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US will offer $1,000 patents to spur job growth

Easier licensing for technology from federal labs

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / March 30, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — In an effort to promote innovation and job growth, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said yesterday that his department will make it easier and cheaper for entrepreneurs to license technologies developed at the agency’s 17 national laboratories.

From May to mid-December, any of the labs’ 15,000 patents will be available for a $1,000 fee, and companies will be able to apply for those patents using a simplified, standard agreement that is available online.

The idea, Chu said, is to help businesses — especially start-ups and small companies — quickly turn an idea into a product by removing barriers such as burdensome paperwork. A patent typically costs $15,000 or more.

“The realization was that some of the small start-up companies wouldn’t be able to bear those costs,’’ Chu said after a visit to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We still wanted them to have the intellectual property available [because] a lot of new jobs are created in small businesses.’’

Chu and several other Obama administration officials visited MIT yesterday to meet with business leaders about revamping federal policies to support innovation.

The meeting was the third stop on an eight-city tour for the officials — part of Startup America, a White House campaign to promote entrepreneurship.

Administration officials are using such meetings to gather “best ideas’’ on how government agencies can foster technologies to help launch companies, accelerate the growth of existing ones, and create jobs.

Federal agencies are focusing their efforts on small businesses because they “create two out of three jobs in this country,’’ said Karen G. Mills, head of the Small Business Administration.

She joined Chu yesterday at MIT.

“We need them to be growing, we need them to be innovating, we need them to be succeeding,’’ Mills added. “This is how we win the future.’’

Getting patents into the hands of small businesses is a good way to start, said Bill Aulet, managing director of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center. The Energy Department initiative is long overdue, he added.

“An invention needs someone to commercialize it to make it an innovation,’’ Aulet said. “You need that engine of propulsion: the entrepreneur.’’

Justin Ashton, cofounder of XL Hybrids Inc. in Somerville, agreed that simplifying the process to obtain patents is a necessary step.

Several years ago, Ashton’s start-up, NanoPur, died after it failed to get a license from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California for technology that would have dramatically cut the energy required to turn saltwater into fresh water.

The experience, Ashton said, was a good lesson, but frustrating. Ashton said he still is not sure what went wrong; perhaps the laboratory’s officials were not ready to make the technology available.

“If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re used to hearing a million nos for every yes,’’ he said.

But “there are ways they could have structured the license to that technology that would have worked for everyone.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.