Sandia LabNews

Venture forth: Sandians bring lab experience to the world of business

Image of <p class="wp">Laurence Brown, Matt Donnelly, and Jim Pacheco, recipients of Sandia's 2013 Entrepreneurial Awards.</p>
Laurence Brown, Matt Donnelly, and Jim Pacheco, recipients of Sandia’s 2013 Entrepreneurial Awards.

 It takes a certain kind of person to leave Sandia for a job at a startup company. “You have to be willing to take a risk, move out of your comfort zone, and do something you might not be able to do otherwise,” says Laurence Brown (160).

Laurence took the risk and it opened new professional doors. Matt Donnelly (2997) stepped away and learned what it meant to be a manager. Jim Pacheco’s (6634) foray gave him a first-hand look at the free market.

Laurence, Matt, and Jim left Sandia to work in business through a program that encourages

researchers to take technology out of the Labs and into the private sector. Entrepreneurial Separation to Transfer Technology (ESTT) was started in 1994, and since then 144 Sandians have left the Labs, 57 of them to start a business and 85 to help expand an existing one. Ninety-six companies, most of them in New Mexico, have been impacted by ESTT.

The program guarantees Sandia employees reinstatement if they return within two years, and a third-year extension can be requested. Forty-one Sandians returned to Sandia from ESTT and 97 did not. Six are currently on ESTT leave.

Laurence, Matt, and Jim all returned to the Labs from the business world. On Feb. 26, acting VP and Chief Technology Officer Julia Phillips honored them at the third annual Entrepreneurial Spirit Awards Luncheon. The event was hosted by Sandia and sponsored by Technology Ventures Corp.

Jackie Kerby Moore, manager of Technology & Economic Development Dept. 7933, says the awards recognize Sandia’s legacy of entrepreneurship. “We initiated the Entrepreneurial Spirit Awards as a way to recognize and celebrate Sandia entrepreneurs,” she says. “It’s also a way to highlight Sandia’s ESTT program.”

Information highway

Laurence used ESTT in 1995, six years after joining Sandia as a researcher in thin-film and vacuum system design. He and some partners founded Advanced Tribal Integrated Information Networks, or ATIIN, a company offering Internet-based services to Native American tribes and businesses.

“The vision was to use the Web for multimedia purposes, as a tool for national and international native communities,” he says. “It was a way to create a presence on the Internet for communities that might not have that infrastructure.”

ATIIN, the Navajo word for “highway,” built an online marketplace called Native CyberTrade for Indian businesses and developed educational and language tools. The company installed intranet infrastructure for native communities throughout the Southwest. “It was early in the Internet revolution. It was taking off across the world,” Laurence says. “The native community was not yet up to speed. We were early in getting out there.”

Laurence, who was CEO of ATIIN and did business and partnership development, sold the company in 1997 and returned to Sandia. He came back with a vast network of Native American contacts. “That’s the story of my return,” he says. “My contacts and visibility formed the foundation of new work.”

Laurence moved from R&D into business development, and built a tribal program at Sandia. “I coordinate technical assistance and partnerships with tribal governments that align with our national security mission,” says Laurence, who is now tribal program manager in the Government Relations department. “I develop strategic relationships nationwide.”

A better container

Matt joined Sandia in 1988 in mechanical process engineering and moved into plastics applications, including fabrication and use of composites. A group of Albuquerque entrepreneurs wanted to develop an aerospace transportation container made of durable composite materials.

They approached Sandia for assistance and collaboration in 1998. Matt was tapped to work with the group on composites. “I helped steer them to a honeycomb sandwich-panel construction,” he says. “The honeycomb was polypropylene and the skins polypropylene glass. Through collaboration we found the right material for the containers.”

The group formed a company, Aerobox Composite Structures LLC. There was commercial interest in the containers, and with funds from an initial public offering Aerobox established a manufacturing plant in Bernalillo, aiming to make 15,000 units a year.

The company needed a manufacturing and engineering manager, and Matt left through ESTT in 2004 to step into the role. “I helped them get set up, get production capability going, and troubleshoot the problems,” he says. “My goal was to get them on their feet.”

Matt stayed 14 months, at which point Aerobox had 60 employees and was producing containers. “We helped them develop a world-class product,” he says. “The standard product is aluminum post-and-beam with aluminum skins. They damage easily and there is a constant need to pull units out and repair them. Ours stayed in the field six to eight times longer.”

Matt returned to Sandia with the skills to become a manager, currently leading the Design Methods & Quality Dept. 2997. “Aerobox was the biggest management job I had done to date,” he says. “The experience served me well. I learned a lot about managing in the real world.”

Follow the sun

 Jim’s focus at Sandia was in concentrating solar power (CSP). He worked in CSP development programs for 15 years after coming to the Labs in 1987. One of them was Solar Two, a large solar power plant built in the Mojave Desert near Barstow, Calif.

 The commercial demonstration project, capable of producing 10 megawatts of electricity, was a joint project of 11 organizations led by Southern California Edison Co. in partnership with DOE. Sandia was the technical adviser.

“It demonstrated thermal storage. You could collect energy during the day and dispatch it in the evening or night, producing power when the sun was not shining,” Jim says. “It was a very successful project in that it led to a number of such power plants being built by other companies around the world.”

Jim had been involved with Solar Two through concept, design, construction, test, and evaluation. His reputation spread, and he was recruited by several companies when CSP technology took off in the marketplace.

Jim left Sandia through ESTT in 2008 and joined eSolar, a Burbank, Calif., startup that was developing a 5-megawatt commercial demonstration project in Lancaster. He stayed with the company three years. “I helped them with key performance evaluations, developed the thermal storage system, generated several patent applications, and helped them win a DOE contract award,” Jim says. “I helped steer the company toward more advanced technology.”

He returned to Sandia and the CSP department and later moved to Active Response & Denial Dept. 6634 developing security technologies.

Jim says his ESTT experience taught him how the venture capital system works. “It’s really fascinating,” he says. “When companies have capital and direction, they can move fast. Things happen quickly. I got a first-hand look at how the free-market system works.”

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 Jim, Matt, and Laurence all say ESTT was rewarding and educational, and that they would recommend it to anyone with entrepreneurial thoughts. “The beauty of this is that there is a safety net,” Laurence says. “You can come back to Sandia.”

Jim says he felt he made a difference and helped lead eSolar in a successful direction. “I gave them my experience,” he says.

“I’m a big fan of the program,” Matt says. “It’s a way to help create jobs in New Mexico. It helps the local economy and it benefits Sandia.”

Laurence says ESTT is in line with Sandia’s philosophy of encouraging people to challenge themselves and try different careers. “I had a goal. I wanted to be a business owner, and I was.”