Courtesy of the PNNL

Since its official launch in 1965, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has remained a central site in the United States for scientific and technological innovation.

Based in Richland but used locally, statewide, and nationwide, the PNNL is among the U.S. Department of Energy’s several national laboratories, and much of what it researches and then develops is made easily accessible to the public.

In the last 20 years, the PNNL has issued more than 700 intellectual-property licenses that startup founders and Fortune 500 companies alike have taken advantage of to give their respective ventures a boost. Whether you’re looking for tools to improve security, energy efficiency, electricity infrastructure, or other technologies, the PNNL might have something useful for that.

As one of the PNNL’s six commercialization managers, Sarah Hunt, whom 425 Business interviewed in late September, is tasked with keeping tabs on research labwide, identifying potential opportunities for IP capture, and protecting assets through a patent or proprietary copyright. Once a new innovation is ready to be harnessed by the public, Hunt or another commercialization manager is responsible for marketing a breakthrough to startups, all the way up to Fortune 500 companies, that might be a good fit, Hunt said. After IP rights are licensed out to interested clients, the commercialization manager continues to monitor the impact.

“(We) continue to build relationships with those entities (to whom) we’ve licensed to get a better understanding of the impact that our science is having out in the commercial space,” said Hunt, whose portfolio focuses on renewables, energy efficiency, environmental monitoring, and advanced manufacturing. To allow clients to essentially “test drive” a product they’re interested in, the PNNL typically first offers what’s called an exploratory license, a short-term authorization that allows meaningful access to and use of a new PNNL technology without the large fees that are normally associated with a commercial use license.

“Sometimes at the end of (the exploratory license period, companies have) identified additional technology development opportunities,” Hunt said when asked what the next steps usually are when an exploratory license period ends. “And so we’ll partner up and do collaborative research that could be directly sponsored research here at the lab by the entity themselves. Or we could go after other (federal), state, or other sponsored funding and collaborate together on it. If (a client has) done the exploratory license and they say, ‘Wow, this is great; we’re ready to go, we can put this into production,’ that’s the point at which we would negotiate the commercial use license that would allow them to build and sell whatever that product or service is.”

The lab has had a noteworthy effect on startups located near its Richland home base, with STARS Technology Corporation; Molecule Works Inc.; and SymTREE among the companies to use the PNNL as a resource in their growth. And on a national level, the lab has assisted with Verizon’s efforts to develop 5G broadband applications. But the lab’s impact also reaches the Puget Sound area, whether through its support of the University of Washington’s Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center’s Urban Freight Lab or its part in the 5G Open Innovation Zone. Its technologies and ability to collaborate also have bolstered Seattle-based startups such as DarkLight, whose AI seeks to help automate workflow tasks and whose technological genesis reaches back to the PNNL, and corporations including Blood Cell Storage, Inc. (a.k.a. SAFE Sens), which is known for its pH technology. 

“Our chief medical officer in a previous company that he’d worked in knew of the lab and the work that they’d done to help in a development problem,” said Blood Cell Storage’s then-pH product manager Steve Geelhood in a video testimonial about how the company initially connected with the lab. “In our situation, we were finding ourselves running into some problems (with our product) and found that the same expertise was applicable, and we were able to rely on (the PNNL) to help us with this development … I think we probably saved about six months of development time by working with them just with the 40 hours that they were able to throw into that project.”

Reflecting on what is most consistently exciting about her job, Hunt said she particularly enjoys playing a part in facilitating a new technology’s evolution from its earliest stages to being something that can tangibly affect people.

“At the end of the day, being able to see that real-life impact is just really very, very, very rewarding,” Hunt said.

Although its licensing opportunities are one of the most prominent ways it engages with the public, the PNNL also has a STEM education office that provides learning opportunities for students, offers tech-transfer programs, takes part in the Department of Energy’s technology fund, and more. Hunt hopes more people will become better aware of all that the PNNL — which has been around for nearly 60 years but isn’t utilized by the public as much as it could be — has to offer.

“I just want (people) to know that there’s an organization in their backyard, in their state, where every day passionate scientists and engineers are addressing very critical challenges,” Hunt said, adding. “I’m not sure if a lot of folks know that we exist.”