And then there was one

By Neal Singer

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

The continued adventures of the Sandia start-up mPower

Murat Okandan

Murat Okandan, a Sandian on entrepreneurial leave, is trying to commericalize Sandia-developed technology via start-up photovoltaic company mPower.

Entrepreneurial life holds both attractions and unknowns for Sandians considering that path. In an effort to shed more light on the realities of starting a high-tech business, the Lab News is following the efforts of the fledgling company mPower to grow its own wings. On Oct. 2, our first installment was titled “Why attempt the entrepreneurial life?” Following is the second installment on the mPower effort, from a perspective of two months later.  To read the first chapter in this ongoing saga, go here.

At a meeting of science writers in Boston this past October, an MIT professor described so many companies he had spun-off and papers he had published that he seemed as prolific as a salmon.

A reporter in the audience interjected, “Professor, do you think your students would be better served if you started fewer companies and published fewer papers and spent more time teaching?”

The professor replied that the spawned companies were continuations of his teaching. They were staffed by former students who didn’t want to go elsewhere and start something new, he said, but rather wanted to continue research they had already begun with him. He put together business plans with them, applied for financial backing, and his former students went entrepreneuring.

Murat Okandan, a Sandian on entrepreneurial leave to support the start-up photovoltaic company mPower (i.e., empower), was interested in the professor’s success in pollinating companies, because start-ups from Sandia are still relatively few.

Murat ticked off a few obvious factors that conceivably helped the professor's success:

  • Newly minted graduates used to working long hours for low pay;
  • Great potential promised by a startup, with no alternative to fall back upon; 
  • Money available nearby in the Boston area from “high-tech angels” who prefer start-up companies to be within an hour's driving time for close supervision.

The environment is quite different in Albuquerque, says Murat.

Sandia entrepreneurs might be characterized as generally more mature, with families to support.

They don't hang out at The Flying Star

High-tech ideas take time to develop and require significant capital outlays. Both factors can generate impatience rather than tolerance from hard-to-find financiers, who “don’t hang out at the Flying Star,” as one past entrepreneur put it.

Finally, Sandia’s generous return policy — a pathway back to the Labs that is the beauty of its entrepreneurial leave program —  can tempt the nascent entrepreneur to return to Sandia if the enterprise doesn't shine within two or even three years.

These problems have not discouraged Murat, who has plans to welcome business advisers aboard and already has proposals out to large federal agencies to make use of (among other capabilities) the uncanny ability of the company’s extremely thin, lightweight solar cells to unfold from a small packet to form a very large photovoltaic surface to generate electricity from sunlight, a potentially great plus for vehicles in space.

However, the negatives did finally overwhelm Murat’s partner Jose Luis Cruz-Campa, who left the company in early November to return to Sandia.

As Jose Luis put it, his initial experience of entrepreneurship was a kind of exhilarating rollercoaster, a sine wave of heightened amplitude and sped-up frequency:

“One day they love you, the next they hate you; you’re worth millions, you’re worth nothing,” he said laughing, early on.

But after eight months, his excitement had diminished. "Life as an entrepreneur isn’t as glorious as you might think,” he told the Lab News. “There’s too big a difference between that and a regular job. Your free time, your personal life, your afternoon, everything is tied up in the same thing. You can’t detach. In a regular job, the weekend is different. For entrepreneurs, it’s the same.”

He doesn’t regret the effort, but has reservations: “It's a very good learning experience, but it’s hard on your personal life and your wallet. [Starting an enterprise is] going to take probably three times longer, and require three times more money and effort, than you thought.”

His advice? “Remember that once you're out, no one cares about research. They just care about how much you’re going to make things for and how much you’re going to sell them for. Researchers should have a big grant coming their way and a really good team of business people lined up before they leave.”

"Hopes, dreams — a vision"

Jose Luis still is hopeful about the technology and expects to help mPower’s efforts from the Sandia side. “So I wouldn’t say, don’t do it,” he says. “But before you leave Sandia, you have to have everything planned for two years, and it’s hard to plan when you have a fulltime job.”

If that bleak picture is really the case, what keeps Murat going? “Hopes, dreams — a vision — I want to see it work out,” Murat says.

He agrees that though mPower’s photovoltaic technology is quite far along, “our business case needed further development.” And “while Sandia does limited products incredibly well,” he says, “scaling a technology to commercially attractive volumes is a challenge. And meeting high-volume production targets by making things simpler and cheaper is difficult as well.”

Still, he sees opportunities and is taking steps to achieve them. “We have interactions with colleagues that have entrepreneurial and general business expertise,” he says. “We have several business advisors, and others in solar providing general guidance.”

The company didn’t get a hoped-for grant from ARPA-E, but did land a New Mexico Small Business Association grant used to build early prototypes at a fabrication facility at the University of New Mexico. A Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with Sandia is nearly completed, and Murat looks forward to mPower collaborating with Sandia to work on projects that include a good-sized one at NASA.

“NASA and aerospace partners are excited about what we plan to provide,” he says. His company has applied for a mid-six-figure grant — “the first phase of a potentially larger effort, to be decided in May” — to determine the ability of solar power to function in extreme environments like the low temperatures of Jupiter, a NASA target.  “It’s five astronomical units out from the sun at minus 130 degrees C, so there’s only 1/25th the amount of solar power available. We plan to study the feasibility of a configuration that will provide sufficient power and make possible new capabilities to support a possible mission.”

He also has proposals to DOE’s new Small Business Voucher program and EERE Sunshot program for projects that would require a cost-match component from mPower and its collaborators.

Will Murat’s hands-on efforts put the young company on increasingly solid ground?  Find out next time.