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5/5/2011
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Federal Technology Innovation Slowed

The federal technology transfer program is still turning out thousands of inventions annually, such as a way to harness the ocean's power for energy.

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Although the number of inventions coming out of federal laboratories has slackened slightly over the last five years, there are still thousands of innovations making their way into both the public and private sector thanks to the government's technology transfer program.

New technology for early detection of disease in farm animals, nano-scale "tweezers" for detecting viruses, and technology that can harness the ocean's power to make energy are just three of the projects developed by federal laboratories in fiscal year 2009, according to a report the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released this week.

The annual Technology Transfer report details how the laboratories of key federal agencies collaborate with non-federal organizations to give social or economic purpose to research activities.

The program--started in 2005--also obtains patents for technology created through partnerships with academic institutions, businesses, and other third parties so the technology may be licensed for commercial use.

Eleven government agencies currently have active research laboratories that engage in the transfer program: the Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of Commerce, Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of the Interior, Department of Transportation, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and NASA.

While the disclosure of inventions has decreased over the past several years--down from a high of 5,193 in 2006 to 4,422 in 2009--the number of patents and patent applications for technologies developed is on an upswing. In 2009, agencies filed for 2,080 patents, and won 1,494 patents, for technologies developed by the program. These numbers have more or less increased steadily since the program started.

One of the inventions disclosed in 2009 was new computer modeling technology developed by the USDA's Agriculture Research Service (ARS) to detect Rift Valley fever, a deadly viral disease of domestic animals and humans. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa at risk for the disease are currently using the technology, which measures global climate conditions that influence ecological conditions that cause the virus to emerge.

Meanwhile, a global healthcare company called Haemonetics has licensed technology developed through research by the NIST BioSensor Consortium. Nano-scale "optical tweezers" can detect and measure very small concentrations of a biological substance--such as a virus--on a surface. Haemonetics is using the tweezers for blood-management technologies it develops and supplies to hospitals and blood/plasma collection agencies.

Energy initiatives also emerged from federal labs in 2009. The DOD has been working on several, one of which has the Navy Surface Warfare Center and multiple partners exploring how to use ocean currents to create energy. Another, by the Air Force Research Laboratory Propulsion Directorate and various partners, is developing and evaluating alternative fuels for use in military and civilian aircraft.

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