The value of public-private partnerships in driving innovation

Public-private partnerships have a history in maintaining a commitment to scientific excellence, guiding the conception, safety and deployment of various technologies that have paved the road to where we are today (including the advent of the Internet, which, while created in a government lab, was actually seeded by corporate visions). While the private sector drives scientific developments and creates products and services in such a way to be embraced by the marketplace, the public sector shapes the foundation through supporting policies and relevant research. Joint research leverages unique and complementary sets of expertise in resource-efficient ways to understand and address the risk “profiles” of new technologies.

The energy sector is one such example of how public-private research collaboration can inform policy and help innovative companies address risks prior to commercialization. UL (Underwriters Laboratories) has been working with the Department of Energy over the last several years to evaluate the impact of energy technologies. Such work is critical in understanding the limits of the current infrastructure and what considerations need to go into the design of new products. Absent such data, new product commercialization and infrastructure build-out could result in unintended consequences.

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The House Science and National Laboratories Caucus recently hosted a workshop on the value of such joint research. The caucus was created by a bipartisan group of congressmen and works to reinforce federal investment in research and national laboratories, as well as promote the role of science in political discourse. Held last month, the event was introduced by two of the caucus’ co-chairs, Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), and told the story of UL’s many partnerships with National Laboratories and how that work supports innovation.  Panelists underscored the long-term commitment required for successful public-private collaboration due to the changing nature of safety and technology, and the introduction of new risks that necessitate constant evaluation and adaptation. They rightly noted that collaboration across borders is increasingly important, since many problems are not unique to the United States. In a global marketplace, differing country-by-country approaches to addressing these problems could result in a complex compliance web for manufacturers, and impede the commercialization of the products they develop.

Through various types of collaboration, including extensive research, technical reports, and industry networks (i.e., consultations, technical forums, symposiums and standards committees), this public-private partnership has effectively addressed a number of issues within the energy sector. For example, as a result of joint efforts on biofuels, UL and its partners have tackled critical deployment issues, including the compatibility of new biofuels with existing infrastructure equipment from the storage of the fuels to the dispensing operations. Within the solar industry, joint efforts with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have yielded increased solar photovoltaic system safety, including updated standards and codes, as well as increasing understanding of equipment reliability, performance, and financial returns. Other examples include progress in areas such as battery technologies, wind power and smart grid/connectivity.

Groundbreaking work is also being done with the Argonne National Laboratory in regards to emerging technologies and issues for increasingly popular electric vehicles (EVs), including assessing the safety of human exposure to wireless charging fields, and verifying interoperability of the EV with the infrastructure.

While the work being done in various public-private partnerships across the country does not garner as much attention as manufacturer product developments, it continues to be one of the most cost-effective ways to assess and understand the safety science tied to new product development. Such scientific data enables sound standards and regulation, providing manufacturers with a roadmap of what they need to address or consider in product development.

Schaefer is UL’s public safety officer and the organization’s ombudsman on all safety issues. He has testified before the U.S. Congress and at administration hearings on topics such as furniture flammability and import safety. During his 40 years at UL, he has served in a variety of roles including chief operating officer for the U.S. operations and chief corporate social responsibility officer.