From particle beams to cancer treatment – ​​fundamental research that affects everyday life

Newswise — Researchers at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory are investigating some of the most fundamental questions about our universe: What are the properties of elementary particles? What is driving the expansion of the universe? But the tools they use can lead to technologies that benefit everyday life.

Machine learning methods developed to facilitate complex data analysis can also help control autonomous vehicles, find new materials with new properties, and design better batteries. The technology used to generate powerful particle beams inspires new approaches in cancer treatment. Advanced scientific machines, like the laboratory’s cryogenic electron microscopes, synchrotron and X-ray laser, capture extraordinary images of biomolecules that help develop drugs to fight disease.

How to turn these inventions in the lab into real-world applications that benefit society as a whole is the job of SLAC’s Office of Technology Transfer and Private Partnerships. Through patents, licenses and partnership agreements, SLAC gives companies and organizations access to the laboratory’s world-class experts, facilities and technologies not found in the private sector.

In this Q&A, two of the office’s top executives – Matt Garrett, Director of Technology Transfer and Private Partnerships, and Susan Simpkins, Director of Proposals and Contracts – talk about SLAC’s innovation landscape and the unique opportunities that he creates for the transfer of technology.

Tell us about technology transfer at SLAC.

Garrett: At SLAC, we develop a wide range of technologies to pursue cutting-edge research. Technology transfer is about taking this fundamental technological knowledge and, through partnerships, developing it into products that are useful to everyone.

On the one hand, private partnerships, which I consider to be a form of business development. We act as a portal for companies that want to learn more about what SLAC does and see if there are any interests we could pursue together. I’ve had many engagements over the past few months with companies, large and small, who want to work with us, and some of them have led to opportunities for collaborative proposals.

In terms of technology transfer, we talk about long-term commitments and discuss how our partners could fund us. For example, we engage with clients who wish to license one of our existing innovations and either integrate it into their business or create a start-up around it. In other cases, it is partners who fund our research, which eventually leads to the point where we will transfer our know-how to them.

Can you give us some examples?

Garrett: A prime example are projects that take advantage of our experience building particle accelerators and apply that knowledge to advance targeted radiation therapy to fight cancer. When you receive this type of therapy, there is a problem with body parts moving in the body as the radiation is delivered, which can damage healthy tissue around a tumor. Thus, our researchers realized that they could build accelerators capable of delivering the radiation in a much shorter time and much more precise than what is possible with current technology and of reducing some of the undesirable side effects of radiotherapy. One such project is PHASER, a collaboration with Stanford University and Silicon Valley company TibaRay, which aims to reduce patient exposure time by about a factor of 100.

Simkins: Another good example is our work with self-driving vehicle developer Zoox. We have just started a collaboration on AI-related projects, focused on the evaluation of machine learning algorithms and test methods for battery technology used in autonomous vehicles. With this in mind, we are also working with the Toyota Research Institute, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on machine learning tools to develop a long-life electric vehicle battery that can be charged in 10 minutes.

What is unique about the national laboratory environment?

Garrett: I think compared to other environments, like a university, the technologies developed in the DOE National Laboratories are quite mature. Many DOE labs do highly applied research, which includes extensive testing and development beyond a prototype, sometimes to a stage where a technology can be deployed. It’s obviously a very good value for a company to come and work with this technology, because it no longer has to invest so much in R&D.

I would also say that national labs generally don’t view technology transfer as a business venture for themselves. They’re federally funded, so the idea is to bring technology to market, which is part of the whole process of creating jobs and making the United States more economically competitive.

How do you collaborate with other Bay Area institutions on technology transfer?

Garrett: We work closely with Stanford’s Office of Technology Licensing (OTL). When an innovation has been developed at SLAC, OTL reviews that innovation and advises us on how to proceed. For example, we were discussing whether we wanted to file a patent or not. They also contribute to publicizing the innovation. SLAC currently has a portfolio of 50 to 60 patents that the office has vying for licensing. Stanford has had quite a few success stories of licensing their technology to big name companies, so it’s a huge benefit to SLAC that we have them as a resource.

Simkins: We also partnered with the other national laboratories in the Bay Area – Berkeley Lab, Sandia National Laboratories and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory – and formed the Lab Innovation Networking Center (LINC). LINC is focused on fostering engagement with Silicon Valley companies who very often don’t fully understand what the labs do and what resources we offer that might be of interest to them. The physical office will eventually be at SLAC. Last year, we hosted a series of virtual events to launch CLIC, which was a huge success. Although we focused on small businesses in the Bay Area, we also had representatives from across the country in the audience.

What other initiatives are you pursuing?

Garrett: There are many educational and training opportunities. For example, at the end of last year, a first cohort completed SLAC’s new Energy I-Corps Lite, an 8-week entrepreneurial program. The scientists formed three teams, each choosing an example of technology, and developed arguments as to why a company might want to work with and invest in that technology. The program teaches scientists to think more broadly about a technology and to develop partnerships outside the laboratory. The SLAC program is a local version of DOE’s highly competitive Energy I-Corps program for members of all national laboratories, and we are very pleased that two of our researchers were recently accepted into this program.

Simkins: Another focus is on training that introduces our researchers to intellectual property. What is a patent? What are copyrights? What is open source software? What value does a scientist get from submitting an invention disclosure? This type of education is very important because some researchers think that intellectual property protection is a restriction or a limitation, when in fact it opens up more possibilities for partnerships and funding. When a scientist participates in the process of technology transfer, he stands out as someone who not only generates scientific publications, but also as someone who contributes to the precious production of patents and licenses of the laboratories, who part of the job creation process in the United States.

What future prospects are you most excited about?

Garrett: SLAC is a place where there is a lot of innovation, and one of my goals is to interest and involve more scientists in technology transfer. Creating educational opportunities is one way to approach this; another sets up incentives for people who participate, such as a technology transfer rewards program. I look forward to working with any scientists who want to engage with companies and help them develop a strategic plan for their idea. What exactly is the tech space you work in and who exactly do you want to engage with? It’s the most exciting thing for me. I basically want to bring the companies and people of SLAC into the room and engage in those conversations, and generally what comes out of those engagements are some pretty impressive things.

Support for the programs and projects mentioned in this article includes funding from the DOE’s Office of Technology Transitions, the DOE’s Office of Science, and the DOE’s Advanced Battery Materials Research Program. The synchrotron (Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource) and the X-ray laser (Linac Coherent Light Source) at SLAC are user facilities of the Office of Science. To learn more about how to partner with SLAC, please visit https://partnerships.slac.stanford.edu/.

SLAC is a dynamic, multi-program laboratory that explores how the universe works at the largest, smallest, and fastest scales and invents powerful tools used by scientists around the world. With research spanning particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology, materials, chemistry, bio and energy sciences, and scientific computing, we help solve real-world problems and advance the interests of nation.

SLAC is operated by Stanford University for US Department of Energy Science Office. The Office of Science is the largest supporter of basic physical science research in the United States and works to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time..

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