The Economic Impact of Tech Commercialization
George Jagodzinski (00:00):
On today's episode, we discuss commercialization and how we can leverage partnerships to turn inventions, innovation into full-scale commercialized solutions, and how, only then, do you unlock true impact. I'm joined by Dr. Thomas Cellucci, an early pioneer in nanotechnology, an expert in laser physics, photonics, commercialization, amongst many, many other things. Tom was the first ever Commercialization Officer for the Federal government and, through tremendous success, he's advised four presidents. He's authored over 24 books, continues to push innovation, partnership and commercialization through countless initiatives. A true inspiration, please, welcome Tom.
You're listening to C-Suite Blueprint, the show for C-Suite leaders. Here we discuss no-BS approaches to organizational readiness and digital transformation. Let's start the show.
George Jagodzinski (00:51):
Tom, thanks so much for being here.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (00:53):
My pleasure, George.
George Jagodzinski (00:55):
Tom, we're going to talk about a lot of stuff. You've been pushing innovation for many, many years, and one of those is nanotechnology. About 20 years ago, I saw an article about this space elevator, and I've wanted nothing more to become reality in my lifetime, but it all hinged on advancements in carbon nanotubes. And, I guess, my first question for you - am I going to see a space elevator during my lifetime, Tom?
Dr. Tom Cellucci (01:17):
George, you're the nicest guy I've met in a long time. Unfortunately, I have a little bad news. It's one of those things, in theory, it sounds great. But, if I remember correctly, there were two studies done. One, a theoretical study in Italy. I think it was the University of Turin by someone in, I believe, it was the Department of Mechanical Engineering, that proved that it was impossible for the space elevator to be any length in space. And then, there was a fellow at MIT. If I remember correctly, I may have even met him. He worked at a nano-based company, and his name, I think, is Dave Galles. And he did mathematical calculations to show the elevator would collapse on itself at about 200 to 300 miles. I mean, it is pretty cool, but it's not going to infinity and beyond as the cartoon character said.
George Jagodzinski (02:18):
Well, I'll have to take that off my list of things I need to see.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (02:20):
I'm sorry, man. I'm sorry.
George Jagodzinski (02:22):
But let's go back a little bit. You were the first Commercialization Officer for the government within DHS. I'd love to at least just hear: what was that experience like? Were you welcomed with open arms? Was it super easy, not difficult at all? What was the challenge?
Dr. Tom Cellucci (02:40):
I don't regret any of it, and it was an up-and-down experience, but all good, in retrospect. Basically, I was there to be a change agent. And the risk profile of people in the private sector versus the public sector are very, very different, George. So, here comes this businessman that started or sold four high-tech companies for people, had done well. And I was here to really accelerate how we could use the private sector to help the public sector get things done more economically, efficiently, et cetera.
George Jagodzinski (03:21):
That would be nice.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (03:22):
And, of course, there were a lot of people in the government that looked and said, “This is the way we've been doing it for 50 years. This is the way I think we should continue.” But we had particularly younger people that wrapped their arms around it. And I'll let you know a little secret. I was appointed first by President George W. Bush. And, he said, “Where do you think you would start?” I said, “Homeland Security.” And he said, “Why?” I said, “Homeland Security is a young agency. So, they will be more apt to try new things.” So, that's why I went to Homeland Security.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (03:56):
And what most people didn't know in the public - most people know me from Homeland Security - but I also ran the special programs for the White House and the three letter agencies. They embraced the idea of public-private partnerships because they had extremely critical missions to accomplish, and they wanted to get technology done and commercialized as quickly as possible. I was then reappointed by President Obama, and he was impressed with the things that we could get done. We were saving lots of money per month of taxpayer dollar. And, let's face it, the president, like a lot of other people that walk the halls of con-... they’re politicians, and it made them look good.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (04:41):
So, I was really impressed though that they both wrapped their arms around it. And, quite frankly, I assisted President Trump. I wrote a book for him to use the innovative public-private partnerships for infrastructure and key resource development. Unfortunately, he had COVID happen under his watch. But I did write the book. It's actually on Amazon. And I'm helping President Biden now with a number of things. So, this concept of innovative public-private partnership, where the taxpayer wins, the government wins, and the private sector win, is a no-lose. It's a win, win, win. And, basically, the way it works is the government needs to write detailed operational requirements. In other words, that's a fancy way of saying, George, articulate the problem you're trying to solve. And you don't guarantee in the government, but you estimate what the potential available market, the number of potential users.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (05:45):
But the government has this wonderful opportunity because DHS, for example, let's talk about a biochemical sensor. Well, not only do the people at DHS, at customs border protection, TSA, and others need that, but look at the first responder community. Police could use that. Firefighters could use it.
George Jagodzinski (06:07):
Dr. Tom Cellucci (06:08):
You know, what people in the government didn't recognize because they don't think in terms of markets, but they’re a huge market. And, if you looked at all the ancillary markets, for example, people were shocked. Most people think there's about two to three million first responders. Actually, according to, I think, it was called Presidential Directive number 8, there was more like 25.3 million people in the first responder community. And when I taught at Harvard and Wharton, we had a term for that: one big damn market. So, I was able to get the private sector to use their resources, their time. I would put out detailed operational requirements, and estimated the potential available market, and they would come back with a solution or a program that they would do all at their cost.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (07:02):
And I would say, “If you're giving me a product or a service, you have to have third-party independent testing.” They would pay for it. And then, it was a certification program. The following products or services can meet the needs. It created competition. The pricing went lower. The first experiment was done with Secretary Michael Chertoff. And, when I first got to meet him and we talked, he said, “I like to do experiments.” I said, “Me too. What's really bothering you?” And, in those days, buses were being blown up, subway cars, trains. He said, “I would like something, Tommy, that we could learn, get some analytics, if something like this happens and is low enough for the average business owner to buy.” He said, “We're spending $15,000, $20,000 for one basically camera [sic].” So, I wrote the detailed operation requirement - was no more than a page and a half - put the potential available market, and, no kidding, in less than three months, we had four people that had working prototypes. And he put a price on it to be less than 600.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (08:15):
And I saw him a couple weeks later and he said, “How's it going?” I said, “Okay,” because he kind of had a bet that this wasn't going to happen. If he's going to get the new private sector guy, he's going to teach me about government. I said, “Well, I failed.” He said, “Well, don't be too hard on yourself.” I said, “We didn't make your $600 price. We're at about $243.” He said, “You're kidding.” And that's what started things off. And that technology, that kind of technology, is what ended up catching those people. I know you're in the Boston area. I'm from the Boston area. That's the technology that was so inexpensive. It could be used on buildings that caught those two guys in the Boston Marathon bombing. I'm very proud of that. And there were many other examples.
George Jagodzinski (09:01):
So great hearing those success stories.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (09:04):
And what's proud…, unlike you, who are young and full of hope, I'm old and full of other things. But that program that started at DHS, it has a different name, but it's all throughout government now. So, change can happen. And I get nice notes on LinkedIn or that email saying, “Dr. Cellucci, you don't know me, but we use your program. We call it this. We're saving tons of money. But, just as importantly, we're getting to our missions in one-tenth the time it used to take.”
George Jagodzinski (09:36):
And I know you're joking about being old and full of other things, but you are so driven and still pushing innovation. Just today, you were telling me about this new innovative deal. I want to hear about that. But what keeps you driven? What keeps you pushing innovation? What fuels that?
Dr. Tom Cellucci (09:53):
It's funny. The whole concept of technology development is really broken up into three major parts, I would say: invention, innovation, and, finally, commercialization. Commercialization is the most gratifying because it helps the socioeconomic parameters of a country, of a region, of a nation. And that's why I get so excited. I happen to be on the International Science and Commercialization Board of the World Bank, and I travel all over the world. And I work with countries that have younger scientists and engineers than we do. And I've been very successful in pushing the concept of commercialization, not just R&D because commercialization gives you the impact, the economic impact, that the presidents of these countries want. It's great to invent, to have one world or one real application, but it's the mass commercialization of something that brings prosperity to a region, an area, a country.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (11:14):
And I just truly enjoy doing that. And, also, I do teach. I enjoy it. And I like working with a lot of young people and giving them practical knowledge, and to say that, “You know, being a scientist, an engineer, I'm a laser spectroscopist, laser physicist - you don't have to be boring. You can get involved in business.” In fact, high-tech businesses usually provide the biggest rewards. So, that's why I'm kind of in it. And, as I tell everyone, they said, “You could have retired a long time ago.” Yes, it's true. But I'll retire when I'm dead, George.
George Jagodzinski (11:53):
When I think about my future, I always think, “Man, I've made so many mistakes in my life.” If I can't teach other people to learn from those in my retirement, then it'll be a waste, all those mistakes I've made.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (12:07):
But George, that's great, what you just said. You're smart because show me a person that makes mistakes and I'm showing you a person that tries things. Just try. I tell people all the time in companies that I'm honored to manage, “It's okay to make mistakes. Try not to make the same mistake 15 times and just learn from your mistakes. Making mistakes tells me you can take risks.” That's important in life, in business, and most other things.
George Jagodzinski (12:35):
Yeah, that's fantastic. And I love those three layers that you talked about: invention, innovation, commercialization. It's funny. I don't know if they still do it, but DARPA had a similar three-phase structure to a lot of the work that they would do over there, which makes a lot of sense. Can we talk a little bit about the latest innovation deal that you push because I think I heard lasers? I think I heard nuclear. I don't know what the details were, but it sounded cool. I want to hear about it.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (13:01):
Yeah. Well, one thing that I'm heavily involved in, I think that your audience would be interested in, is I'm with a younger company doing nanotechnology. And what's so unique about this company is nano's been around, but they are now working on phenomenal capabilities in terms of nano-based solutions. This one thing COVID taught us: we really weren't prepared in terms of disinfection and keeping ourselves, our homes, our infrastructures safe. These folks, in short order, have gotten a portfolio of about 24 patents. 13, I believe, are already awarded. The rest are pending. That deal with being antiviral, antifungal, antibacterial, and last with third-party independent testing in government labs for 20 months or so. Think about if we had that capability when COVID - by the way, it's not going away. It's going to continue other strains and other types of gobbly-gook, as I call it, will hit our society around the world. But they've been able to, in short order, get these abilities, and you know you have a winner when potential customers are coming to your company.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (14:29):
It's a great company. And we have this commonality in Boston, in the Boston area, called JP Industries International. We were just written up about a month and a half ago in Forbes. Very rare for Forbes Magazine to bring out a smaller company like that, but it deserved every bit of it. The latest thing that we talked about just before going on the podcast was I was asked to get involved with a firm. You may have heard that there's something called the National Ignition Facility. And, I mentioned to you, my background is laser spectroscopist, laser physicist. In fact, I started my career after Shell Oil Company, the founder of what is now the largest laser company in the world, Coherent, headquarters in California, said, “For a laser physicist, you're not that strange. Did you ever think about getting into business?” And I believe I was the first PhD that they had hired for sales, and my accounts were AT&T, MIT, basically the east coast, IBM. Steve Chu, who was the Secretary of Energy, we designed lasers for him, and that garnered him the Nobel prize for his optical molasses experiments.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (15:49):
And he's such a gracious guy. I wrote to him saying, “Steve, I don't know if you remember me.” [Steve]: “Of course, I remember you. I remember you were the guy on the floor at Bell Labs with me on weekends, teaching me how to use these lasers.” But the bottom line is the U.S. government, no kidding, George, has put over $5 billion in trying to produce laser-induced fusion. And the idea of fusion is what creates energy in the stars, the sun. It's green. It's clean. It's very abundant. And so, the NIF, the National Ignition Facility, just a couple days ago, talked about results, and I believe the results were probably nine months to one year old, said that they have gotten to show the capability of doing this. And what they're doing is using a whole series of laser beams to impinge a pellet, if you will, to create this fusion reaction, and the world's very interested.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (17:04):
So, I will tell you, about a week or so ago, maybe 10 days ago, we did close a deal with a firm commitment to 500 million with another 1.5 billion if we need it. So, we're now working with - I can't speak a lot about it over in a podcast - but we're speaking with a lot of people in our government, the Department of Energy, the White House, and to try to get this moving because that would be a terrific commercialization project for our nation because other nations, not only would we be the leaders, they certainly are interested in it and could use it.
George Jagodzinski (17:49):
Yeah, I think I've read recently there an article that there was a breakthrough on the ignition phase of fusion or something like that. Is that related?
Dr. Tom Cellucci (17:57):
That's absolutely correct, George. That's it. That actual experiment actually happened, I believe, about nine months ago to a year ago, but that's exactly what we want to commercialize. It's going to take time. It's going to take money, and it's very analogous. The government really did invent the internet, but it took the private sector to build it through, commercialize it, and monetize it - same kind of idea here.
George Jagodzinski (18:26):
Yeah. Thank you, government, and thank you, Vint Cerf, a previous podcast guest on-
Dr. Tom Cellucci (18:30):
Vint Cerf is the nicest guy in the world. I remember him in the government, and I finally remembered him. He was, I guess, the Chief Evangelist for Google if I remember his title. Great person. Vint is a great guy.
George Jagodzinski (18:44):
And the best dressed, I find.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (18:46):
George Jagodzinski (18:49):
So, let's go back a little bit to what makes these partnerships successful and what are the pitfalls in them. The one thing I really loved that you did with your partnerships as the Commercialization Officer is finding the path of least resistance. The people that really... You knew it wasn't going to be a fight. And my guess is then when you get down the road, you start to get real success, and then the people that were resistant, they start to smell that and they're like, “Hey, can we get a little bit of that over here? It smells good whatever you guys are cooking over there.” So, what are-
Dr. Tom Cellucci (19:22):
Well, there was no real secret to it, George. And, in fact, I asked both President George W. Bush and President Obama when I work with them, I said, “Look, I really hope you can do me a favor.” And they say, “What could I do to help?” And I said, “I just want to be able to use your name, not all the time, but when I needed it,” because the government is all about pleasing the master of the master of the master. The top master is the President of the United States. And if he, or, someday, she, wants something done, guess what? It gets done no matter what any government person wants. So, anyone that would give me... My experience was it's like losing weight. It wasn't working with the top people in the government. The cabinet people - I didn't care about if they were Democrats, Republicans, they understood the merits to this.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (20:19):
The younger people that usually were the new folks in the government, they wrapped their arms around it. It's like losing weight. The hardest part is the middle, George. And it was those folks that had been there for 15, 20, 25 years, they resisted it until, to your point, George, they were seeing that the President of the United States was interested in it, Congress was interested in. It saved money, it brought things to market faster. And it created the good competition that lowered the price that the American people had to pay for equipment, services, et cetera. It's just simple, and I was getting all these awards, and I would say to President Bush, and I said to him, once, I said, “You know, I'm getting these awards and this is just common sense.” And he looked right at me and he said, “Tommy,” he said. “And that's what we need: common sense. They should give you the award.”
Dr. Tom Cellucci (21:17):
It was very nice, but it was a very poignant time. He was very good, and so was President Obama. And they really supported everything, and they would be interested to update them on things. But they didn't worry about commercialization. It was working. And they were just always saying to me, “Think about how you are going to be able to spread this when you're not here.” And that's why I used to spend a lot of time with people in different agencies and give speeches. I went through about 9,000 business cards a month in the government, from giving conferences and talking to other agencies.
George Jagodzinski (21:55):
Dr. Tom Cellucci (21:55):
But I look back on it with fond memories. And, if you have people in your audience that think everyone is just there pushing a button in the government, you have the ability to change things. I wasn't there for 40 years. I was there for four years. And, after the first year, we saw changes. And, to your point, once people see the dynamic... See, the difference is, in the private sector, people are rewarded for financial results. In the government sector, what you're noted for is what's your budget and how many people. I didn't say one thing about the accomplishment or any accomplishment. That's the difference.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (22:41):
And I used to say to the presidents - and they were awesome - I would say, “Please let me bring people in here to shake your hand, give a certificate because that'll mean more to them.” And it did. And so, it came into leadership, as well, to foster this idea. It's not just about how much money and how many people you have. They were probably thinking I was a heretic. I would draw the organization chart when I went into a big group and I put myself in an inverted triangle in the bottom. And these govies [sic] that have been there, military guys, three, four stars are looking at me like this guy's kooky.
George Jagodzinski (23:21):
Dr. Tom Cellucci (23:22):
And I said, “My job is to make everyone else successful.” And they'd be like... And that's kind of a military goal. And the people would look, and they never believed it until I started bringing in the pizza for lunch, and we used to talk, and I would sit down with them and say, “What can I do to make you successful? What do you need?” But then, the word got around after, I think, the second pizza lunch: he's serious and he's doing it. That's what did it. It's not rocket science.
George Jagodzinski (23:53):
Yeah. It's not.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (23:54):
It's called being friendly and helping others. That's what it is.
George Jagodzinski (23:59):
It's funny how uncommon common sense can be. Most times, I feel like that's the harshness of reality.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (24:05):
George Jagodzinski (24:06):
But yeah, just is that making everyone around you look good, simplifying things. We don't have to make it that complicated. One of my prior episodes, we talked about entropy, and just human nature just seems to be to make things complicated over time, and we just have to keep pulling it back to simplify.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (24:24):
It's funny. I gave what ended up probably being a four or five-hour course in Boston last week to some people in this nanotech company that I'm proud to be the CEO and a board member. And they were so scared of all of these words that the physicists are using about nanotech. I said, “I'm going to teach you everything you'll ever need to know about nanotechnology. It'll take three or four hours, and we're not going to have books, no tests. And we're going to talk in plain language because my father, rest his soul said, ‘If you can't explain it to an eight-year-old, you don't understand it.’”
Dr. Tom Cellucci (25:05):
And just the expressions on the face after this four-hour session, they said, “Tom, it's all regular stuff. It's the words that throw you off.” And I said, “Yeah, it's just like” - to your point - “it's a fancy way to keep people at supposedly a different level.” I find, when you speak, speak simply, and people respect that more. So, I taught them, probably, half of a course I used to teach in advanced physics and laser physics at Princeton, but I just used the simple language. That's all.
George Jagodzinski (25:40):
I love that. And as a father of a five-year-old daughter, who's been asking a lot more questions, I'm very recently strengthening that muscle of trying to figure out how you explain these complex topics. Did you say laser molasses, or what was it? Optical molasses?
Dr. Tom Cellucci (25:56):
Oh yeah. Optical molasses was the experiment that Steve Chu and his colleagues performed at Bell Laboratories, doesn't exist anymore, in north New Jersey. Basically, he took beams of laser light and froze molecules, and that's what he won the Nobel prize for.
George Jagodzinski (26:20):
And what are you doing with the World Bank? I'm very interested in the commercialization aspect there.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (26:25):
Yeah, the World Bank... I just got back from a long trip a couple of weeks ago from Turkey, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan. And, when the World Bank lends usually 500 million or more money and involves science technology, engineering, I'm one of several people that would go and look at the proposals, make sure they're real, they're scientifically or engineering sound, and then monitor those programs. And, of course, I'm one of the gray-haired old guys that is on there because I'm always pushing the idea of commercialization, and I also talk to them about raising money, whether it be private equity, mom-and-pop type investment. And so, we ensure that the funds that are being used in these countries are for the advancement of that country in terms of the commercialization of technology that they're developing because, once again, as I said, it's really commercialization that brings economic prosperity to a people or a country or a region.
George Jagodzinski (27:39):
I'm someone who loves frameworks or criteria. When you're looking at these proposals and you're thinking, “Can this be commercialized?” Do you have a simple framework or simple criteria that you use when you look at those?
Dr. Tom Cellucci (27:52):
Well, absolutely. What the countries allow us to do because, again, unlike you who are young and full of hope, I'm old and full of other things. I actually wrote or co-authored 25 books. Many of them are on commercialization. So, what I do is one of my roles is, before they even write proposals, I provide lots of data. I developed worksheets for them to read and understand and ask questions. So, when it gets time to write a proposal, they know what a potential available market is, what a new product development process looks like, what an independent third-party test and evaluation is so, when they build up the models, and I've seen throughout the years of doing this, they are getting better and better. And, I have to tell you, we don't have the corner market anymore in the United States on commercialization. Just think about it.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (28:53):
I talk about it. The three segments of technology development. Invention: I still believe the United States is the leader of invention because I think we still have the best university-college systems in the world. That's why most of these countries around the world send their best students…
George Jagodzinski (29:12):
Totally agree. Yeah.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (29:12):
... to the U.S., to attend university. But, when it comes to innovation, commercialization, look at the semiconductor industry. Look at some of the auto industry. Look at some of the things - advanced manufacturing. There are countries that have taken and looked at those inventions and got applications or innovations first, which then enabled them quickly to go to commercialization, which, again, talks about markets, market segments, applications, and monetizing this technology. So, there are parts of the world that are doing quite well, one of which is China, for example, as well as countries like Korea, Taiwan. I mean, we're bragging about we're getting semiconductor. We needed to get semiconductor here in the United States. The Taiwanese really have had the corner market in that.
George Jagodzinski (30:18):
Yeah. Tom, can I be on Tommy terms now with you?
Dr. Tom Cellucci (30:22):
Sure. You can call me Tommy.
George Jagodzinski (30:24):
Dr. Tom Cellucci (30:25):
Just never call me late for dinner. Go ahead.
George Jagodzinski (30:27):
Dr. Tom Cellucci (30:28):
Tell Vint Cerf I said that. He can use that.
George Jagodzinski (30:31):
Even if you wanted to retire, I don't think you can because there's never been a time, it feels like, that commercialization has been at such a critical time for this country. It just feels so important right now.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (30:44):
True. Plus, we have a lot of debt in this country, and we need to generate money for our country and our people and jobs. One thing that every politician I ever met always talks about is jobs. And they understand why. Not only because it wins elections - because that drives an economy, as well.
George Jagodzinski (31:03):
Well, Tommy, you're truly inspiring. I love these stories, and I love what you're doing out in the world. Something I'd like to finish on is to hear from you throughout your years, what's the best advice you've ever received?
Dr. Tom Cellucci (31:17):
The best advice I ever received is it's okay to ask questions. There's no such thing as a stupid question, only stupid answers. And the best thing is from a relative of mine who I admired - he happened to be a politician, but he wasn't the typical politician you see today. His name was Paul Cellucci. He was the two-time governor of Massachusetts and then was made the ambassador of Canada. The man never lost an election in 39 years.
George Jagodzinski (31:50):
Dr. Tom Cellucci (31:50):
He happened to be a Republican in a Democratic Commonwealth called Massachusetts. And I used to just say to myself, “How could this be? Pauly never lost an election. Why?” He had a simple operating philosophy: be nice and listen. Paul didn't care if you were an Independent, Democrat, Republican, anything. If you had an idea that would help the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, he wanted to hear it. And if you happen to be hungry, too, and you like spaghetti, he took you to the north end, and you had a bowl of spaghetti to talk over it with. And I think this idea of be nice, be helpful genuinely, and ask questions, and then, in turn, listen, and make sure when you give answers, you give the correct answers, especially to young people.
George Jagodzinski (32:46):
That's wonderful. I love it. And I also love a nice dinner in the north end. Tommy, that's highly recommended. I really appreciate everything you do and I appreciate your time here. Thanks so much.
Dr. Tom Cellucci (32:56):
It was great, George. Thank you.
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