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Laboratory Law Heats Up, Part Two: Research Labs

August 7, 2017 | Purdue Global Law School

Research labs present a second law practice opportunity involving what can be called "laboratory law." However, this practice is very different from what is involved in clinical laboratory law. Whereas the clinical context involves a heavy dose of regulatory compliance counseling, the research lab version focuses intensely on transactions.

The Research Lab and Affiliates' Universe

Research laboratories are a powerful driver of the U.S. economy. The universe of research labs and the organizations that profit from their work is large and growing larger. The major player types are described below. When viewing this list, keep in mind that these labs and related organizations are all potentially fair game as either employers or clients.

Categories of Research Labs

Research labs can be divided into several main types:

Federal Labs

The U.S. government, either directly or through contractors, administers more than 700 research labs that perform research and development (R&D) across a multitude of fields. A substantial number of these labs have their own in-house counsel office. A significant number also have an intellectual property (IP) office separate from their legal office. These IP offices focus their attention primarily on patent prosecution.

Approximately 315 federal labs engage in technology transfer. These labs want to commercialize their R&D and turn them over to the private sector through a variety of devices-primarily licenses, outright sales, joint public-private partnerships, and Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs). Thousands of innovative technologies have been transferred to the private sector over the years.

Federal Agencies

In addition, a number of federal agencies and offices also engage in legal and law-related functions very similar to what attorneys working for federal laboratories do, mainly with respect to technology commercialization:

National Aeronautics and Space Administration, primarily through the following:

  • Technology Commercialization Office, Goddard Space Flight Center

  • Kennedy Space Center

  • NASA Glenn Research Center

Department of Agriculture, primarily through its Technology Transfer Office, Agricultural Research Service

Department of Energy, primarily through the following:

  • Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility

  • Chicago Operations Office

  • Oakland Operations Office

Department of Commerce, primarily through the following:

  • U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

  • Technology Partnerships Office, National Institute of Standards and Technology

  • National Technical Information Service

  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

  • National Telecommunications and Information Administration

Department of Defense, primarily through the following:

  • Defense Advanced Research and Projects Agency

  • Defense Technical Information Center

  • National Imagery and Mapping Agency

  • Army Materiel Command

  • Army Aviation and Missile Command

  • Office of Naval Research

Department of Health and Human Services, primarily through the following:

  • National Institutes of Health

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  • Agency for Health Care Research and Quality

Department of Interior, primarily through the U.S. Geological Survey`

Department of Transportation

National Science Foundation

Environmental Protection Agency

Federal Communications Commission

Department of Homeland Security

Small Business Administration

NASA alone is responsible for some of the most significant technology commercialization successes in our history, including such items as pocket calculators, satellite phones, digital watches, Kevlar, fiber optics, compact discs, MRI scanners, cellular phones, cable television, GPS and smoke detectors, among others.

University Labs

The university laboratory research community is large, growing, and prosperous, bringing institutions many millions of dollars each year, according to the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM). The numbers tell the story. AUTM's FY 2014 Licensing Survey found that universities…

  • awarded 5,435 research/technology licenses to the private sector (up 4.5% over the prior year);

  • executed 1,461 options (up 7.7%);

  • executed 549 licenses containing equity (up 17%);

  • formed 914 startup companies (up 11.7%);

  • had 4,688 startups still operating as of the end of FY2014 (up 11.4%);

  • created 965 new commercial products (up 34.2%); and

  • were issued 6,363 U.S. patents (up 11%).

More than 250 universities have major technology commercialization programs. Attorney and law-related jobs in this sector can be found in university general counsel offices, IP offices, research and sponsored program offices, and increasingly in offices of technology transfer. Note: office names may vary considerably from one institution to another.

Other Research Labs

Research institutions are closely related to universities in both their legal structure (most are nonprofit corporations) and in how they go about transferring technology to the private sector for commercial purposes.

As with universities, technology commercialization is big business for research institutions, and is growing at a comparable rate.

A selected list of the most prominent research institutions includes:

  • Rockefeller Institute

  • Bell Labs

  • Scripps Research Institute

  • Carnegie Institute for Science

  • SRI International

  • IRIS


A growing number of America's hospitals engage in research with commercial potential and have been developing technology transfer mechanisms. Selected ones include:

The technology transfer function is nowhere nearly as evolved in the hospital community as it is in the other sectors discussed above. However, its upside is very promising.



Corporations can be found on both sides of technology commercialization transactions. A number of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics)-oriented companies maintain their own research functions and develop their own commercial products (3M is a great example) and/or license them to other companies.

Thousands of companies enter into agreements with research labs through which they secure innovation that they proceed to commercialize.

Law Firms

Law firms with IP practices increasingly offer legal services involving technology commercialization and/or intellectual asset management (IAM) advice and counsel to their clients. This is a response to the burgeoning market for these services from companies, universities, government, hospitals, and other research labs. In fact, a growing number of firms are separating out this function from their IP practices and creating parallel practice groups.

Law Firm Subsidiaries

Law firm subsidiaries (a.k.a. "ancillary businesses") are an expanding phenomenon in the increasingly business-focused legal industry. IAM and technology commercialization are popular practice arenas for subsidiaries. The point here is to be able to provide multidisciplinary services (legal services included) to clients. This is rapidly becoming a very large and important business.

Consulting Firms

There are now hundreds of consulting firms that focus on advising their clients on IAM. Many of them employ attorneys.


First and most importantly, you do not have to be a patent attorney or have a STEM background to get a job with a research lab. While such a background will help in some circumstances, the more important skill sets have to do with your ability to identify commercializable technologies and other innovations, negotiate agreements with licensees and partners, and administer these arrangements.

Positioning Yourself

Monitoring the Innovation Scene

Keeping up with the "innovation Joneses" is something you can do to get advance notice of where technological trends are heading. Translated, that means advance information on where such jobs are likely to be found. The Federal Laboratory Consortium (FLC) maintains an "Available Technologies" search tool. You can also review government policy and commercialization initiatives likely to have a major impact on business and, therefore, on job opportunities by monitoring the activities and research reports of the following U.S. Government organizations:

Supplemental Education

It is always a good idea in this highly competitive legal job market to find ways to supplement your credentials in order to better position yourself for job opportunities. This is especially true when it comes to research lab and related jobs. The following is a selection of inexpensive programs that you may wish to consider:

About The Author

Purdue Global Law School

Established in 1998, Purdue Global Law School (formerly Concord Law School) is Purdue University's fully online law school for working adults.

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