By Shannon Furniss for the Montana High Tech Business Alliance
A little over a year ago, Montana State University’s TechLink helped saved the lives of two American medical missionaries who were infected with the Ebola virus during the western Africa outbreak in 2014.
TechLink, the Bozeman-based technology transfer center that helps companies throughout the U.S. license new inventions from the Department of Defense (DoD), was able to facilitate a licensing agreement between the Army and a San Diego biopharmaceutical company that resulted in the development of an experimental treatment for Ebola.
“The two missionaries were about to die,” according to Will Swearingen, executive director of TechLink. “They survived because of the experimental treatment.” The Centers for Disease Control estimated that more than 11,000 people died during the Ebola outbreak.
Since Swearingen became the executive director in 2000, TechLink has worked with most DoD labs and centers nationwide and facilitated more than 1,000 technology transfer agreements, including more than 425 license agreements. Companies nationwide have generated nearly $1.6 billion in sales of new products and services that are directly related to the license agreements, he said.
Interestingly enough “most companies don’t know they can license inventions from the federal government,” Swearingen said. “The government isn’t trying to make a profit on these. There are modest fees just mainly to pay for the technology transfer process.”
With 23 employees and eight student interns, TechLink has expertise in many industry areas, including advanced materials and nanotechnology, aerospace, electronics, environmental technology, medical and biotechnology, photonics and sensors, and software and information technologies. TechLink, which launched in 1996, is a unique asset for Montana. It is the only university-based center in the nation that is helping the DoD with technology transfer. Established through congressional “earmarking” as an experiment, TechLink was so successful that it became a permanent part of the DoD budget in 2004, Swearingen said.
Though TechLink works with companies throughout the nation – and with 60 DoD labs that are doing classified research and are often hidden behind high fences – there are a number of Montana projects underway.
TechLink Finds Montana Companies to Partner with the DoD on Leading-Edge Technologies
In the early 2000s, TechLink helped Bozeman’s Zoot Enterprises connect with the Navy, which had designed computer software to help Navy submarines tell the difference between an underwater attacker and a whale. After conversations with the Navy, Zoot discovered that the risk-assessment program could be useful for banks trying to watch out for credit risk, and they licensed the software to see if they could commercialize the Navy technology.
Spika Design and Manufacturing in Lewistown is another company that benefited when TechLink helped them license an invention from the Air Force to develop a safer, OSHA-compliant oxy-acetylene welding cart. According to Tom Spika, CEO of Spika Design and Manufacturing, the Air Force had identified the need for a system that addressed the hazards associated with high-pressure tanks and explosive potential and designed a unique product that protected against those hazards. Spika, through TechLink, was able to license the product for manufacturing and has sold the product into DoD and commercial markets ever since.
“It remains the sole product on the market that meets the stringent requirements of demanding safety protocol,” Spika said, adding that he is shipping out a few of the welding carts this week from his Lewistown operation.
One of TechLink’s more current projects involved helping the Polson company, Adelos, which specializes in fiber optic sensor technology, license intrusion-detection software from the Navy. Because of the partnership TechLink facilitated, Adelos is now developing the technology for use in sensitive areas like nuclear facilities. Through the technology, guards in control rooms that are miles away from facilities will be alerted that someone is intruding, Swearingen said. It also has potential for use at borders such as the Mexican/American border, he said.
TechLink analyzes 600 or so inventions that come out of the DoD every year, and the organization picks the ones that have the most commercial potential, Swearingen said. Then, they try to find companies that have a good fit for the technologies.
Some of the inventions TechLink is working with may not be such a good fit in Montana, he said. In order to better identify Montana companies that would be good prospects for DoD inventions, TechLink is partnering with the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center, Swearingen said.
By working with Paddy Fleming, MMEC’s director, TechLink can reach out more to the manufacturers in the state and be specific and targeted in finding Montana companies that would be the best fit.
One promising project TechLink and MMEC are working on is with Bozeman’s laser optic cluster. DoD has a lot of laser-based inventions, and TechLink is making MMEC aware of these inventions, Swearingen said. The MMEC engineers are very familiar with Montana companies and can identify which companies might be interested.
In addition to facilitating licensing agreements between the DoD and industry, TechLink has become more involved with DoD Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. These programs offer funding for R&D to develop new commercial products and services and are aimed at companies with 500 or fewer employees. TechLink is working closely with Montana companies to make them aware of the opportunities and help them compete for the awards, he said.
TechLink also has taken on specialized projects like analyzing the national economic impacts resulting from DoD technology transfer and SBIR agreements with U.S. industry. The studies help determine the extent to which these agreements have generated new economic activity and job creation in the U.S. and their effectiveness in supporting the nation’s defense mission by transitioning new technology to U.S. military use, he said.
In Swearingen’s 16 years at TechLink, he has seen a remarkable change in the number of high-tech companies in Montana. In fact, TechLink began before one notable company, RightNow Technologies, was even located in the state. Having more high-tech companies in Montana may lead to more opportunities and partnerships with the DoD, he said.
Working with companies is Swearingen’s favorite part of his job, he said. “Many of these companies start small and innovative and become large and innovative.”
Top photo caption: TechLink, a technology transfer center at Montana State University in Bozeman, helps companies throughout the U.S. license new inventions from the Department of Defense (DoD). TechLink facilitated a licensing agreement between the Army and a San Diego biopharmaceutical company to develop an experimental treatment for Ebola that saved the lives of American medical missionaries during the 2014 outbreak in Western Africa. Since Will Swearingen became the executive director in 2000, TechLink has facilitated more than 1,000 technology transfer agreements, helping companies nationwide to generate nearly $1.6 billion in sales of new products and services. Photo and graphic by ABCFOXMontana.
Author: Shannon Furniss is a Missoula-area journalist and the managing director of Market Interactives. She writes articles on business trends and issues for the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, the Montana Business Quarterly, the Montanan, and other publications. She holds a degree in journalism from the University of Montana.
Publisher: The Montana High Tech Business Alliance is a statewide membership organization made up of more than 260 high tech and manufacturing firms and affiliates. More information on the Alliance can be found at: www.MTHighTech.org.