Energy Curates New Tools, Unveils Funding to Assist Research Efforts Against COVID-19

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Through its COVID-19 Technical Assistance Program, the department will provide roughly $500,000 to support research against the pandemic.

The Energy Department’s Office of Technology Transitions, or OTT, on Thursday released new digital tools—and unveiled it’s dedicating hundreds of thousands of dollars—to help non-DOE innovators, entrepreneurs and entities connect and collaborate with its 17 national laboratories in research efforts aimed at combating the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Through the COVID-19 Technical Assistance Program, or CTAP, the office will provide targeted research funding that the labs can use to provide short-term assistance to U.S.-based researchers and organizations confronting complex technical challenges amid the ongoing health crisis. Further, the agency’s Lab Partnering Service, or LPS—an existing suite of online applications that streamline partnering opportunities by directly connecting users to the department’s relevant experts and facilities—now includes the COVID-19 web portal, which provides a curated selection of inside-Energy expertise, intellectual property and assets that could bolster ongoing research efforts against the novel coronavirus.

“LPS is already an extremely powerful tool to connect with our National Labs, but the size and scope of DOE’s research complex is gigantic—we touch on every scientific discipline, and our facilities are spread out across the country,” Energy’s Chief Commercialization Officer Conner Prochaska told Nextgov Thursday. “Creating a curated portal for a specific subject, especially in a global emergency, was a common-sense thing to do, and we were hearing from our national lab colleagues that there was demand for a program like this.”

OTT essentially acts as the agency’s central hub for its technology transfer activities and  lab-to-market pursuits and policies. Officials on the inside, according to the CCO, are “constantly” looking for ways that the department and its partners can “out-innovate, out-hustle, and keep [its] incredible technological complex at the forefront of scientific discovery.” In doing so, OTT manages the LPS system. Launched in 2018, LPS acts as a sort of one-stop-shop and sole access point that outsiders can use to tap into resources housed at Energy’s labs. 

“The overall goal of LPS—and OTT as a whole—is to make the transfer of knowledge from our federal [research and development] system to the private sector more streamlined, and ultimately get the most impact for the U.S. taxpayer from these research dollars,” Prochaska said. “From there, we let the ingenuity of America’s innovators figure out how to turn these incredible discoveries into equally incredible products and services.”

OTT’s team produced an artificial intelligence-focused portal within LPS ahead of Energy’s InnovationXLab: AI Summit in Chicago last October, as well a space-focused portal in support of the department’s participation in a commercial space industries conference last year, Prochaska noted. But a press announcement detailing the current effort confirmed that the COVID-19 portal marks “the first time the platform has been used to streamline access in an emergency.”  

“Our teams started work in late March, and it’s still a work in progress,” Prochaska explained. “We continue to add new content and new ways to connect daily. We’ll keep that up until it’s no longer necessary.”

The office engaged all 17 of the department’s labs in the effort, as well as several of its partners. The CCO added that as of June 3, the portal “hosts 95 technology summaries, 62 experts, 23 facilities, and 28 success stories across 14” of those 17 labs. 

LPS is also home to Energy’s Visual Patent Search tool, or VPS, which offers an intuitive interface through which non-Energy investors, innovators, and others can sift through an IP portfolio of more than 40,000 patents and applications—including many that are available for licensing. On top of the COVID-19 portal, OTT’s team also created and is releasing a custom, enhanced version of VPS that’s specifically populated with relevant coronavirus-focused patents. Prochaska noted that as of June 3, VPS contains “1,165 patents and applications—and growing.” OTT will continue to introduce new additions to both the COVID-19 portal and new VPS resource “as long as there is good, helpful stuff to add,” Prochaska said, adding that the choice around what’s included will ultimately come down to choices made by tech transfer personnel at Energy’s labs.

“They know the terrain much better than we do,” he said. 

And in terms of the assets’ intended users, Prochaska said inventors, investors, entrepreneurs, academic researchers, incubators, and accelerators would likely find them helpful—and he also added, “if you’ve got a new [personal protective equipment] decontamination technique that needs [an Energy] facility to validate and test, we’ve got you covered.”

The CCO also confirmed that OTT allocated roughly $500,000 for CTAP, to financially support COVID-19-focused research efforts. Prochaska explained that “participating Labs each receive a tranche of that,” and interested parties—which might include companies, state and local governments and nonprofits—should reach out to potential lab service providers directly. “LPS is a good conduit for that, but it’s not necessary to connect via LPS to apply for CTAP,” he said. Once the lab teams are contacted, they’ll be the ones who submit the applications for funding to their Energy Site Office and to OTT. 

“CTAP can be viewed as a pilot program,” Prochaska said. “Depending on the volume of applications and caliber of the projects, additional funds could potentially be made available, and we hope this technical assistance program is a model that can be applied to other research engagements that rely on public private collaborations and partnerships.”

The Energy Department also recently helped spearhead and expand the nation’s new COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium, through which its national labs have joined other major industry players and academic institutions to volunteer compute time and resources—at no cost—to catalyze and boost research against the coronavirus. Regarding how OTT’s newly added efforts compliment the consortium—and Energy’s approach to involve many partners in the fight against threats posed by the novel coronavirus—Prochaska said “in the end, it’s all about more access.”

“OTT’s primary mission is to increase the commercialization pipeline out of DOE and into the marketplace, helping to turn research into products and services that make Americans’ lives better, increase our economic competitiveness, and bolster national security. In that way, we dovetail nicely with the computing consortium’s mission,” he said. “Because our labs are multidisciplinary and work on topics including manufacturing, biosciences, healthcare, and much more, we are able to engage with people from across the spectrum of innovation.”