Are Federal Lab Inventions Falling by the Wayside?

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Inventions that are crafted and patented in Federal laboratories are having a difficult time finding their way into use in the private sector, according to a report released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

That means that Federal agencies could be missing out on some of the financial benefits of new technology innovations crafted in those labs, the report said.

The Federal government spends about $137 billion a year researching and developing inventions, chiefly at the Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Energy (DoE), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Through patent licensing, Federal inventions are legally transferred to the private sector for commercial use, leading to a potential financial windfall for the agencies that developed the technologies. For example, the digital image sensors used in cell phone cameras were developed in the 1990s at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and found their way to the private sector through laws encouraging commercial use of Federal inventions.

“The government can license the patents on these inventions to private companies to further develop and bring the technologies to market,” GAO said in the report. “Officials at DoD, DoE, NASA, and NIH, as well as external stakeholders, noted challenges in having researchers identify potentially patentable inventions. DoD, DoE, and NIH officials also cited having inadequate internal systems to keep track of inventions developed in the labs. In addition, several stakeholders stated that licensing patented inventions can be lengthy and bureaucratic, which may deter companies from licensing.”

With Federal agencies struggling to both flag their patentable products and license them for corporate use, GAO is calling upon the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to help. GAO said most agencies lack information on how others are licensing patents, and NIST can help share information to help establish better financial terms across agencies.

“Based on its established interagency role, NIST is best positioned to assist agencies in sharing information on comparable licenses, in accordance with leading practices for interagency collaboration,” GAO said. “By doing so, NIST would provide Federal agencies and labs with useful information that can help them better establish financial terms and successfully license inventions.”

GAO also is instructing NIST to report on the challenges of Federal patent licensing in its annual reports to Congress. In total, GAO made seven recommendations to address these problems, and said “the agencies reported taking steps to address these challenges, such as implementing model license agreements across labs to expedite the process.” That means Federal technology innovations could soon find their way out of the lab and into the public light.

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