Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Sandia Labs scientists take time off for entrepreneurship

Losing an employee from Sandia National Laboratories is a victory – albeit bittersweet – for David Goldheim.

As director of corporate business development and partnerships for the labs, he’s happy to see scientists take advantage of the Entrepreneurial Separation to Transfer Technology program he oversees.

It gives researchers years off work at the labs to take a shot at turning their ideas into economy-bolstering businesses. That’s good for the country, he says, and part of the labs’ mission.

But the gain comes with a cost.

“Typically the entrepreneurs are among Sandia’s most talented staff,” Goldheim says. “It causes some pain to the Sandia organization for them to be leaving.”

Since the program’s inception in 1994, 126 Sandia employees have left the labs with the option of returning if their ventures into the business world don’t pan out. Eighty of them never came back, and with growing support from the investment community, Goldheim expects the program to continue to grow and become better at pushing along the lab technologies best ready for commercial development.

The first program participant this year is Dustin Carr, who took off in January to make a better and cheaper microphone.

Check, check

Carr, 35, has a problem with the microphones that ship with laptops. No one uses them due to their low quality, he says.

His solution is a microphone that uses light and optical sensors to achieve a better sound for less money.

“That’s really what makes this a truly disruptive type of technology,” he says. “There’s no reason every microphone on the planet couldn’t be built with this technology.”

He estimates the market to be in the billions. He says a working prototype will be ready toward the end of April, and credits the entrepreneurial separation program at Sandia with supporting his work.

“It is a very good program and, if anything, it really shows the kind of backing Sandia has for the entrepreneurial efforts,” he says. “They want to see the technology get out there. In my management chain, they’re all extremely supportive of this effort.”

If his company, Symphony Acoustics, fails to take off, Carr has at least two years – three years with a supervisor-approved extension – to return to Sandia to a job similar to one he was performing at his departure. Beyond that, there’s no guarantee a job will be waiting.

But Carr says he would have left to set up his own business regardless of the safety net, a view shared by Todd Christenson, vice president of technology and co-founder of HT Microanalytical Inc.

Christenson left Sandia in June 2003 to launch HT. The company’s microfabrication technology makes incredibly small components for computers, the life sciences and portable electronics, such as cell phones and PDAs.

He knows of scientists who have left and returned to the labs, but his focus remains on building HT’s business.

“There’s a good reason it’s a great place to work, but right now I’m driven by getting a product going,” he says.

Chance at a dream

In the case of Mathew Donnelly, the entrepreneurial separation program gave him the chance to explore a lifelong interest in business.

He left from August 2004 to October 2005 to help what is now known as Aerobox Composite Structures, a successful company in Rio Rancho making plastic shipping containers for airplanes. He took part in the research behind the containers, and served as the company’s manufacturing manager. After he helped the company find its feet, he returned to the labs for family reasons.

“ESTT (Entrepreneurial Separation to Transfer Technology program) made it much easier to go,” he says. “I thought it was a great way for folks to gain new experience and feel like they’re helping the community without risking the security that we have here at Sandia.”

Given the chance to leave again, Donnelly says he would.

“It was long hours and a lot of adrenaline,” he says. “I had a great time.”

Win-win

Both outcomes of the program – a Sandia scientist leaving for good or returning – bring success to participants, the labs and the local business community, says Sherman McCorkle, president and CEO of Technology Ventures Corp. The Albuquerque firm helps turn technology research into commercial products.

“It is successful when the leave occurs and the innovator is a successful entrepreneur and starts a company,” he says. “It is successful when the innovator returns to the laboratory because that innovator brings back that year or two years or three years of unique private-sector experience that allows the laboratories to collaborate in a new and different way with the private sector.”

Goldheim says in the past three years, scientists leaving the labs have more often paired up with experienced business leaders found through venture capitalists and organizations such as Technology Ventures Corp.

The team approach, he says, frees scientists to focus on their strengths, which may not be in running a business, but in knowing a technology.

“That’s been a real strong trend,” he says. “Don’t try to go out there and be something you’re not.”

To further hone in on commercially promising technologies developed in the labs, Sandia started the Entrepreneur in Residence program a little more than a year ago, Goldheim says. It brings in an experienced entrepreneur who consults lab employees part-time on the challenges to commercializing a technology.

With the labs’ resources and technology commercialization efforts, a growing pool of investment capital and increasing numbers of experienced entrepreneurs, Goldheim says New Mexico is poised to become a hub for high-tech business.

“New Mexico, I think, is at the early stage of that,” he says. “We should be optimistic expecting that will happen.”

FACTBOX:STEPPING OUT

Since 1994, the Entrepreneurial Separation to Transfer Technology program at Sandia National Laboratories has allowed scientists to take years off to turn their research into commercial products. If the business fails to launch, scientists have up to three years to return to the labs without having to apply anew.

Out of 126 Sandia employees who have used the program, only 46 have returned to the labs.

Here’s a look at how many used the program each year:

• 1994: 3
• 1995: 18
• 1996: 13
• 1997: 16
• 1998: 12
• 1999: 9
• 2000: 28
• 2001: 10
• 2002: 6
• 2003: 4
• 2004: 2
• 2005: 4
• 2006: 1 to date

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