Sandia LabNews

Sandia's entrepreneurial program is back

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Sandia’s Entrepreneurial Separation to Transfer Technology (ESTT) program is back as an important part of Sandia’s technology transfer mission.

So says Hal Morgan (1030), senior manager for Industrial Partnerships and Strategy.

The program — one that allows Sandia employees to leave the Labs to start companies or help expand small businesses that already exist and then return to the Labs two years later if the venture doesn’t work — was put on hold starting Dec. 21, 2007, to make some much needed procedural changes.

“Al Romig [Interim Chief Operating Officer] just lifted the moratorium on Oct. 15,” Hal says. “We have addressed the deficiencies identified last year and believe ESTT is a lot better as a result and will be even more successful in transferring Sandia technology to industry. We will reevaluate the program in a year to make sure. ”

Two days after the moratorium was lifted the first Sandia employee, James Pacheco, took an entrepreneurial separation under the new procedures. He joined a small start-up company in Pasadena, Calif., eSolar, that develops, constructs, and deploys modular, scalable solar thermal power plants.

Since ESTT was launched in 1994, 137 employees have left Sandia to start up 44 entrepreneurial companies and help expand an additional 46 companies. Fifty-five people started businesses and 82 helped expand businesses. Sandia has negotiated 42 licenses with ESTT companies.

After a team spent several months evaluating the program, ESTT underwent several fundamental changes. In particular, says Dick Fairbanks (1033), who manages the day-to-day operations of the program, there was a renewed emphasis on line management responsibilities. Management must agree that the individual leaving under the program is the right person to undertake the entrepreneurial activity. In addition, the line manager will be working much more closely with the partnerships during all phases of the separation process.

Most importantly, care must be taken to ensure there is no conflict of interest while the employee remains at Sandia. The employee can’t work on the new business during Sandia business hours. Also, newly added was an ESTT exit agreement that clarifies expectations for both Sandia and the entrepreneur.

“People leaving Sandia as part of the ESTT program understand that once they are gone from the Labs they become a third party. They don’t have access to employees or facilities unless they make formal arrangements through a CRADA [Cooperative Research and Development Agreements], work for others agreement, or the New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program,” Dick says.

Another change is the expedition of the employee’s separation from Sandia. For instance, in the case of an employee seeking a license, he or she has one month to leave the Labs once the license is finalized

Exiting Sandians can participate in ESTT in two ways. They can take a technology they developed at Sandia, have it licensed, and start a new company. Or they can leave and go to an existing small business, taking their unique experience with them.

James and Randy Normann represent both types of separations. James took the expertise he gained working at Sandia in the areas of concentrated solar power and access delay technology (research and development of security systems and technology) to a small Pasadena company, the same company that recently retired Sandian Craig Tyner joined in September.

Randy left in April to start his own company, Perma Tools, a technology solutions and high-temperature electronics provider enabling new energy frontiers in ultra-deep natural gas production, steam flood assisted oil production and enhanced geothermal systems (EGS). He obtained a license from Sandia for technology he developed while he worked at the Labs and will pay Sandia a four percent royalty fee every year.

Both men say taking the plunge to leave Sandia was a difficult and risky decision. Randy worked at Sandia for 23 years, and James for 22.

They are both starting out in their entrepreneurial ventures, but the program has had many successes in its decade-and-a-half existence. Some include Tim Estes, Tom Brennan, Tom Anderson, and James Gee:

• In 1994 Tim Estes became the first to take advantage of the entrepreneurial leave program, setting up Conductor Analysis Technologies in partnership with Ron Rhodes, who left AT&T Bell Labs at the same time. Conductor Analysis Technologies is a provider of market-critical data used by designers, purchasers, and manufacturers of printed circuit boards. The data provides quantitative statistics on worldwide printed circuit manufacturing capability, quality, and reliability.

• Also in 1994, Tom Brennan, a solid-state electronics expert, started up MicroOptical Device (MODE) to commercialize products based on Sandia’s Vertical Cavity Surface-Emitting Laser (VCSEL) technology. He sold MODE to Emcore in 1998 and became VP of a new division entitled Emcore Photovoltaics. Tom later became president and CEO of Zia Laser, which developed quantum dot laser diodes in 2001, then in April 2008 joined ARCH Venture Partners as a partner with a special DOE-sanctioned assignment — Entrepreneur in Residence at Sandia.

• After leading some of the first 3-D touch applications in the world at Sandia, Tom Anderson established Novint Technologies, Inc., a pioneer in haptics for consumer computing. His company’s highly successful Falcon is a 3-D game interface that makes virtual objects and environments “feel real.” Replacing a computer mouse or joystick, it is essentially a small robot that lets the user feel shape, weight, texture, dimension, dynamics, 3-D motion, and force effects when playing enabled games. Novint went public in June 2006, and the Falcon is available for sale at retail outlets.

• James Gee’s group at Sandia broke a succession of records for solar cell efficiency before he left to help establish Advent Solar Inc. The company, a manufacturer of advanced technology solar cells and modules, has grown from two employees to 71 since it was founded in 2002. Its technology centers on an innovative back-contact cell technology and module assembly. James spent 18 years focused on various aspects of photovoltaic solar energy research during his Sandia career and is the lead inventor of intellectual property exclusively licensed to Advent Solar by Sandia.

More information about the ESTT program can be obtained by contacting Dick Fairbanks at 844-9462 or — Chris Burroughs

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