Illinois’ two national laboratories—Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory—specialize in big science. And those research projects lead to big opportunities for local companies to bring in their expertise and help create practical applications for the new technologies that arise from that research.
What’s needed is to forge the right connections. With that in mind, the two laboratories teamed up on Wednesday, Aug. 21, to hold their first joint fair for small businesses and startups. Called “Doing Business with Argonne and Fermilab,” the inaugural event drew more than 140 representatives from 90 local businesses for an all-day session at Argonne.
“We want our science to get outside the walls of Argonne and Fermilab,” said Argonne Director Eric Isaacs in his opening remarks. “This event is about connecting the dots. It’s about building relationships, forging collaborations between the laboratories and universities and you, your products and what you’re trying to do.”
Together, Fermilab and Argonne spend about $200 million each year on contracts with—and goods and services from—local businesses, and both are looking to increase that amount. Fermilab, for example, is in the midst of constructing the Illinois Accelerator Research Center, a facility that will house offices and work spaces for local companies interested in developing products based on the laboratory’s advancements and capabilities.
Three U.S. Congressmen helped kick off the event, and all offered opening remarks. Rep. Randy Hultgren represents the 14th District, which Fermilab calls home. He spoke about the experiments happening at the laboratory and the positive impact on the state and national economies and education systems. Hultgren referred to national labs as “a never-ending loop of innovation” and said scientists can answer a greater number of the big questions with the help of private companies.
Rep. Bill Foster, 11th District, and Rep. Dan Lipinski, 3rd District, each represent a part of Argonne. Foster touted the estimated $1.3 billion the laboratories pump back into the economy annually and said the United States needs to “maintain a competitive advantage in science and technology now more than ever.” Lipinski mentioned the various ways the federal government can encourage partnerships between the national labs and private companies. “We need to do more to get research developed into new products, new companies, new jobs,” he said.
As an example of a successful partnership, Fermilab’s interim director Jack Anderson talked about proton cancer therapy, which was first suggested in a 1946 paper by Fermilab’s first director, Robert Wilson. Particle physicists worked to develop the technology, and in 1990, Fermilab scientists installed the first proton therapy accelerator in the United States at the Loma Linda University Medical Center in California. Now, Anderson said, companies like ProCure, with a clinic in Warrenville, are leading the application of this technology.
“Tech transfer is a team sport,” Anderson said. “We need the right partners to help transform our know-how into practical applications.”
Wednesday’s event brought out several long-running companies who had worked with both Fermilab and Argonne before. But it also attracted companies like Themes Architecture, based in Aurora and Oak Brook. The firm is making its first steps into the world of government contracts, and, according to Principal Ted Mesiacos, can offer engineering and construction management for the laboratories’ projects.
“We spoke to several people, and all fingers pointed to this event,” Mesiacos said. “We would like to take the next step and partner with the federal government.”
This announcement of this first small-business fair drew such a large response that several companies were placed on a waiting list for the next event. Argonne and Fermilab plan to continue these fairs on at least an annual basis.
“We’re already planning the next one,” Isaacs said.