Partnerships and technology transfer

Jack Anderson

Fermilab’s mission revolves around producing new knowledge through science, and the results can affect society in a considerable way. For instance, our partnerships with universities and industry have produced tangible innovations that enrich the lives of people around the globe: contributions to cancer therapy, the design of accelerators that may help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and advances in horticulture, to name a few.

As we look to the future, partnerships and technology transfer will become even more important to the success of Fermilab. The new Illinois Accelerator Research Center will provide an especially exciting—and challenging—opportunity to explore more efficient and effective partnering methods.

So, what can we learn from our past to help inform our future?

First, technology transfer does not happen overnight. The story of the Fermilab contribution to proton therapy for cancer patients began back in 1946 with an article written by Robert R. Wilson. Nearly 30 years later, researchers at the Neutron Treatment Facility began collaborating with universities and hospitals around the globe to further develop the therapy as a viable treatment option. Fermilab eventually built and tested the unique, room-size proton accelerator at the Loma Linda University Medical Center. The 1990 opening of LLUMC marked the first time that patients could receive proton treatment in a clinical setting.

Second, technology transfer is a team sport. While Fermilab can make important contributions to solving big industrial challenges such as greenhouse gas emissions, we need the right partners to help us transform our know-how into practical application. For example, Fermilab has been providing its accelerator expertise to PAVAC Industries, a manufacturer of electron beam technologies. The collaboration has produced a commercial accelerator design that can be used to treat the flue gas from coal-fired plants, turning pollutants into fertilizer.

Third, the technologies that are transferred don’t need to be big to be important. Our collaboration with Ball Horticultural Company in West Chicago proves that good things can come in small packages. Salvia Mystic Spires Blue is one of several plant species that was developed out of and commercialized through collaboration.

Finally, when opportunity knocks, Fermilab must be ready and agile. We need to have the business systems in place to help us recognize those opportunities and form the right partnerships.

Over the coming months, we will be working hard to simplify and streamline our processes for forming agreements with our partners. But to make it work, we will need your participation and support. I encourage you to forward your thoughts and ideas to Fermilab’s new Office of Partnerships and Technology Transfer, led by Cherri Schmidt.