Sandia LabNews

Innovative tech transfer program marks two decades of sharing scientific expertise

Genaro Montoya (7933), ESTT program leader, says a new round of business training is coming up.       (Photo by Linda von Boetticher)

For two decades, Sandians have been able to leave the Labs to start or join small companies knowing they can return, or not. Their work has made a difference. The Entrepreneurial Separation to Transfer Technology (ESTT) program has brought Sandia expertise into the private sector, created jobs, and contributed to economic development, a new survey shows.

“This is an innovative tech transfer tool that has endured for 20 years,” says Jackie Kerby Moore, manager of Technology and Economic Development Dept. 7933. “Not only do we have many success stories, but we’ve measured the economic impact, which shows positive benefits to the local community. Furthermore, entrepreneurs who return to Sandia have a new set of experiences that benefit the Labs.”

Take a license, form a company

Thirty-three of the 99 companies involved in ESTT since it was launched in 1994 responded to the survey gauging its economic impact. Respondents said 379 jobs were created by their companies through the program since it began, and that in 2012 they employed 1,550 people at an average annual salary of $80,000. Their 2012 sales revenue was $212 million. From 2008 through 2012, the businesses invested $40 million in equipment and $277 million in goods and services. Two-thirds of them had commercialized a technology as a result of ESTT.

“These are notable numbers and reflect just a third of the companies affected by the program,” Jackie says. “ESTT is a tool Sandia has to deploy technology by giving people an opportunity to take a license and form a company. Four start-ups using Sandia technology licenses came out of the program in the past two years alone, along with a number of company expansions. Of these, three licensed technologies from Sandia.”

Jackie says one of Sandia’s hottest technologies, the medical diagnostic lab-on-a-disk SpinDx, is being commercialized using ESTT. Greg Sommer, a former Sandian who helped develop SpinDx, co-founded and is chief executive officer of Sandstone Diagnostics in Livermore, Calif., which is bringing the technology to market. “The high-tech environment at Sandia is ripe for innovation and game-changing technologies,” he says. “The ESTT program allowed us to launch Sandstone and develop cutting-edge medical products based on technology we originally developed for Sandia’s biodefense missions.”

ESTT encourages researchers to take technology out of the Labs and into the private sector by guaranteeing them reinstatement if they return within two years, and a third-year extension can be requested. The survey shows 145 Sandians have left on ESTT, 62 to start a business and 83 to expand one. Forty-one, or 28 percent, returned to the Labs while 98 left for good. Six are currently on ESTT. Of the 99 companies impacted by the program since 1994, 49 were startups and 50 were expansions.

Of the 145 Sandians who left on ESTT, 27 companies licensed a Labs technology.

More entrepreneurial training

Genaro Montoya (7933), the program leader, says a new round of entrepreneurial training will be offered to support researchers considering ESTT. “Anyone at the Labs can take the training,” he says. “It gives you an idea of what’s involved in starting a small business. We want people to show up and be a part of it.”

Classes, scheduled to begin in early April, will be offered by Technology Ventures Corp. in partnership with Technology and Economic Development Dept. 7933. Topics will focus at first on intellectual property, market validation, and capital sourcing. “You can expect to come away knowing how to protect IP, establish customer demand, and find and engage with sources of financing. Those skills reduce risk and increase chances for success,” Genaro says. “In previous training, Sandia employees wanted to learn how to organize and finance a business to commercialize Sandia technology. We’re really excited about taking key components of the training to a deeper level.”

Looking back at 20 years, Jackie says ESTT has been an important piece of Sandia’s tech transfer and economic development portfolio. “It is still relevant, and has a lot of life ahead,” she says.

Where are they now?  Catch up with four Sandians who took the entrepreneurial plunge

Todd Christenson: A small world

Todd turned his Sandia research into a company that today makes the world’s smallest electromechanical switches. He came to the Labs from the University of Wisconsin in 1995 to work in components. His interest was using metal microfabrication to maintain tolerance in mechanical components at small dimensions.

He worked five years with a group that did microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS, for safety and security mechanisms. He later worked in optics, photonics, and electronics, which fit his background in semiconductive physics.

 Todd says he was drawn to ESTT because there wasn’t a MEMS technology in the marketplace for good miniature switches. And there wasn’t one that could make MEMS with high aspect ratio processes. “Those are two distinctive features of the technology our company uses,” he says. “Fabrication is based on metal materials versus semiconductor materials like silicon. And the structures have a relatively large thickness compared to the processes used in fabricating MEMS.”

Todd left on ESTT in 2003 and formed HT MicroAnalytical Inc., licensing Sandia technology. “I wanted to make and sell product,” he says. “The entrepreneurship path that Sandia offered was appealing and the time was right.”

He went to the angel markets and got startup capital, and brought in a business partner. They built a prototype facility and put product demos into customers’ hands. “That built traction and attracted strategic funding from companies that wanted specific devices using the technology,” Todd says.

HT MicroAnalytical has 15 employees and is growing. It partnered a year and a half ago with Rosenberger Inc. of Germany, a MEMS switch manufacturer with a global marketing and distribution network, and built an 18,000-square-foot facility in Albuquerque that can produce about 20 million parts a year. A distribution partnership was formed recently with Coto Technologies of Rhode Island.

HT MicroAnalytical sells to commercial and military customers worldwide. “They range from the medical industry to classic industrial automation,” Todd says. “It’s been hard work, but I never looked back. This was what I wanted to do, to apply technology to help people solve problems.

“If you have a passion to get into the marketplace, to build companies, and employ people, the ESTT path is the best I know of.”

Todd says he continues to work with Sandia researchers through the New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program, which helps small companies get technical support from scientists at Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories.

“Sandia does some of the best research in the world,” Todd says. “It has the best facilities without any question, and great people. It really is the best place on Earth to work.”

Mary Crawford: A rare opportunity

 Mary (1120) describes ESTT as “an exponential learning experience.” She joined Sandia in 1993 and worked in the field of optoelectronics with a focus on light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. “LEDs were emerging as an entirely new type of lighting envisioned to replace conventional incandescent bulbs,” she says. “Companies around the world were starting to work on this and it was an exciting time. Sandia was also engaging in the technology, given the potential for high energy efficiency.”

Mary left in 2000 to join Uniroyal Optoelectronics in Florida, a startup developing LEDs for commercial lighting. She worked for the company a little more than two years, rising from senior scientist to director of research and development. She had come to Sandia as a post-doc, so Uniroyal was her first experience in the startup business world.

“It was an entirely different environment, much smaller,” she says. “But I liked it. It was a small group intensely focused on the same goal. If one succeeded, everyone succeeded.”

She says she learned a lot by working on the growth of LED materials. “My work at Sandia was on the fabrication of LED devices,” she says. “I now have a much better understanding of how the way one grows the LED materials impacts the device performance.”

She decided in 2002 to return to the Labs. “Sandia wanted me back and there were family considerations as well,” she says. "It made sense to return.”

She continued her work in semiconductors and LEDs, and is now a senior scientist. “Working outside the Labs was a tremendous experience and I’m happy I did it,” she says. “I think it’s a rare opportunity to be able to take that kind of risk and have a safety net. And the experience one gains can be very valuable to Sandia.”


Dan Neal: Millions of eyes

Dan says it was daunting to start a company after years at Sandia. “Sandia has enormous resources, incredible equipment, and exceptional people,” he says. “It was quite a transition to start with three of us in a small facility with what we could buy at auction.”

He had joined the Labs in 1984 working on high-powered lasers and optics. In the early 1990s he helped develop a sensor for lasers that had commercial applications. He took entrepreneurial training through Technology Ventures Corp. in 1995, found a business partner, licensed wavefront sensor and binary optics technologies from Sandia, and left on ESTT.

His company, Wavefront Sciences, presented at the 1996 TVC Equity Capital Symposium and got an investor. It made a variety of instruments based on an optical sensor that could measure everything from the flatness of a silicon wafer to the characteristics of a human eye. It contracted with the US Navy and Air Force to build systems to measure supersonic seeker windows for wind tunnel testing, and worked with NASA on the James Webb Space Telescope.

“Of all those applications the ophthalmic one had the largest market traction,” Dan says. “We were the first to introduce a commercial product to take eye measurements that could be used to program the laser in Lasik vision correction.”

Wavefront grew from three to 54 employees. It sold in 2007 to Advanced Medical Optics of Santa Ana, Calif., which bought several companies involved in the lasers for Lasik. “They wanted us for the sensor technology,” Dan says.

Abbott Laboratories of Chicago acquired Wavefront in 2009 and renamed it Abbott Medical Optics. It’s still in Albuquerque, and Dan has remained as a research fellow.

“Oh, man, have I ever learned a lot about business,” he says. “My advice to Sandians considering ESTT is take advantage of every bit of business training you can and don’t be afraid of the future. You don’t know what it holds but it will certainly be different. My technology has helped millions of eyes. It’s been extremely gratifying.”


Jim Novak: A full-contact sport

Jim, senior manager of Tailored Operational Support Dept. 5950, says ESTT gave him management skills he hadn’t developed as a researcher. He worked on sensing technologies for tech transfer applications after coming to the Labs in 1988.

One project was a sensor that allowed a robotic arm to track the surface of a space shuttle engine and deposit a paste to fill cracks. It was done through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with Rocketdyne in Canoga Park, Calif., which was building the shuttle’s main engines.

Jim left on ESTT in 1996 to commercialize the sensors for Rocketdyne. He founded SenSolve in Albuquerque and got a master’s in business administration from the University of New Mexico. “I licensed the technology and learned how to run a business,” he says. “We developed the product — sensors for robots in manufacturing— and raised venture capital.”

But in the end he closed the company, which employed six people at its peak, and returned to Sandia wiser for the experience. “Technology is only part of what people buy. The product needs to solve a customer’s problem, not just be cool technology,” he says. “We had visions of providing full-motion sensing for robots in six dimensions. It turns out the vast majority of robots in manufacturing only need one or two dimensions. Our products were too complicated.”

Jim rejoined Sandia in microsensors product development. What he brought from the private sector was management know-how. Within a few years he was promoted to manager and in 2011 to senior manager. “The marketplace is a full-contact sport,” he says. “You learn to run a company. The experience was extraordinarily interesting and extremely useful. It was a great thesis on top of the MBA in preparing me for management. And I’m absolutely glad I came back. This is a great place.”