Commerce's Locke promises changes

Wednesday - 9/8/2010, 7:24am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller

Click below to hear the report

Download mp3

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Commerce Department Secretary Gary Locke is taking a page out of the President Harry S. Truman book on accountability. The buck stops with Locke when it comes to spurring innovation across the country.

Locke is promising major changes in his own agency as part of the major initiatives the Obama administration is taking to accelerate innovation and entrepreneurship in the private sector.

"The country's innovation engine is not as efficient as it needs to be," Locke said last week at the first meeting of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Commerce Department. "When the innovation engine is not working, we don't turn ideas into businesses and we don't create jobs."

To that end, Locke said Commerce will initially attempt to fix two areas: reduce the time it takes to approve a non-Food and Drug Administration patent by two-thirds, and get research and innovation clusters grant funding awarded within a month.

Locke said he wants to get non-FDA patents approved in 12 months. Currently, it takes PTO almost three years on average.

"We know how important it is to being able to attract the investment if you can show you have clear title to that invention or innovation," he said.

Locke also wants Commerce's Economic Development Office to get grants out in 30 days starting January instead of the almost 288 days it takes now.

The end goal, Locke said, is to make commercialization of federally-funded technology happen more quickly and more easily. He pointed to two common examples, the Internet and Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems, as government investment that translated to big changes commercially.

Commerce is help leading another effort to promote the concept of commercialization. The department along with the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are running the i6 Competition where they are giving out $12 million, $1 million each to six teams and $1 million each to six small businesses under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, to drive technology commercialization and entrepreneurship in their regions.

"We all have to do a better job, and that is why we formed the council," he said. "You are our advisors. The competitive advantage we as a country once had is being matched by others around the world. We just have to look how other governments are putting power behind companies to compete."

Council members are from an assortment of areas - universities such as the University of North Carolina and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, R&D companies such as SRI international, venture capitalists, consultants and owners of companies such as Robyn Chase, who founded Zipcar. Steve Case, the founder of AOL, and Mary Sue Coleman, the president of the University of Michigan, are the co-chairpersons of the council.

"Often times the government is a test bed for innovation," said Ginger Lew, a senior counselor in the White House's National Economic Council. "Since the 1990s, the Defense Department has been an aggressive purchaser of mesh networks and other technologies through the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program. Hundreds of small businesses have been invited in to sell their technologies and services to DoD, and it's a way many technologies have helped DoD."

Aneesh Chopra, the federal chief technology officer, said the administration also is focusing on advanced technology infrastructure, including widespread broadband deployment and a goal to double the amount of spectrum for mobile broadband by 2020.

Council members didn't let Locke, Chopra, Lew or any of the administration presenters get away without offering some advice and tough questions.

Ken Morse, chairman of Entrepreneurship Ventures, the co-founder of 3Com and Aspen technology, said the government needs to be a more active customer and use its power of the purse to promote the new technologies.

Tom Albert, managing director of Madrona Venture Group, a venture capital fund, agreed with Morse, but also gave agencies credit for being an active buyer of cloud computing services. Albert, however, said one area where the government hasn't driven the market is with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology.

Morse also added that the government needs to pay more quickly as small businesses can't wait 60-to-90 days or longer for money.

He also said the Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR) needs to move more quickly.

Morse said small firms have to wait too long for second and third round funding if they make it through the first round in only a few months.