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CFN Staff Spotlight: Priscilla Antunez Guides Partnerships that Advance Nanoscience to Impact Society

interview with a CFN staff member

Priscilla Antunez

Priscilla Antunez recently joined Brookhaven Lab's Center for Functional Nanomaterials as the assistant director for strategic partnerships.

This past December, Priscilla Antunez started as the new assistant director for strategic partnerships at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN)—a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Her responsibilities include forming new partnerships between the CFN and universities, other research labs, and industry that are key to advancing scientific discoveries and technology development. She brings previous experience as a business development executive in the Technology Commercialization and Partnerships Division at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory and as a researcher at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center. She holds a PhD in chemistry from the University of Southern California (USC), a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from California State Polytechnic University, and a bachelor’s degree in industrial and management systems engineering from the Universidad de Sonora in Mexico.

How did you end up at this exciting nexus of business and science?

I was fortunate to have attended a bilingual preparatory school—Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey in Mexico—with a program that included both science and business classes. I took my first classes in chemistry and business when I was 12 years old, and I liked the combination. When I graduated six year later, I chose to major in industrial and management systems engineering to continue this science and business training. After several undergraduate research experiences, I fell in love with research, and, with the goal of getting into a grad program, I got a second bachelor’s degree in chemistry. For my PhD, I continued to study chemistry, focusing on the synthesis and characterization of semiconducting materials for solar cell applications.

After graduating from USC, I got hired as a materials scientist by the IBM Watson Research Center, where I learned how to build, characterize, and test solar cell devices. This experience was the perfect complement to my PhD. Given my business training, I decided to explore the business side of research while I was finishing up my postdoctoral appointment at IBM. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to shadow one of the business developers there, and the knowledge I acquired during this time in turn helped me with my own patent submissions at IBM.  

As I learned more about the junction between business and science, I started reaching out to my network about my experience at IBM. It did not take long before I found out about a team at Argonne National Lab that was combining people with technical and business expertise to help grow its partnerships. I ended up joining that team as a business development executive. In this role, I helped Argonne researchers build partnerships to increase the impact of their work. I was the liaison between them and Argonne’s legal, contracts, and communications teams. I hope to serve in a similar capacity at the CFN.

Working at a DOE national lab, I could focus on what was best for advancing strategic technologies and work toward maximizing the impact of these technologies in society. I was at Argonne for a little over a year, and I knew I definitely wanted to continue working at a national lab and leverage what I learned while at Argonne.

National labs have a different mission than private industry in the sense that they are not profit-driven. Funded by the federal government, national labs carry out basic and applied research and development that would not otherwise be undertaken by private companies. How do strategic partnerships help national labs advance scientific knowledge and technological solutions to broadly impact society?

The DOE has tasked us to go beyond producing outstanding science to “change the world.” I believe research at Brookhaven has this potential, which we can realize by partnering with universities, industry, and government. A great example of how we maximize the impact of our science is the CFN. With a staff of around 40 scientists, the CFN supports the research of nearly 600 users each year. This community produces almost a paper a day. That amplification of science is something you can do only if you are collaborating. The next step for us is to engage more with collaborators that can take these technologies further, without losing our service-oriented focus.

With so many potential partners to choose from, how do you find the right one?

It’s critical that we find complementary partners who will take CFN technologies to the next level. Ideally, we include different types of partners in the early stages of a technology’s development. Having their feedback not only helps guide the project toward achieving its highest impact but also facilitates valuable long-term relationships. Partnerships usually evolve through a series of small steps. If a partner is pleased with an initial interaction, then the partnership will grow. Because building trust takes time, it’s important to build a strategy that both fosters our existing partnerships and creates opportunities for new ones.

The partnerships that will make a project flourish vary depending on the type of project and its technology readiness level, or TRL. The TRL refers to where the technology is in its development, ranging from idea conception to final product. Sometimes startups are more likely than larger more-established businesses to take on and license technologies with early TRLs because they are set up to assume greater risks. There are several awards available to small businesses and startups—including the Small Business Innovation Research program—to motivate them to take on technologies at an early level and bring them toward commercialization. 

Much of the research at the CFN seeks to advance our fundamental understanding of nanoscale processes and phenomena. Considering this focus on basic research, when is the right time to engage industry?

It is never too early to seek industry input. Industry involvement is valuable at any stage of research. Once an idea is protected, scientists can talk to anyone in industry to get feedback. For example, industry can help narrow down the applications of a particular technology and in turn may help in validating and strengthening the associated intellectual property (IP).

Photo of  Antunez (right) and Argonne postdoctoral appointee Martyna Michalska

Click on the image to download a high-resolution version. In May 2018, Antunez (right) and Argonne postdoctoral appointee Martyna Michalska share tips and benefits of invention disclosure for postdocs in preparation of the 2018 Intellectual Property Symposium at Argonne. Credit: Argonne National Lab.

Universities and national labs share their research results through publishing, while industry has proprietary concerns that can limit the information that they disseminate. If an industry partner is selected, how do you balance these competing requirements?

If an industry partner makes most sense, then we have to start talking about IP and patents early on in the process. The DOE asks that we report all inventions to protect the Lab’s IP.

Patenting and publishing in parallel is very important because it opens the door to industry partnerships and strengthens resumes, especially for scientists considering a career in industry. I learned how to patent and publish in parallel while at Argonne when the director of the Center for Nanoscale Materials—the “sister” facility to the CFN at Argonne—put me in touch with IBM Master Inventors. I started working with Argonne’s postdoc association and began giving talks to the postdocs on how to get patents from their manuscripts. At Brookhaven, I look forward to working both with postdocs and the Office of Technology Commercialization and Partnerships (OTCP), helping to build the CFN patent portfolio.

When a lab scientist has an invention, what is the process for notifying the lab and DOE and considering patenting?

When Brookhaven scientists have an invention, they should document the invention in a Record of Invention (ROI) form and submit it to the Intellectual Property Legal Group (IPLG). An ROI is a legal document that must be completed fully and signed by the appropriate individuals, as indicated in the instructions/guidelines for filling out the ROI. It requests information including a description of the invention and its achieved advantages, preliminary data showing promise toward the desired application, the invention’s date of conception, and the identification of novel features. The completed ROI form is used to report lab inventions to DOE and to assess the invention for both patentability and commercialization potential—it is not IP protection like a patent or patent application.  

In consultation with IPLG, OTCP makes a determination based on the commercial viability of the invention whether to elect title to the invention and move forward with a patent application. If the lab chooses not to pursue a patent, DOE has a chance to review the invention and decide whether they want to patent it.

If the Lab decides to retain title and protect the IP by filing a patent application, IPLG, in consultation with OTCP, will start the patent prosecution process by arranging for the patent application to be prepared either internally or by an outside law firm. After the patent application is written and reviewed by the scientists, it is submitted to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). There, the application goes through several review stages. The patent process is described in more detail on the USPTO website

Though it could take several years before USPTO grants a patent, scientists can add the patent application to their resumes immediately. As soon as they submit an invention disclosure, they get a number that gets reported to DOE. As the patent application moves along, different numbers get assigned. These numbers tell you what stage the patent is in. The duration of the process is one of the reasons that many scientists, especially postdocs, look away from patents. But companies know the time involved. By referencing the patent on your resume, it tells potential employers that you are aware of the patent process and know what it entails.

How has your own experience with the patent process informed the guidance you give to other scientists?

While I was at IBM, I reported 10 invention disclosures related to my research on earth-abundant materials. Out of those 10, IBM submitted six patent applications to the USPTO, and two have since been granted as patents.

There’s this myth that you must choose between publishing or patenting, but it’s not true. You can easily accomplish both. My goal is to help scientists here do that and leverage their work as much as possible so that it can have maximum impact.

One of the things that I want lab scientists to know is that it is never too early to start talking about the patent process, either with me or Brookhaven’s OTCP.

The CFN recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary. Within this first decade, CFN scientists made advances in several areas—including DNA-programmed nanoparticle self-assembly, graphene growth and characterization, and photonic structures in diamond—and added new capabilities in electron microscopy, nanofabrication, and other techniques. How can these accomplishments be leveraged to attract additional partners and users to further maximize impact?

A schematic showing a focused electron beam

Click on the image to download a high-resolution version. A schematic showing a focused electron beam (green) shining through a polymeric film (grey: carbon atoms; red: oxygen atoms; white: hydrogen atoms). The glowing area (yellow) indicates the molecular volume chemically modified by the focused electron beam. A specialized scanning transmission electron microscope at the CFN provides this focused beam, which is precisely moved over a sample to "draw" patterns as small as one nanometer.

The CFN is already set up to find complementary partners and users who can help advance our science while also advancing theirs. I plan to build on this foundation by creating an environment that is not only conducive to scientists continuing to do outstanding science but also one that helps that science have impact in society. In the short term, I will help reinforce relationships between existing partners and users. My long-term goal is to create and execute strategies tailored to the vision of each CFN principal investigator and to help the CFN become a “thick” organization. 

The more people who come to the CFN, the better use we have of our facilities and the higher impact we have. One great example of a technology we’d like to have more partners and users take advantage of is an electron-beam lithography (EBL) system for controllably and efficiently patterning materials as small as a single nanometer. This one-of-a-kind nanoscience tool was developed through a collaboration between CFN and MIT scientists, who pushed the resolution limits of EBL to a new record. JoVE [Journal of Visualized Experiments] recently published a video in which the scientists describe how to do the patterning. We’re excited to see how users apply this tool to study the unique optical, chemical, electric, and other material properties that emerge at such small dimensions.

The next user proposal submission is due January 31. I encourage scientists to apply.

If you are interested in using CFN facilities or partnering with CFN scientists, please contact Priscilla Antunez at (631) 344-6186 or pantunez@bnl.gov.

Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

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2019-14359  |  INT/EXT  |  Media & Communications Office