up federal labs to industry, universities and other interested parties. The bill reconciled differences between legislation approved last December by the House and in August by the Senate as an amendment to the Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Act of 1980. It would allow labs to offer cash award programs as an incentive for federal scientists to participate in the transfer of technology and would give all federal labs the authority to set up co operative agreements with businesses.

Other witnesses at the hearings suggested the use of advocates for commercialization within federal labs, and more frequent exchanges between industry and the labs, as additional ways to improve the transfer of technology.

Louis Weisberg is a  financial writer in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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