DR. VYACHESLAV SOLOVYOV
CEO, Brookhaven Technology Group
As R&D priorities change, our national laboratories will rise
For most of the last century, academia has played a crucial role in developing the high-tech economy. Silicon Valley, Research Triangle in North Carolina and Boston’s biotech cluster are a few examples of highly successful synergies between startups and well-endowed universities.
Now our national laboratories are playing a prominent role, including our Department of Energy-operated neighbor in nearby Upton, Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL).
After the Manhattan Project, the national laboratory system was created as a network of academic institutions capable of taking on projects deemed too large and complex for a single university. These projects typically involved building large facilities, such as research nuclear reactors, accelerators, synchrotrons, etc.
In this environment, commercialization was less of a priority than technological development. Nevertheless, some labs, such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, managed to spin off several successful businesses: ORTEC (acquired by Ametek), American Magnetics, Cryomagnetics and others.
These businesses leveraged the historic strength of the national laboratory system in fields such as nuclear isotopes and superconductivity. Understandably, the markets for these companies were rather limited, and none has yet reached a Google-like scale.
Unlike Oak Ridge and some other national laboratories with Department of Defense backing, BNL has been set up as a mostly civilian facility dedicated to basic research – first in nuclear science, later in basic energy sciences.
Brookhaven’s fame comes from deep-science discoveries made using two nuclear-particle accelerators, the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron and the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, as well as two world-class synchrotrons. But the laboratory has had limited commercial success in technology licensing and technology transfer – spinning off businesses has been more challenging due to multiple regulations and BNL’s pure science mission.
Times have changed for our national laboratories. The particle accelerators are getting larger. Building one is now an expensive international project, and fewer are being built. The successor to the Large Hadron Collider – the world's most powerful particle collider and Earth’s largest single machine, located on the France-Switzerland border – isn’t even scheduled to begin construction until 2065.
There is also an increasing pressure on national labs to deliver more technologies that translate into job creation. This is evident at Discovery Park at BNL. Anyone entering the laboratory grounds will notice a sizable construction project underway; when it’s ready, the park will test a novel concept by inviting collaborators and entrepreneurs to enhance their R&D capabilities with BNL’s tools and expertise.
So far, local businesses have been slow in utilizing BNL’s facilities. That’s easily explained by the complexity and specialized nature of synchrotron beamlines, the Center for Functional Nanomaterials and other BNL divisions. And until recently, most hardware businesses on Long Island originated from the Northrop Grumman aerospace ecosystem.
But as Long Island’s high-tech startup scene matures and diversifies, and more businesses engage in biotech and advanced materials, you can expect BNL to play a more prominent role in the local economy.