Business incubation initiative partners with national security labs
Nonprofit organization and Sandia partner i-GATE Innovation Hub launched its regional business incubation initiative, Startup Tri-Valley, in 2021 with a mission to grow and strengthen the science-based startup economy in California’s Tri-Valley region. The program aims to connect local innovators to the entrepreneurial and technology resources and expertise across the region including at Sandia and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories.
In one of the first episodes of i-GATE’s Startup Tri-Valley Podcast, Brandon Cardwell, the organization’s executive director, met with Andy McIlroy, associate labs director of Sandia’s Integrated Security Solutions, and Kim Budil, lab director for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, to discuss the mission of the national labs and how the labs’ work intersects with fueling the local innovation economy.
In a nearly hourlong conversation, the leaders discussed the breadth of science, technology and engineering at the Livermore-based labs, especially in DOE’s core mission areas of national security, biosciences and climate security.
“Both of our labs have a similar mission space, although we work on different aspects of it,” Budil explained. “There’s hardly a discipline you can name that we don’t have people working on at our labs. We work on a huge range of national security missions across countering the threat — from weapons of mass destruction, assessing adversary capabilities and doing work with the intelligence community to develop tools and technologies for arms control — but also climate security, energy security and big efforts in biosecurity and bio resilience.”
Budil and Andy described the symbiotic relationship between the two labs as collaborative and competitive.
“We call it ‘coopetition,’” Budil said.
“Or that we are ‘competitive mates,’” Andy added.
Partnering with the national labs
The podcast interview gave the leaders an opportunity to discuss the key role of partnerships in promoting scientific and technical advances developed at the labs.
“Looking at some of the high-impact areas in climate and energy, we can’t do anything that has real impact without partners,” Andy said. “Because it’s the private sector who brings these new technologies to market.”
“These partnerships are important,” he said. “When we all come together, we can accomplish so much more.”
Budil explained a growing shift in the research ecosystem. Partnerships between the national labs, academia and industry are becoming even more prevalent and essential to advancing scientific research, she said.
“We want to learn from the private sector and bring the most advanced thinking, tools and technologies into our environment,” Budil said. “And we want to take all this incredible innovation that’s been driven by government investments and ensure that it gets into the hands of companies and private-sector entities who can really derive the public benefit from that research and development.”
Engaging with the Livermore Valley Open Campus
The Livermore Valley Open Campus, a joint initiative between Sandia, NNSA and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is central to that collaboration, the leaders said, lowering barriers that may have previously hindered industry and academic partners from working with the labs on joint research.
“Creating an ecosystem where we can have that kind of free flow of people and information and ideas and exchange is really the underlying philosophy of the Open Campus,” Budil said.
“The campus is about creating an area where we can easily and fluidly interact with a wide range of stakeholders in the private sector, in academia, even from other laboratories,” Andy said. “It gives us a place to have those interactions and maximize the value of the taxpayer investments in our laboratories by moving technologies out of the laboratories and into the private hands that will make the most of them.”
“It’s a win-win, really. For the laboratories, for the community and for the nation,” Andy said. “The open campus is just a great resource — one wonders why we didn’t do it sooner.”
Praising recent investments in the shared campus, Budil described an inflection point for the initiative.
“There’s now enough physical infrastructure in the Open Campus for it to start operating in the way that it was envisioned when it was originally planned,” Budil said. “And we have real support from DOE to really think about outward engagement — beyond tech transfer, really building these partnerships and helping.”
Building entrepreneurial skills
While discussing entrepreneurship and collaborations with outside partners, Andy highlighted the national labs entrepreneur academies, a joint effort with the University of California, Davis. The academies are preparing researchers to move their innovative ideas beyond the labs.
“As we think about how to transition technologies out of the laboratory, sometimes the best way to move new technology into the marketplace is by having the inventors drive the process themselves,” Andy said.
“We need to help our folks within the laboratory to navigate the external market and to better communicate to a broader audience the impact and excitement around their technologies.”
Both Sandia and Lawrence Livermore labs have many serial entrepreneurs with creative and entrepreneurial genes and instincts, Budil said.
“They are idea factories, just people who are very creative. And over the arc of their careers within the laboratory, they’ve been able to turn their skills to develop numerous new technologies,” Budil said. “These academies are a recognition that there’s a real skill set to take those ideas from the idea phase through to realizing a new technology, how to build partnerships, how to think about developing their work, engaging with the outside world.”
Taking advantage of the Bay Area tech ecosystem
Asked about the California labs’ proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area, Budil and Andy touted the region’s strong tech ecosystem.
“The Bay Area’s unique among the national lab environments,” Andy said. “We’re very lucky to be in this innovation hotspot; it’s a huge win for us. I think you see it in both Sandia/California and Lawrence Livermore that we’re often at the forefront of pushing technology operations for the national lab complex.”
“Access to people, access to partnerships, access to capital, infrastructure — is really quite unique in this area,” Budil said.
To listen to the full podcast and other in-depth conversations about investments and developments in the Tri-Valley startup economy, visit the Startup Tri-Valley podcast webpage.
i-GATE is a nonprofit organization dedicated to building a thriving and diverse startup community in Livermore, Pleasanton, Dublin and Danville, California, and supporting entrepreneurs with resources they need to succeed. To learn more about the organization’s work and community partnership, visit startuptrivalley.org.