By Kevin Robinson-Avila / Journal Staff Writer
The Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base is aggressively stepping up its efforts to take new technologies to market with help from New Mexico universities.
The lab is finalizing a new partnership agreement with New Mexico Tech in Socorro, which has assisted the lab for years on tech-transfer and community outreach, to broaden that collaboration into a team effort that will now include the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and Northern New Mexico College. The three research universities will help train AFRL scientists, engineers and community-engagement professionals in technology commercialization. That will include patenting new innovation, pushing the most marketable inventions into the tech-transfer pipeline and seeking investors and entrepreneurs to take them to market.
Northern New Mexico College, meanwhile, will work through its Small Business Development Center to help AFRL engage more with small, rural and veteran-owned businesses.
The initiative grows out of the state’s newfound groundswell of inter-institutional collaboration to move New Mexico’s economy forward through grass-roots entrepreneurship and innovation. In particular, efforts to build a high-tech research and development corridor in the heart of Albuquerque, anchored by the Innovate ABQ hub at Broadway and Central Downtown, inspired the Air Force lab to reach out to the universities, said Matthew Fetrow, director of AFRL’s technology engagement office.
“Real statewide collaboration is rapidly becoming the norm, rather than the exception,” Fetrow said. “It’s created a new, deliberate focus on our part to work with other institutions.”
In fact, AFRL is already participating in Innovate New Mexico, a collaborate effort among the research universities and national labs to jointly promote their technologies to investors and entrepreneurs. That includes twice-annual “technology showcase” events, the latest of which took place in April in Albuquerque.
The UNM Science and Technology Corp., the university’s tech-transfer office, will play a central role in helping the Air Force lab. STC will launch a multi-pronged training program this fall for AFRL personnel, said STC President and CEO Lisa Kuuttila.
It will include:
• Working with lab scientists and engineers to bring forward more potentially marketable inventions and collaborate with lab management to commercialize them.
• Instruction in market research to identify and seize on business opportunities.
• Direct outreach to investors and entrepreneurs.
• Centralizing all AFRL tech-transfer activity through a modern software system to track and manage commercialization from the earliest steps of invention disclosure to patenting, marketing and licensing.
AFRL is already transitioning its work into the new software system.
“It provides backbone infrastructure for technology transfer,” Kuuttila said. “Instead of having a thousand spreadsheets, everyone works off of one module.”
STC will hire a half-time professional and a student intern to work directly with the AFRL on technology transfer. Project and marketing managers will also each devote a quarter of their time to AFRL activities.
Those efforts will be facilitated by AFRL’s presence at Innovate ABQ’s new Lobo Rainforest building, which will open in August. The building will house the STC, students studying entrepreneurship and innovation, startups working to commercialize new technologies, and co-working spaces and conference rooms for events and programs.
The AFRL will occupy a 1,700-square-foot space next to STC’s offices where AFRL’s Technology Engagement Office will centralize its marketing and outreach activities.
“It’s an innovative, diversified, collaborative space to interact with all the resources and people involved in entrepreneurship and innovation,” Fetrow said.
AFRL and STC both believe the internal training for lab scientists and engineers is particularly critical, because technology transfer depends on an institution’s innovators to provide a pipeline of marketable inventions. That often requires a cultural shift for lab researchers, who must learn to focus on potential commercial applications of their work in addition to the central mission of defense and national security.
Lack of such dual focus likely contributed to the failure of a program run by California-based Wasabi Ventures, which the AFRL hired last fall to provide business accelerator-type training to people inside and outside of AFRL interested in taking lab technologies to market. AFRL canceled the program this year because of low participation.
“The AFRL workforce wasn’t as prepared for an aggressive entrepreneurial program like that as we thought,” Fetrow said. “We need to do more internal, preparatory work first before we try something like that again.”
New Mexico Tech will the lead the new partnership agreement, given its management of AFRL community outreach efforts over the past two decades, said Carlos Romero, associate vice president for research and economic development. Through the agreement, valued at about $7.5 million over five years, Tech will call on STC, NMSU’s Arrowhead Center and Northern New Mexico College as needed to assist the lab.
“We’re all working together now in this new agreement to collaborate on helping the AFRL meet its needs,” Romero said.