Lab names tech transfer partner

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By Roger Snodgrass

Los Alamos National Laboratory and its for-profit management partnership named two companies as a composite partner in technology transfer over the next three years.

An announcement by the laboratory Tuesday said LANL and Los Alamos National Security LLC will negotiate with ARCH Venture partners and Verge Fund to manage the Los Alamos Venture Acceleration (LAVA) Initiative.

“The Venture Acceleration Initiative is an innovative program in a comprehensive laboratory strategy to increase the impact of our cross-cutting R&D in creating technology jobs in the regional economy,” said Duncan McBranch, chief deputy of LANL’s Science Technology and Engineering Directorate and former director of the lab’s technology transfer division, in the announcement.

The program, which took shape in May, proposes to place a talent scout more or less full time on site at the lab to look for technologies with entrepreneurial promise.

The contract is worth up to $1 million over a three year period and is meant to take care of some of the direct expenses involved in identifying and spinning off promising business opportunities into northern New Mexico.

ARCH Venture Partners with offices in Austin, San Francisco, Seattle and Albuquerque manages more than $1.5 billion in capital.

Verge is a seed and pre-seed venture capital fund, which specializes in shaping promising New Mexico technological opportunities into successful, high-growth commercial ventures.

“At the core of our proposal was national reach and local depth,” said Verge partner Tom Stephenson in a telephone call this morning, "working with ARCH, a nationally recognized name in technology commercialization, coupled with Verge, the deepest team of professionals doing seed-stage investment in New Mexico.”

Stephenson said Verge is currently making investments from a $20 million fund. He said the partnership is currently recruiting for on-site staff, to be supplemented by a flow of Verge and ARCH investment professionals.

“Los Alamos has a broad range of leading edge technologies,” he said. “We don’t want to constrain ourselves to a particular industry segment. For us, the starting point will be where is there a market need that can be addressed by something at the laboratory and can ultimately become a sustainable business.”

At a minimum the contractor is expected to underwrite the creation of three new enterprises over the three-year term. The program builds upon but does not replace the lab’s current program for a visiting entrepreneur. The project represents an admission by the laboratory that it has had difficulty translating its own technology into viable intellectual and commercial packages, as laboratory officials explained to prospective bidders in meetings this summer.

ARCH Venture Partners is described on the company website as having spun off from a technology commercialization initiative originated by the University of Chicago. Steven Lazarus was recruited to head the new organization. At first, ARCH development Corporation was incorporated in 1986 as a not-for-profit corporation to mine promising technology at Argonne National and the university.

Then, in 1989, Lazarus with others formed a new company, ARCH Venture Partners, maintaining the university as a limited partner and investor. Its seventh and most recent venture fund was capitalized at $400 million.

Among the company’s New Mexico investments was MicroOptical Devices, Inc. of Albuquerque, maker of semiconductor surface emitting lasers. It was acquired by EMCORE Corp. in December 1997.

Verge, located in the Verge Building, a historic mercantile building in downtown Albuquerque boasts a portfolio of 20 companies.

Stephenson, described one of them, Altella, as a company run by a serial entrepreneur, formerly of Sandia National Laboratories. The company cleans up water from the oil and gas industry.

“It repurposes a liability and turns it into an asset that can become usable water in the arid southwest,” he said.