Hub firm taps military research

Goal is to find commercial applications


The list of groundbreaking technologies that have been developed by US-funded research laboratories is long and illustrious: the Internet, global positioning systems, lithium ion batteries, and many wireless communications breakthroughs.

Now a Boston investment company, Allied Minds Inc., is tapping into this legacy of innovation with a new business to commercialize military technology developed at Department of Defense laboratories and research centers.

“There is amazing technology being developed in miliary laboratories, but a lot of it is sitting on the shelf,” said Chris Silva, the chief executive of Allied Minds. “We think there’s an opportunity to use that technology to develop commercial products and create companies.”

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The new business, Allied Minds Federal Innovations Inc., is the first private investment firm to enter into partnership agreements with Defense Department research laboratories to create a systematic approach to identifying technology that has potential for commercial development.

The company’s model is to form new firms that work directly on product development, and it has already done so with two technologies developed at Defense Department labs in California and Indiana: Allied Communications is working on ways to better manage the cellular spectrum, and Broadcast Routing Fountains is trying to improve the way information is routed around the Internet.

The military’s deal with Allied Minds is part of a broader push by the US government to see more taxpayer-funded research turned into commercial products, helping to boost the domestic economy as well as get money back from its investments. For example, the Obama administration in late 2011 issued two presidential memorandums designed to speed the transfer of federal research and development from the lab to the market.

Among the federal labs that licensed technology to Allied Minds is Aerospace Corp., which conducts research for the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office. Gary Pulliam, vice president of civil and commercial operations, welcomed the partnership with Allied Minds.

“They are good at what we’re not good at,” Pulliam said. “We’re innovators, not entrepreneurs. They bring the business acumen.”

Allied Minds has done this sort of work before with a different population of researchers: universities and private institutions. Since 2006, it has launched around 20 companies built on research spun out of Harvard, Tufts, and dozens of other institutions around the country.

Some of Allied Minds’ most successful launches include RF Biocidics, developed at the University of California Davis, which uses radio waves to destroy insects and pathogens in food. SoundCure, another spinoff from the University of California, is developing a consumer medical device that combats the impact of tinnitus, the condition that causes ringing in the ears.

Allied Minds typically hires an experienced executive to run the subsidiary and then helps out with difficult tasks such as raising money, and more mundane chores such as back office services.

Its companies will pay the Pentagon labs standard royalty rates and licensing terms, and any money made from products developed by US-funded technology will be shared with the government labs.

“Over time, as the companies become successful, we believe that will be a substantial amount of money that will go back into the labs,” said Silva.

Allied Minds’ goals with the Defense Department are the creation of about 20 spinoff companies a year and expanding the number of Pentagon-related research operations under contract. Those could include the US Army Natick Soldier Systems Center in Natick and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory and MITRE Corp., both in Bedford.

The goal, said John Serafini, the director of Allied Minds’ federal research program, is to identify promising patents in the US military’s extensive portfolio and then develop “dual-use technologies” that can be used for both military and commercial purposes.

“One of the greatest challenges is getting innovative ideas over what has come to be known as ‘the commercialism valley of death,’ ” Serafini said, referring to the difficulty many researchers have turning their ideas into viable products. “We can help with that.”

He said the military technology Allied Minds expects to license has already been carefully vetted by the Pentagon to ensure it is appropriate for commercial release.

William Aulet, a senior lecturer and managing director in the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management, likes the concept behind Allied Minds.

“The biggest challenge for many innovators isn’t technology,’’ he said. “It’s putting their inventions together with people who can commercialize them. Government labs in particular are not entrepreneurial or market-driven. They need outsiders like Allied Minds to help them identify and market their inventions.”