Monday, May 15, 2017

Why I work at a National Lab.

Over the years, one question that keeps popping up is why I decided to work for a National Lab, as opposed to a university or industry.  My first answer to this question, which is “because John Travolta once told me that without a job, residence or legal tender, I will be a bum” does not seem to lead to satisfaction.  So, here is the alternate answer.

When I first came to a National Lab, I really had no idea what a Lab did versus these other entities.  I had heard the origin story (the Manhattan project), seen the big, unique, expensive facilities (the synchrotron sources and the nano-centers) and knew the names of the many of the scientists in the complex as leaders in their field.  But it took a few years of being at a Lab (after I got past the “do not become a bum” phase) for me to really understand their critical role in scientific innovation.

At its core, scientific discovery has become hard.  The days of the inventor who tinkered on something in the garage and discovered the next big battery breakthrough are long gone, unless you are developing battery apps.  The “low hanging fruits” have all been picked.  The world still needs new discoveries leading to better technologies; so we have had to, and will continue to, go higher and higher up the proverbial tree.  

National Labs were/are built to satisfy this need.  In my opinion there are three aspects to a national lab, the first two being:  (i) take a bunch of smart scientists and engineers from diverse disciples who are willing to dedicate their life, working as a team, to solve a problem, and (ii) provide them with the means to build unique facilities (think big $$) and capabilities (think brains), unlike any other in the world.  Do this long enough that this combination will yield new breakthroughs, new insights, Nobel prizes, and the rest of the good stuff.  And out of this mix emerges the thought leaders who define the next phase of innovation and set the path for what will be the future. 

In the age when the great industrial research labs are all long gone, this role takes on an even greater importance.  

But there is a third aspect to a National Lab which, in my opinion, is equally important.  We are taxpayer funded and have an obligation to help the taxpayer in whatever way we can.  Which means that it is not enough to develop (i) and (ii) and then keep it behind closed doors, with an insular approach to problem solving.  Rather, our mandate is to use said facilities and capabilities to help the broader community gain further knowledge, aid in their quest to discover new things, win their Nobel prizes, and serve as a means of enabling new products that will drive the next big market. 

But there is lack of understanding among the larger science and technology community about this aspect of Labs.  This is especially true for companies.  For one, we at the Labs do not do a great job of explaining what we have and the breadth of our capabilities.  There is a translation problem between a Lab scientist explaining a new technique and a company scientist understanding how that technique can solve a battery problem. 

And then there is confusion about the ways to even work with the labs.  Companies often don’t realize that they there are well-established mechanisms to work with Labs, that protection of IP and confidentiality are built into these relationships, and that the Labs actually WANT companies to work with them. 

A decade ago, during the cleantech boom, I was able to witness this issue firsthand.  As companies started investing more into commercializing new technologies, the translation problem became an obstracle in leveraging the assets in the National Labs to effectively move forward.  Since those days, I have been passionate about finding ways to solve this problem. 

In June 14th, we are embarking on another part of the journey to solve the translation problem with, what we are calling, “Battery Industry Day at Argonne”.  On that day, we will open up the door to industry (and others) to show you what we have, both the people and the facilities, tell you a bit about what we do, hear from you on what issues you face, and introduce you to the various mechanisms we have to work with outside entities. 

We will talk about three areas where Argonne has deep expertise: high-energy batteries used in everything from cell phones to EVs, stationary storage and its integration with the grid, and batteries for our national security needs.

You can read a bit more about the day and register at this site.  Ping me with any questions.


1 comment:

  1. I've spent a big part of my career dealing with the Doe labs as an entrepreneur. So I understand your comments. Most people though, do not.