Why attempt the entrepreneurial life?

By Neal Singer

Photography By Randy Montoya

Friday, October 02, 2015

Two Sandia researchers on leave share their experiences

MURAT OKANDAN, left, and Jose Luis Cruz Campa are on entrepreneurial leave from Sandia to try to bring “solar glitter” to the marketplace.

What leads a Sandia researcher to take entrepreneurial leave?  Is it money? A desire to be one's own boss? An attempt to take one's ideas into a production phase that would be impossible at a national lab?

When people used to working in an existing management structure have to deal with each other with no role predefined, who's the boss? Whose intuitions should be followed? Which deals should be made? And how do researchers meet existing financial obligations without their paychecks arriving on a regular basis?

Sandians-on-entrepreneurial-leave Murat Okandan and Jose Luis Cruz Campa recently shared their experiences as they attempt to launch their company mPower (as in “empower”), an enterprise based on research performed at Sandia by themselves and others.

 The company's opening research gambit rests upon a high-profile invention known colloquially as “solar glitter” — a method of using computer chip fabrication facilities to create solar cells so small and thin that they resemble pieces of glitter. The two researchers believe their potential product to be more efficient and cheaper than those of competitors who have relied on more conventional production means to create photovoltaic units. But how can Jose Luis and Murat expect their new company to survive in today’s cutthroat solar market? What got them started, and what keeps them going?

‘Living the dream’

Jose Luis, born in Massachusetts, grew up in Mexico City where he did his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana. In 2004, at the age of 23, he returned to the US to earn his master’s degree in physics and PhD in electrical engineering at UTEP.

But he never forgot the environment of his boyhood years in Mexico City, where his dad was a university professor working for the petrochemical business. “Mexico City is the third largest city in the world, but I always saw scarcity,” says Jose Luis. “They would shut down the water for a few days at a time during the hot months. There was always a line to get goods and services. The subway was so crowded, it was almost impossible to get through the door. The pollution one time got so bad it killed birds and the elderly.”

On a pollution scale that topped out at 100 as the maximum tolerable, “one time we hit 500,” he says. “We're killing ourselves,” he decided early on. “We can’t put a bunch of cars in a basin [the situation in Mexico City] and burn all the oil we want.”

Now Mexico City has instituted new laws for cars, he says.  There is more public transport, and pollution has decreased substantially. But Jose Luis’ early experiences led to an intense interest in conservation. He drives a Prius and deliberately has chosen to live in a small house. For his master's degree, his project was solar cells. His PhD focused on Sandia microsystem photovoltaics.

He has no children to support. His wife, a UNM counselor, backs his plunge into environmentally based entrepreneurialism.

“I'm living the dream,” he says.

Petroleum is too valuable to burn

Murat, with two young children and a wife who is a medical librarian, spent his first year of life in Palo Alto, California, where his parents were engineering students at Stanford. When the family returned to Turkey, his mom started a petroleum engineering department at an Ankara university and his dad was employed as a mining engineer. Murat himself achieved his bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD, all at Penn State in electrical engineering.

His background, growing up in an engineering household, made him conscious that “petroleum and natural gas are much more valuable as a complex chemical feedstock material than just something to burn. We need to use our resources in the most efficient way possible for the future.” So, over the years, he's become a missionary for photovoltaics (PV).

“We're not inheriting the world from our parents, we're borrowing it from our kids,” he says epigramatically. “The way we're using energy, we're not going to leave them a pretty legacy.  Solar is one aspect of a solution. I just so happen to think it's THE one.”

The sun, he says, “is a perfectly placed wireless provider of energy 24/7. And you don't have to worry about activation products, containment, or other challenges facing our other fusion reactors.” Photovoltaic cells, he says, require a little bit of aluminum and copper, but they’re basically all silicon. “In energy payback, it takes two years before [a PV panel] pays back the energy it took to build it. With fossil fuels, there are mining costs, CO2 reclamation difficulties. . . ”

A strong motivator

Believing that your business could save the world is a strong motivator when your company hits a stumbling block, and the little business did.

 But at first, work at Sandia seemed to indicate that a golden road would open. News of Sandia’s first micron-sized solar particles which, placed on a light, flexible backing, could absorb sunlight on one side of their structure and spit out electrical energy on the other, led to interest from investors around the world. Truman Fellow Greg Nielson, one of the key members of the PV research, was selected as “one of the 10 brightest young scientists for 2013” in a contest sponsored by Popular Science magazine.

And the technology improved when Sandia researchers, including Jose Luis and Murat, were able to increase the amount of sunlight absorbed and electrical energy released per given area. Government agencies and industrial companies expressed interest. It seemed that a spin-off company to make solar glitter was a commercial possibility.

“Sandia has a direct line of sight into aerospace, but there’s consumer electronics, residential rooftop solar, and other applications,” says Murat.

So several brave souls agreed to activate Sandia’s entrepreneurial clause, which permits Sandia researchers to start a private company with a safety net: If the company flops, a return to Sandia within two years is guaranteed.

The company almost scuttled

But even before the licenses were issued — a time-consuming negotiation in itself —  and business financial support attained, complications in the teaming arrangements almost scuttled the nascent company. Conditions at Sandia are highly structured. There's just so much space to work, just so much money to work with, processes that must be followed, a vision that must be explained to DOE or other funding source, managers to update, colleagues to persuade to join a project.

But in the big world, reality is hazier. If you're good at Sandia, does that mean you’re going to be effective in the competitive commercial world? You can write a business plan in bureaucratic language, but can you write one for a private company competing for commercial dollars, that needs to persuade investors or larger companies to stick around for results? Who is more likely to make decisions in the world of business that will enable your company to thrive: you, or the people you’ve connected with as business partners, advisors, or potential investors? It's not clear.

And in the ensuing uncertainty, several team members departed from the company for a variety of reasons. That left researchers Murat and Jose Luis, at least temporarily ex-Sandians, standing alone carrying the mantle of mPower Inc., attempting entrance to a business world about which they knew precious little. But their enthusiasm burned brighter at the challenge.


Upcoming Lab News issues intend to follow the two researchers on an occasional basis as they move forward in the entrepreneurial world.