Embedded Innovation: Public-Private Collaborations at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Friday, June 24, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:00 PM
235 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Marian Negoita, Social Policy Research Associates, Oakland, CA
This paper offers an in-depth look at a specific type of public-private interaction that has become central to the functioning of the U.S. innovation system. Whereas an abundant literature has documented the connections between universities and private firms, and the resulting effects on innovation, the role of federal labs remains relatively understudied. The paper intends to address this gap in knowledge by providing an in-depth description of one laboratory—Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL)—and its recent history of engaging in public-private collaborations. Using an array of data sources including a newly released database of Work For Others (WFO) agreements between the lab and private firms, qualitative interviews with lab scientists, and findings from previously published research, the paper seeks to make sense of the role and impacts that LBNL has made on the U.S. innovation system.

The paper starts with a discussion of the history of the federal laboratories. Created to sustain the World War Two effort, laboratories subsequently became a central component of the U.S. innovation system under the Department of Energy’s (DOE) tutelage. Beginning in the 1980s, the emphasis on fundamental science has gradually shifted toward an embedded approach whereby lab scientists are expected to form durable relationships with the private sector with a view of speeding the flow of technological innovations from labs to the market. The paper continues with a description of LBNL and its specific profile within the DOE lab ecosystem. An analysis of heretofore non-public data on WFO agreements provides an initial picture of the surprisingly diverse array, and the geography of the firms that employed the lab as a contract R&D provider, as well as of key characteristics of these agreements. The paper continues with an analysis of one of LBNL’s recent efforts to operate as a hub of public-private interaction, namely its role in the operation of CalCharge, a  partnership between LBNL, CalCEF (a nonprofit umbrella organization), and several dozens of private companies, with the stated goal of accelerating technological innovation in the California energy storage industry. Based on interviews with representatives from CalCharge stakeholder groups, the paper emphasizes promising practices but also challenges that occur in the operation of the consortium. The paper also attempts to convey the delicate balance that the lab has to strike between being able to recruit top scientists and engineers who have considerable freedom to shape their own research agendas with the task of linking them with private firms and commercialization initiatives.