Lab Innovation Fellowship Program Promotes Innovation at Argonne and Fermilab


Since the initiative launched in 2018, the University has committed significant resources in support of lab programs and mission support functions.

Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory work to answer some of the biggest questions facing humanity, from the atomic to the astronomical scale.

Occasionally that work leads to not only answers, but also new technologies to help find those answers. And sometimes those technologies would benefit researchers and industries outside the lab, perhaps in unexpected ways.

The path to additional uses and benefits often lies in commercialization. To help bring those technologies from the lab to the market, the Lab Innovation Fellowship Program has launched with the support of the University of Chicago Joint Task Force Initiative, a signature University of Chicago program dedicated to helping Argonne and Fermilab achieve mission success by opening channels of frequent communication and collaboration across institutions. Through the program, two fellows are selected to spend two academic quarters taking advantage of programs and resources offered by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

“One of the accomplishments of the Joint Task Force Initiative in the area of technology transfer has been the Lab Innovation Fellowship program, which was launched to provide Argonne researchers with further support in technology commercialization,” said Megan Clifford, Associate Laboratory Director for Science and Technology Partnerships and Outreach at Argonne. “This is a wonderful partnership with the University of Chicago and Fermilab.”

Through courses, accelerators, and access to Chicago Booth MBA students and accomplished mentors, fellows have the opportunity to explore commercial pathways for high-potential technologies developed within the national labs.

“Our researchers are often focused on basic science, but we want to empower them to think about how their innovations could benefit society and industries outside the lab,” said Mauricio Suarez, deputy head of technology development and industry engagement at Fermilab. “This program is another way for us to encourage that.”

The program launched this year with two fellows: Shaorui Li from Fermilab and Jake Zappala from Argonne.

Shaorui Li: Finding the Right Answers

Shaorui Li

For Li, a principal engineer and leader of Fermilab’s quantum ASIC group, the program was an ideal way to jumpstart an idea that had been simmering in the back of her mind for a while – commercializing a quantum chip.

Though the promise of quantum computers has been much heralded – including their ability to solve complex problems – they must be kept extremely cold in cryogenic devices, such as dilution refrigerators. As a result, many of the electronics needed for the system are kept outside of the device and must be run inside through cables.

Li’s group is developing quantum chips that could be used inside the cryogenic devices, which could bring the electronics inside and remove hardware bottlenecks for quantum computers.

When she heard about the program, she was excited about the opportunity to learn from UChicago’s Booth School of Business professors.  In her first course, she learned to analyze startup case studies, which helped her realize what goes into launching a successful company.

“It’s not just basic knowledge – it is learning from real-world scenarios,” she said. “It was more interesting and useful than the entrepreneurship books I had read.”

She’s also taking part in the Compass Deep Tech Accelerator, in addition to working with a mentor who has launched a successful startup and collaborating with an MBA student, who is helping her with business development.

“I read a lot and did my own research on starting companies, but I had a lot of specific questions and specific issues, and through this program, I found the right people to answer every question,” she said.

Jake Zappala: Having a Goal in Mind

Jake Zappala

Jake Zappala, an assistant physicist at Argonne, never had the entrepreneurship bug. But his work with Argonne’s TRACER Center showed him that a physics tool developed for basic science research could have a much wider use.

The center uses a laser-based technique called Atom Trap Trace Analysis to capture and detect rare isotopes. The technique allows scientists to conduct krypton dating of water samples – an important tool that helps geoscientists map groundwater in arid regions, date ice in glaciers, and investigate the health of aquifers.

The center measures samples for outside groups in the geoscience community, but Zappala wondered if commercializing the technology could make such measurements cheaper, in an easier-to-use format.

“Water resource management has become such a crucial issue, especially with climate change,” he said. “The program will help us work toward licensing this technology and make it more widely available to the research community.”

Zappala, who started the fellowship in January, has been auditing programming through the Compass Deep Tech Accelerator and is conducting market research to better understand potential licensees.

“The coaches and mentors have been extremely flexible and open minded to adjusting the program to our needs, to make sure we get the most out of the process,” he said. By the end of the program, he hopes to be able to pitch the technology to scientific instrument companies.

“Like research, you don’t always know what’s going to happen at the beginning, but it’s good to go into it with what a perfect end goal looks like,” he said. “That helps create the support structure and path you need to be successful.”

Article by Emily Ayshford

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