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Tech parade

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By Roger Snodgrass

Albuquerque – Los Alamos National Laboratory gets some special attention each year at Technology Ventures Corporation’s Equity Capital Symposium. The LANL Tech Showcase is the first event on the schedule, followed by the investor reception in the adjoining room and then the Wine and Food Flight Extravaganza, where buyers and sellers begin to bond.

During this year’s showcase, LANL officials used the occasion to kick off a new tool in their tech transfer kit, the Los Alamos Venture Acceleration (LAVA) Initiative.

According to Business Week magazine, New Mexico is becoming “a technological hotspot,” with venture capital investments surging 167 percent last year compared to the national average of 5 percent.

The magazine attributes the growth to the presence of LANL and Sandia National Laboratories.

But investors should not worry about missing out: The train has not yet left the station, according to many participants at the conference. There’s still plenty of upside.

Hot new and still available technologies at the laboratory, as outlined by B. Russell Hopper of the lab’s Technology Transfer Division, include deposition technologies, biological technologies, sensors and software.

In the biological area, some of the participants wanted to know where they could buy a new plant growth enhancer that “speeds growth and maturation” and needs “less water and fertilizer.”

There was a lot of interest in a soon-to-be-prototyped compact nuclear reactor. Known as Hyperion, the module is intended to supply 25 MW, enough to power 20,000 typical American homes, but intended more for remote communities and military installations. Hyperion will sell for $25-50 million, compared to conventional nuclear power plants that are priced these days at about $15 billion.

LAVA

“Our problem is not a shortage of technology,” said John Mott, the lab’s division leader for tech transfer. “Our problem is the shortage of entrepreneurs who can look at a technology and see a business opportunity.”

LAVA, the new solicitation for a venture partner at the lab, addresses one of those peculiar gaps in the process that sometimes makes laboratory technology hard to recognize by outside investors: The technology is rarely in an add-water package with familiar labels investors know how to read.

“Despite a healthy supply of regional venture funding and existing opportunities, the rate of LANL spinouts has not reached its potential,” states the document calling for LAVA partnership proposals.

LAVA proposes to pay $1 million over three years to a company that can spend some immersive time sorting through and getting deeply acquainted with opportunities available at the laboratory.

Duncan McBranch, deputy principal associate director for science, technology and engineering, formerly the leader of the lab’s technology transfer division, said that LAVA would solve some “fairness” problems that the Department of Energy had encountered with a previous program for “visiting entrepreneurs.”

LAVA proposes a wide-open competitive process for identifying a company to provide some of the services of a “visiting entrepreneur,” but also, presumably, to provide a range of business capabilities for assessing the technology against market opportunities and marshalling executive talent, along with many other touches a start-up needs if it is going to work.

The winning company would be expected to provide the kind of people who could make the connection between the rich inventory of advanced technology at the laboratory and the appropriate level of seed funding needed to get it off the ground.

“As a federal government entity, these kind of people don’t just wander by,” said McBranch.

Development Office Program Manager Linda Padilla said, “This is an evolution in the mindset about what it takes to pull things out of the laboratory.”

She said proposals would be due by June 30.

Getting to market

LANL has been working on improving tech transfer, despite frequent complaints from frustrated scientists with what they think are sure-fire ideas.

An internal Technology Maturation Fund was set up some time ago to identify and support inventions with commercial potential inside the laboratory. For some time, there have been summer internships for graduate business students, many of whom focus on supporting new businesses based on LANL technological expertise, according to this year’s call for applications. Entrepreneurs-in-residence played a key role in recent years, putting investor-friendly handles on innovative ideas.

In October 2006, Los Alamos National Security, LLC, the corporate manager of the laboratory, set up another seed program, the Venture Acceleration Fund, focused on external projects that advance regional ventures based on LANL technology.

Also last year, LANL began a series of community springboard meetings to provide advice and feedback to small businesses in the region that are working to commercialize technology.

Out of one of those meetings came a connection between a semi-retired, former Silicon Valley executive Gary Ebersole and a promising concept developed by LANL postdoc Marko Rodriguez.

And out of that has developed Knowledge Reef, one of the 18 proposals that were presented during the primary Capital Equity Symposium session Thursday.

Knowledge Reef is licensing and developing “pipes and particles” – a social computing and collaboration platform for knowledge workers, with a business plan for tapping into what Ebersole says is a $40 billion advertising market.

A purposeful, highly evolved adult version of youth and entertainment-centered platforms like MySpace and Facebook, Knowledge Reef uses next generation technology like “the semantic web” that is coming soon to the Internet.

Rodriguez explained that the current web, known as Web 2.0, uses a kind of sprawling, free-form system that is hard for computers to know what humans are talking about. Web 3.0 will enable the machines to read another level of what is going on, the network of associations between people, places and other references on a page and their relations with each other.

The platform will begin beta testing June 6 with 200 members of UCLA’s Center for Embedded Networks Sensing, Rodriguez said. According to the new company’s business plan, there are 75 million knowledge workers in the United States and 150 million worldwide.

During a coffee break at the symposium, an unknown investor was heard to ask an unidentified entrepreneur, perhaps in jest, the magic words, “How do I make out the check?”