Managers say researchers do good by going into business
Three Sandia managers who had staff researchers leave the Labs to work in the entrepreneurial world say they wouldn’t hesitate to again encourage team members to give business a shot.
“It’s a really cool option for Sandians,” said Victoria VanderNoot, manager of Biotechnology and Bioengineering Dept. 8621. “Not everyone offers it, so it draws talent to the Labs. It supports innovation and helps us interact with the community.”
Victoria spoke at a recent roundtable that brought dozens of managers together to talk about Entrepreneurial Separation to Transfer Technology, the Sandia program that lets researchers take technology out of the Labs and into the private sector. ESTT was started in 1994, and since then 153 Sandians have left the Labs, 68 of them to start a business and 85 to help expand an existing one. Some 105 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-two Sandians returned to the Labs from ESTT and 107 did not. Four are currently on ESTT leave. A 2014 survey showed that ESTT has brought Sandia expertise into the private sector, created jobs, and contributed to economic development.
More than 379 jobs have been created as a result of the program.
It’s the right thing — for employees, the local community, and the nation.
Rob Leland, Div. 1000 vice president and chief technology officer, told the group he valued the experience of leaving the Labs twice, though not through ESTT, and returning. “I encourage people to take advantage of this program,” he said. “It is the longest-running entrepreneurial leave program in the DOE and is considered a model in technology transfer.”
Tech transfer is a mission of the Labs, and Sandia has a responsibility to the community to make its talent available and help the economy, Rob said. He said the Labs’ intellectual property strategy is rooted in the public good. “It’s the right thing — for employees, the local community, and the nation,” he said.
Creating something of lasting value
ESTT builds goodwill and gives researchers an opportunity to make a difference, Rob said. “You can go out into the world and create something with lasting value,” he said. “You can live out your passion.” He said the program sends a message to the workforce that “we care about your aspirations.”
Genaro Montoya (1933), who oversees ESTT, said two-thirds of the people who left through the program were able to commercialize a technology. He said researchers can take a licensed technology, often one they invented, to the private sector, or bring a skillset or expertise to a startup or existing company.
Lori Parrott, manager of Policy and Decision Analytics Dept. 6924, said Robert Taylor (6924) left on ESTT to start a company and later returned to Sandia. “The exit is an easy process,” she said. “Sometimes the return can be more difficult if there isn’t an opening in the original department, but it works out in the end. And people who return bring a new skillset.”
Keith Ortiz, manager of MEMS Technologies Dept. 1719, said he lost three researchers to ESTT at the same time, including Murat Okandan, who left Sandia to form the company mPower Technologies Inc. Following their progress has been gratifying, and he said he would encourage other managers to look into it for their employees.
Rob said ESTT builds a cycle of loyalty and integrity at the Labs by encouraging entrepreneurs while giving them the option to return. He quoted hockey star Wayne Gretzky, who said “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”
Program gives Sandians the scoop on business
Jackie Kerby Moore, manager of Technology and Economic Development Dept. 1933, says Sandia’s Entrepreneurial Exploration program is designed to invigorate an entrepreneurial culture at the Labs and inspire researchers to either go into the business world or develop that mindset. “We want to encourage people to think and act like entrepreneurs,” she says.
The program has been in place a year and a half and includes entrepreneur office hours, when researchers can meet and talk to members of the business community; workshops; roundtables; bootcamps; and social gatherings.
Entrepreneurial Exploration offers one event a month. Speakers have included Gary Oppedahl, the city of Albuquerque’s economic development director; Lawrence Chavez, CEO of Lotus Leaf Coatings; and Chris Yeh of Wasabi Ventures.
We want people to think and act like entrepreneurs.
Among the programs were:
- A bootcamp that gave an overview of Lean Startup methodology and helped identify the commercial applications and markets for ongoing research. Fifteen mentors including seasoned entrepreneurs and investors worked with 18
- Sandia principal investors to adapt scientific discoveries into real-world technological solutions.
- A roundtable featuring Katie Szczepaniak Rice, senior associate at the technology venture capital funding firm EPIC Ventures, focused on early stage technology investments, the funding process, and common startup pitfalls and traps and how to avoid them.
- A workshop by Sandia Six Sigma black belt David Sais taught the Design Thinking process by matching customers’ needs with technology to create a viable business strategy.
- The bootcamp “Commercializing Technology: Value Proposition Design” showed participants how to make their ideas fundable by choosing and delivering a winning customer value proposition.
- A roundtable looked at the science of beer with Abbey Brewing Co. General Manager Berkeley Merchant. He shared Abbey’s unique entrepreneurial success story and the brewery’s origin in the remote mountains of northern New Mexico.
“More than 700 community leaders, entrepreneurs, and Sandians have attended the Entrepreneur Exploration events,” Jackie says. “It links the community to Sandia with opportunities for entrepreneurs.”