In FNL-Backed Partnership, Students FLEX Their Skills and Feds Benefit

By Roni Madilo, WHK student intern, Center for Innovation and Strategic Partnerships
Graphic of two people connecting large puzzle pieces, with a light bulb representing an idea

Credit: vectorjuice/Freepik

A new drug and vaccine delivery method that utilizes synthetic bacterial nanoparticles could improve chemotherapy treatments, and a groundbreaking alternative to drilled wells may soon be breaking ground in agricultural areas. The Federal Laboratory Education Accelerator and the work of Master of Business Administration (MBA) students across the country are helping move these and other far-ranging technologies out of the laboratory and into the market.

FLEX is a pilot program out of Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer (FLC) that acts as a bridge, connecting MBA students with an extensive portfolio of licensable technologies from various federal laboratories. It allows the students to use the technologies as the subject of an entrepreneurial element of a business course, often with larger benefits.

Frederick National Laboratory has played a key role in piloting and now expanding the FLEX program. Whether it be building partnerships with federal agencies and laboratories or communicating with qualified professors at universities, FNL’s Center for Innovation and Strategic Partnerships, as a member of the FLC, helps to ensure the program’s success.

FLC is a nationwide network of over 300 federal laboratories, agencies, and research centers that supports the transfer of technology and scientific ideas while facilitating collaborations and partnerships between federal laboratories and other organizations. Commercialization is a key component of the FLC mission, with various opportunities for accelerating federal technologies out of the laboratories and into the marketplace.

Founding a Foundation

FNL Chief Innovation Officer Vladimir Popov, Ph.D., who serves as the FLC Mid-Atlantic regional coordinator and on the FLC executive board, founded FLEX to meet a need in the academic community.

Drawing from his personal experience while completing his MBA, as well as from the feedback he received when meeting with federal labs in the Mid-Atlantic region, Popov identified room for improvement in partnerships between federal labs and business schools. Instead of one-off relationships, where students and labs may lack chances for strong connections, he realized that creating diverse federal technology portfolios from multiple labs would enable a better match between students’ technical interests and the technologies they would work on.

This experience, as well as his connection with the FLC, inspired Popov to start the FLEX program so that students have better opportunities to grow in their respective fields while still gaining knowledge and preparing for a career in business.

Amanda Corbel, partnership alliance manager at FNL, has since joined Popov, playing a crucial role in the program’s growth and maintenance. She oversees communication between the laboratories and the schools and is a FLEX spokesperson, contributing to the program’s outreach.

“I’m always looking for new labs and new schools that want to join,” she said. “A lot of that’s outreach, looking through their technology or patent portfolios to identify … tech that I think would be a good fit for students.”

Impacts Inside and Outside of the Classroom

FNL’s work with FLEX has helped provide technology for dozens of MBA students. Professors and students say they’ve seen success in their classes due to the diverse portfolio provided to them.

“The level of professionalism, enthusiasm, and diligence from partnering with the FLC FLEX teams cannot be matched!” said Roy Thomason, Ph.D., lecturer at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business, one of FLEX’s participating institutions, in an email.

Through FLEX, students can gain direct experience with federal technology while the federal laboratories also benefit by having students do assessments on technology through their courses.

“Participating in the FLEX program has allowed my students to apply their MBA theories and concepts. In doing so, they encounter the ‘messiness’ of real-world problems,” said Nicole Coomber, Ph.D., a clinical professor, academic director, and assistant dean at the Robert H. Smith School of Business.

By having these experiences with the guidance of the FLEX staff, government partners, and faculty, students are better prepared for jobs once they graduate.

One group at the Robert H. Smith School of Business worked with the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) “Safe, Directional, Drought-Resistant Dug Well” technology, an inexpensive alternative to drilled wells designed to resist drought and bacterial contamination. The USGS was seeking ways to apply this technology to rural areas. Students working with this technology were able to find target states and counties in which this well technology would be the most efficient.

Graduate students from Cornell University selected a National Cancer Institute invention that uses synthetic bacterial nanoparticles as drug and vaccine delivery vehicles. The students identified a large market opportunity, based on the laboratory preclinical work that demonstrates that the invention has potential to reduce chemotherapy side effects and treatment time. The Cornell students built a potential business model around the technology and conducted extensive market research. The NCI inventor, Kumaran Ramamurthi, Ph.D., met with the students several times throughout the project to provide expert input—and to learn from their market assessment.

“Working with our FLEX partners, students encountered the exciting technologies being developed by civil servants in the U.S. government and offered solutions to bring these technologies to market,” Coomber said.

Looking Ahead

As of the end of 2022, FLEX had 16 participating laboratories, nine universities, and 80 technologies in its portfolio.

“I highly recommend that any university or lab partner with the FLC FLEX programs,” Thomason said.


Roni Madilo was a Werner H. Kirsten intern in the Frederick National Laboratory Center for Innovation and Strategic Partnerships. Among its functions, CISP establishes the partnerships and collaborations among Frederick National Laboratory scientists and external researchers in government, academia, industry, and the nonprofit research sector.