A velvet gauntlet

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By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA FE – Speakers on behalf of a private company and two prospective Los Alamos National Laboratory technologies made proposals and took their licks at the fourth Northern New Mexico Connect Springboard program at the El Dorado Hotel Thursday.

The idea of Springboard, like the real-life inspiration for a reality show on television, brings aspiring entrepreneurs and inventors into an arena with a panel of stern but friendly technical, financial and business experts. A representative of the business or the licensable technology discusses the opportunities, needs and challenges of the enterprise.

Moderated by Doruk Aytulu of the lab’s tech transfer division, the panel responded with a barrage of constructive feedback.

Peak Materials Inc. is a small company in Colorado Springs, Colo., that designs and develops technical systems used in a highly specialized and rapidly growing area of research and production. More specifically, the company offers flexible arrays of equipment involved in Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD) using a range of Reactant Delivery Systems (RDS) that produce some of the underlying films and deposits that are used to create new materials for nanotech applications.

Brad Luttrell, vice-president for business development, said the company is thinking about relocating to the Sandia-Los Alamos corridor. It sees a lot of activity going on by the kind of people who may be able to use its products and partner with it in developing new ones.

On the positive side, Peak has a good customer list of laboratories and research institutions. It has demonstrated 100-percent annual growth, although 2007 was not such a good year, but they have grown organically by re-investing from their own sales revenues. They are seeking a relatively small first level of investment from “an angel.”

Angel funding is usually the next step up the ladder from the “seed capital” that typically comes from “friends and family” but before the early rounds of “venture capital,” from an investment fund that is managing a pool, most likely, of other people’s money.

Although the panel liked Luttrell and his presentation, it found a number of weaknesses in the business plan, particularly in the intellectual property area, a key underpinning for high-tech ventures.

David Barach, a serial entrepreneur and turn-around specialist from San Diego, who is also a member of the Tech Coast Angels organization thought the story lacked clarity. Barach wanted to know why the company didn’t have a chief executive officer.

“You’ve got to get a CEO to get money. It’s a rudderless ship right now,” he said.

Barach was among several on the panel who thought the funding request was puzzling and the purpose too vague.

“It’s not an IP (Intellectual Property) play; it’s an execution play,” he noted, which leaves open the possibility that another company might be able to work around them. “Your selling pans in the gold rush,” he said.

John Chavez, president of the New Mexico Angels, which has provided early funding for business propositions aired at earlier Springboard meetings, wanted a better picture of the financial plan.

“We need a financial history as far back as we can see, where you’ve been and where you’re looking to go,” Chavez said.

Katie Szczepaniak-Rice of Epic Ventures, an early stage hi-tech investor, also encouraged more work on the story.

“You need to be able to tell what you do and why in five minutes or less,” she said, not to mention the elevator version, and of course the one-hour version.

Russ Hopper, the licensing executive in the lab’s business development office, made presentations on behalf of two technologies thought to have a lot of commercial promise, but no takers so far.

One was a solar energy technology, Aligned Crystalline Silicon, which offers low-cost, high performance for use in photovoltaics. The other is Polymer Assisted Deposition, which provides a very thin layer of corrosion/erosion protection, among several other possible uses.

“This is really a cool technology and we’re stumped about why it isn’t a solution somewhere,” Hopper said.

The panel had explanations, suggestions and contacts for further explorations in both areas.

Ed Burckle, executive director of the Regional Development Corporation who was attending the meeting, said Springboard’s contribution to regional economic development was to accelerate business growth.

“The Springboard program gives companies a competitive advantage by providing access to capital, and more importantly providing business insight from a host of multi-discipline experts,” he said. “The technology sector is an emerging component of the Northern New Mexico regional economy, and we as economic developers, wholeheartedly support this key LANL initiative.”