Ask any tech entrepreneur or start-up founder what they know about the Department of Energy's (DOE) national laboratories and most will shrug their shoulders. A few may refer to the famed Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb — the impetus for creating the labs in the 1940s. Even fewer will know how to engage with the labs to advance their business.

In reality, the modern-era DOE labs are critical centers of U.S. "big science" and breakthrough technology development. The public invests over $12 billion a year in the labs to solve America's biggest challenges — like making clean energy cheap, managing nuclear weapons and nuclear fusion research, advancing high-speed computing, and creating new materials. In most every case the labs are doing vital work that neither universities nor the private sector can get done.

ADVERTISEMENT

And yet, while the labs are critically important to economic prosperity, they remain largely disconnected from the U.S innovation ecosystem. This is particularly true when it comes to America's thriving innovation clusters — those dynamic regional hubs of talent, companies, knowledge flows and supply chains around the country that are driving innovation in advanced industries like aerospace, automotive, clean energy and biotechnology.

Technology innovation is critical in these clusters, and being able to access the labs' unique technical capabilities, facilities, intellectual property and expertise is a profound competitive advantage. Yet, there is no obvious "front door" to open and engage with the labs.

Drive out of town to most of the DOE's 17 laboratories (and yes, most are outside town) and you're met with an iron curtain of guards, guns and gates. For those that eventually collaborate with the labs, they're challenged with bureaucratic negotiations and approvals from DOE, DOE site offices at the laboratory, and lab managers that cost not only precious time, but valuable resources most start-ups and small businesses can't afford. Moreover, the collaboration process is different at every lab, making for a complex web only a lawyer could be happy about.

Fortunately, notwithstanding the gridlock in Washington, a window-of-opportunity for lab reform is opening. Current Secretary of Energy Ernest MonizErnest Jeffrey MonizBiden under pressure from environmentalists on climate plan Pelosi, Clinton among attendees at memorial reception for Ellen Tauscher 2020 is the Democrats' to lose — and they very well may MORE has outlined a broad strategy for updating the lab system. The House of Representatives and the Senate have advanced bipartisan reform legislation to provide the labs more flexibility to engage with industry. And Congress created the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories, which is convening to propose reform ideas by 2015.

Taken together, these developments provide the nation a true moment for making the most of the labs — a leveraging that absolutely must include connecting these institutions more firmly to metropolitan and regional innovation clusters as a top policy priority.

Specifically, Congress, the DOE and state governments should implement reforms along four principles.

First, reforms should stress the labs' role as drivers of economic growth. Not only should regional economic development become an explicit part of the labs' overall mission, but the DOE should back it up with real institutional change. A good place to start would be following through on Congress's standing mandate for the department to create a so-called Commercialization Fund to consistently support technology transfer programs at the labs.

Second, reforms should make it easier for start-ups and small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to engage with the labs. The America INNOVATES Act, which the House passed in July and the Senate is considering, would allow the labs to execute private-sector research collaborations under $1 million — a size well-suited for SMEs — without cumbersome DOE approvals and negotiations. In addition, DOE should create a simple, easy-to-use National Laboratories Innovation Voucher Program to enable promising but cash-strapped firms to "buy" lab expertise and facility use to advance their innovations.

Third, reforms should improve the labs' involvement in the dynamic regional and metropolitan technology clusters. For example, the DOE, Congress and state governments should collaborate to create off-campus "microlabs" to serve as "store fronts" for lab engagement closer to metropolitan centers of business and industry. Even now, the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility some 15 miles "outside the fence" near Oak Ridge National Laboratory points the way.

And finally, reform should update the lab system's prescriptive, top-down oversight and funding model to better reflect 21st-century innovation challenges. Today, the labs are still funded in the same compartmentalized manner as they were decades ago, which limits their ability to engage in programs that reflect the technological priorities and challenges of the country and their respective regions. Not only should the DOE and Congress work together to develop a new funding model that provides larger block grants for projects, but lab managers should be allowed to solicit funds from non-federal, regional sources to increase their relevancy to regional clusters.

The DOE labs have a long and storied history of making revolutionary scientific and technological breakthroughs. However, the nature, speed and complexity of innovation have changed dramatically over the last 70 years and it's time to update the labs for new realities. Connecting the labs with regional innovation ecosystems would go a long way toward upgrading their ability to complement the 21st-century innovation economy.

Stepp is the executive director of the Center for Clean Energy Innovation at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Muro is a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.