Manager of the Office of Technology Transfer, Brookhaven National Laboratory
Every member of the Clean Energy Business Incubator Program (CEBIP) Advisory Board gets a front-row view of amazing new technologies. That’s par for the course at the cutting-edge CEBIP.
But as the licensing leader at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), Poornima Upadhya enjoys unparalleled double exposure to the innovative world – not just the next-gen clean-gentech formulations fueling CEBIP, but a river of breakthrough ideas flowing through BNL.
Dr. Upadhya has a PhD in Biochemistry from the Indian Institute of Science, among several science and finance degrees.
Like any scientist, this one favors organization, so she has clearly categorized her different roles. Dr. Upadhya – who cut her teeth on the tenure track at Vanderbilt University before focusing her research on polycystic kidney disease, including a senior-researcher stint with Northwell Health’s Long Island Jewish Medical Center – delineates clearly between her observances at CEBIP and at BNL, which happen at distinctly different points on the commercialization timeline.
At the Upton-based national laboratory, the licensing lead evaluates new inventions for commercial viability – a first line of offense, if you will, determining which bright ideas might provide industrial benefits.
If there is commercial potential, she recommends that Brookhaven Science Associates (BSA), the contractor of BNL file for a patent, and Dr. Upadhya’s work is just beginning: Next she must seek out,schmooze and make a deal with “industrial partners who will take it to the next level.”
“Our office is really about the technology transfer,” she says. “These ideas are developed by federal dollars and we’re trying to identify those which can benefit society. I serve as the match-maker trying to connect the innovative ideas generated by our scientists with industrial partners who can productize.”
All in all, it’s a very different experience from her role on the CEBIP Advisory Board, where Dr. Upadhya is introduced to new technologies that are, generally, further along in the development process.
“(At BNL), we have technologies that are at relatively early stages,” she notes, “compared to ones at CEBIP. At CEBIP many of the entrepreneurs who are working with technologies from academic institutions have a license and are already taking it to the next level – after having completed some technical validation and customer discovery they’re raising money.”
The differences are “fascinating,” as each experience feeds the other. At CEBIP, “I’m looking at what happens to an idea … real hands-on commercialization,” a sort of learning annex that informs her decision-making at BNL, where Dr. Upadhya is exposed to innovation in its rawest form.
Her fascination with innovation traces back to her youth, when her parents encouraged the young woman to pursue science, technology and engineering knowledge – a running start that fueled the Bangalore University undergrad (physics, chemistry and mathematics) and graduate student (master’s degree in biochemistry) and drove her to become a highly respected woman in American science circles.
“Growing up, my parents had ingrained in me the importance of STEM education,” she notes. “My experiences in my professional life, including at CEBIP and BNL, have solidified this conviction.”
Her education continues to this day, with her CEBIP experiences exposing her not only to new technologies, but to the various strategies for getting them to market.
“It’s a learning process,” Dr. Upadhya says. “(At CEBIP), I’m looking directly at someone’s experience. I have this takeaway of looking at advanced technology over here, and understanding what it takes over there.”
Sharpening her learning curve are the other members of the CEBIP Advisory Board. Dr. Upadhya takes a seat alongside a multitude of leaders from various industries, each with a particular set of skills – enriching her CEBIP experience and also rounding out her BNL observations.
“There are many people on the board who are very qualified,” she notes. “The presenters, the entrepreneurs, the struggles they go through, it’s all very exciting and very informative.
“It’s a very beneficial process,” she adds. “Now I see officials from all these different places. I see what runs in their head. And when I’m pitching a BNL technology to try and move it out of the lab, I can think about that and what works.”
The scientist sees her early laboratory days – focused mostly on kidney diseases – as a unique benefit to the CEBIP Advisory Board, where “everybody has a fundamental knowledge of some area,” bringing diverse perspectives to the global issues of energy and climate.
“Everyone here is trying to make the planet a better place,” Dr. Upadhya says. “To me, that’s very exciting. And it’s been a great learning experience, seeing what it really takes to get a technology commercialized: What do I look for? How can I make sure this entrepreneur is going to succeed?
“It really gets to my passion.”