Energy Dept getting involved in coronavirus research

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The Energy Department has joined Health and Human Services and the Intelligence Community in boosting research related to COVID-19. The department has made its 17 national lab resources available through its Office of Technology Transitions. For how it all works, the office’s director and chief commercialization officer Connor Prochaska joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Prochaska . Good to have you on.

Connor Prochaska: Thank you so much for having me today Tom.

Tom Temin: So what precisely are you doing here? Because the national labs have people, they have laboratories, they have data, they’ve got a gigantic amount of research, computing power. How will this come to bear on the COVID deal?

Connor Prochaska: Well, and you nailed it, that we do have amazing researchers, we have amazing facilities and we have amazing research going on at the Department of Energy. People that aren’t as intimately aware with what the Department of Energy does sometimes don’t realize that it’s one of the largest physical science research complexes in the world. We spend roughly $18 billion a year at the Department of Energy on research and development across the physical sciences, from material science all the way to chemistry, to shooting neutrinos out of accelerators at our Fermilab near Chicago to try to catch them in South Dakota and unlock the secrets of the Big Bang. So it’s a very broad complex with a lot of missions and a lot of great research that’s going on. And our role at the Office of Technology Transitions, and in my role as the chief commercialization officer for the Department of Energy, is to ensure that we’re doing all we can to enable access to those facilities, those researchers and that research, have smart policies so that once people access it they can work with our facilities, our researchers and our research. And then also, above all, make sure people are aware. I often say that one of the key parts of my job is to get less people to say I didn’t know the Department of Energy did that. So it’s a very exciting job and it’s a very exciting role because it really is witnessing history on almost a daily basis when you hear about and see the innovations that come out of the national labs and the vast expansive capabilities that we have.

Tom Temin: That neutrino idea sounds like the ultimate blind drive, we’re missing baseball maybe we can catch neutrinos. But with respect to COVID, what specifically do the assets come from do he say that are not available or not replicated at some of the other research establishments such as those at HHS?

Connor Prochaska: Sure. So our supercomputers for instance, right now we have four of the ten fastest supercomputers in the world at the Department of Energy. We are the supercomputer masters in the federal government. So that’s one example of a place where those supercomputers have been utilized to examine proteins to give researchers and pharmaceutical companies a headstart out there across the spectrum going across the world to get closer to a vaccine or an antibody test or whatever it may be, but because of the massive amounts of data that exist, there’s not a lot of computers out there in the world that can do that. And so we really see ourselves as we have a lot of tools that exist in this. And so what we’ve done with our lab partnering service is create a portal called the Lab Partnering Service Portal, COVID-19 portal, and it’s COVID19.partnering.org. But what the portal does is it is giving people on lab partnering service a head start as well, which is there’s 40,000 patents on there that you can license out and there’s hundreds of facilities that you can look at and tech summaries. We’ve curated that down to the things that experts believe could potentially be helpful in the fight against COVID. And not just vaccines. We’re talking about technologies in manufacturing that could help create new ways of developing ventilators, new ways of developing PPE. Even new ways of developing nasal swabs, which are a big issue right now in the supply chain across the country and world for that matter.

Tom Temin: What kind of traffic have you had at this portal and how do you adjudicate to making sure that the right people are connected with the right resources and that people that are legitimately qualified to do this research are the ones that get through?

Connor Prochaska: Sure. We’ve had around 4200 visits, we’re still doing the analytics on on the COVID direct portal as we’ve gone forward here, we’ve just launched it just end of the week prior. And so we’re analyzing and driving traffic as much as we can to it to make sure that people are aware of it. To answer your second question, because we do want to make sure that we’re not wasting anybody’s time chasing something that may not be legitimate as far as a research concern or question. So we do have an initial screening here at the Department of Energy in the Office of Technology Transitions to ensure that these are legitimate inbounds and that we’re maximizing the use and not wasting any taxpayer time or money on something that may not be relevant.

Tom Temin: And have you detected any trends in what people are seeking initially?

Connor Prochaska: We’re doing the analysis right now of who’s coming in and what people are seeing. I can tell you some of the early wins that we’ve had at the Department of Energy during the COVID fight, I mentioned the proteins and being able to analyze those through our supercomputers and the high power computer consortium that’s been created by the Office of Science and Technology Policy across the federal government. Another place that we’re seeing some if you allow to say wins here, but but some opportunities and some places that really are helping in the fight, are our manufacturing technologies, because we do deal a lot with materials that the Department of Energy, we do deal a lot with advanced manufacturing. So a great story out of Sandia National Lab in New Mexico being able to work with their local hospital there to retrofit some machines so that they could then be used as ventilators. Some advanced manufacturing coming out of our some of our California labs to work on, as I mentioned earlier, new ways of making nasal swabs and new ways of making PPE at our Oak Ridge National Laboratory. So we’re seeing some things around that that are some real great stories to talk about and some real great return on the amazing capabilities of the Department of Energy,

Tom Temin: Because I’ve seen some of the videos of those nasal swabs, and it seems like maybe there’s a better way to get up into the nose. Everyone seems to want to recoil from that procedure.

Connor Prochaska: I don’t think anybody that’s gone through it and said it’s a fun experience.

Tom Temin: So how long will you run this and is this something that’s going to be in place permanently?

Connor Prochaska: We’ll run it until the need no longer exists. And so I don’t know if that’s a vaccine, I don’t know if that’s a different time period. Really the big lift is getting it up and running. We are continuing to work with the experts across the department and across the complex to make sure we are including the best research in there and the things that are relevant. That’s a continuous process that won’t end. You know, one of the things about the Department of Energy is vast majority of our research that we do is basic science, it’s basic research. And the exciting thing about basic science and basic research is you don’t necessarily know where it’s going to end up and you don’t necessarily know what its application is. And so with that, we don’t try to guess and pick winners and losers here. We try to make sure that as I said, we are laying it out there and that the bright minds and the amazing teams at whether it’s our laboratories, or whether it’s the entrepreneur spirit of the US, people in the world can can get to it and access it and make make the best out of it.

Tom Temin: On that manufacturing front, that seems to hold a lot of promise for the moment when there is a vaccine because then the challenge will be making enough of it in a short enough time to really lick the problem. And people think well vaccine you just turn on like a dairy farm and out comes, the gallons of milk, but actually it’s a very complicated and difficult process, I think.

Connor Prochaska: Yeah. And to that point, Tom, some of the success stories that we’ve seen, and you can actually read some of the success stories already on the lab partnering dot org there — some of the success stories we’re seeing are talking about the efficiency of pipelines, I don’t mean the energy pipelines, I’m talking about our pipelines and our supply chains across the country and across the world. But it’s not always as I mentioned, it’s not always the stuff that you would initially think about, PPE and vaccines, it’s sometimes how can we work and take this data and analyze it and make our manufacturing processes more efficient to in turn, to what you just mentioned, be able to produce more going forward.

Tom Temin: And you also have a program called CTAP. What does that stand for and what does it do?

Connor Prochaska: We’ll CTAP tap is the COVID-19 Technical Assistance Program. It allows our researchers, as I mentioned, some of the brightest minds in the country to pick up the phone and short, fast and rapid fire short term projects help out some of these researchers that are working on some very technical and difficult issues that they at the labs may have some expertise in. So the Office of Technology transition has funded a number of our national labs to basically have a billing code so that they can answer the phone and help those that are trying to help in short term.

Tom Temin: And just a final question on a couple of things you said. You are called the Technology Transitions Office and earlier you mentioned the idea of licensing patents that might be out there that could come to bear on this. So it seems like there’s some pretty good incentive on the part of the patent holders to push forward what it is they have patents on if they think it could help in this whole fight.

Connor Prochaska: It is. We believe and the Secretary and the White House believes that these advancements don’t do any good just sitting on a shelf, a figurative shelf. And it’s important to publish papers, and it’s important to put that out and that knowledge in the world. But we want to take a step further and make sure that these can be applicable. One of the things we talk about all the time in the Office of Technology Transitions is at the end of the day, when you boil down all the fancy words of our mission statement, our main job is to maximize the impact of the US taxpayers research and development dollar that they send to the Department of Energy — and we think that this is a great avenue to do that.

Tom Temin: Connor Prochaska is chief commercialization officer and Director of the Office of Technology Transitions at the Energy Department. Thanks so much for joining me.

Connor Prochaska: Thank you. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t make sure that I thank and acknowledge all the people that are doing so much hard work across the federal government to work hard at this. It’s long hours, long days and a lot of great work from our labs that went into to getting this project off the ground. So we’re excited.

Tom Temin: And we salute them also.

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