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Argonne fair ties science, business together

Aug 21, 2013
In The News

Illinois business representatives were able to schmooze Wednesday with scientists and researchers from Argonne and Fermi national laboratories during a first-of-its-kind small-business fair.

The event was held at Argonne, near Lemont, and featured three congressmen: Dan Lipinski, D-3rd, and Bill Foster, D-11th, — each of whom represents a portion of Argonne — and Randy Hultgren, R-14th, who represents Fermilab near Batavia.

Two-thirds of the businesspeople attending the fair were there to see which contracts they could bid on for work at the laboratories, Argonne director Eric Isaacs said.

“We couldn’t do what we do here without having people who install electrical, who install optical fibers, who install telecommunications,” he said. “So we’re connecting the dots with those people today.”

The labs also need contractors to pave the roads and build new buildings.

“We put out $111 million this year alone in contracts,” he said. “Forty percent of those are small business.”

The other one-third of the businesses in attendance could explore partnership opportunities with the scientists doing research at the labs to create new products, he said.

For instance, Argonne recently licensed an idea for ultra nano crystalline diamond to an Illinois semiconductor company interested in making electrical components out of diamond.

“You can make these things with diamond in a way you can’t do in silicon,” Isaacs said. “We have a license with them, but we also have a joint development agreement.”

Businesses that partner with the labs also will have access to one of the fastest computers in the world, Isaacs said.

“We’re saying, ‘Let’s work with you and you can use our facilities,’ ” he said.

All three congressmen said the business fair is something that will help keep the U.S. economy strong.

“The greatest long-term threat our country faces on both the military and economic fronts is the threat of losing our role as world leaders in innovation and science and technology,” Foster said. “Nothing is more crucial to preserving that role than the fundamental and applied research done at our national labs.”

Argonne and Fermilab alone have an estimated $1.3 billion impact on the economy annually, Foster said, which is one of the reasons he said he’s fighting a proposed cut to lab funding.

“If I have anything to say about it, it’s not going to happen,” he said.

Since World War II, more than half of the country’s economic growth has been driven by science and technology, Foster said.

Lipinski, who is the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Research and Technology, said the U.S. economy has been “struggling along,” so the small-business fair was a good way to link science with jobs.

“Whether you are a contractor looking for someone new to sell your services to, or you are a tech company looking for the next product, a new product, this is a great opportunity for you,” he said.

Lipinski said he’s a big proponent of “tech transfer,” which gets the research that is done at labs into the hands of business owners.

Lipinski has proposed a bill called the Transfer Act that would create “proof of concept” awards that would lead to federal funding for prototype products. The government also should work to get rid of regulation barriers that impede the creation of new products and technologies, he said.

Hultgren said the fair was truly historic and needs to continue.

“One of the best ways to keep American jobs here is to make sure that we are so far ahead that it can’t be replicated abroad,” he said.