LabStart spins out money-making tech

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By Roger Snodgrass

Los Alamos National Laboratory and investment partners celebrated the launch of LabStart, LLC, a revitalized program for getting lab technology out the door and into new businesses.

A few dozen laboratory employees and managers networked with a handful of entrepreneurs Monday night at De Colores, as a signed contract was presented to the parties involved and B. Russell (Russ) Hopper was named LabStart’s entrepreneur in residence.

With a background in molecular biology, he said that he’s also developed spin-offs in materials science and the physical sciences. Most recently he has been working in the lab’s Technology Transfer Division, so he has something of a head start in terms of familiarity with the local offerings.

What’s he going to be looking for from the intellectual property perspective?

“Are we interested in materials,” he asked. “Absolutely. Methods? Absolutely. Software? Absolutely. And any combination across labs, groups, teams and divisions.”

For managers who were afraid the initiative might vacuum up their “rainmaker” principal investigators who bring in the grants, Hopper said if they wanted to go, nothing could keep them, but that the purpose generally was to leave them in place where they would continue to have access to tools and people inside the system.

Hopper said he’ll spend a lot of time on the ground looking for technological opportunities. He’ll have an office in Suite 444 at Los Alamos National Bank on Trinity Drive.

LabStart is a joint venture created in a partnership between ARCH Venture Partners and the Verge Fund that won a three-year, million-dollar contract under the Los Alamos Venture Acceleration (LAVA) Initiative.

LAVA got underway in May. A proposal by ARCH and Verge was accepted in September.

Los Alamos managers and scientists have expressed frustration in past years about the lab’s relative lack of success in commercializing homegrown technologies.

That old rap is supposed to go away with the new strategy that will plant a full-time resident venture capitalist scout within the laboratory to identify promising technologies that can be developed into new businesses.

At a minimum, LabStart is supposed to come up with three deals over the three year period.

Verge partner Tom Stephenson described the combined strength of the two companies as providing “national reach and local depth.”

Both companies specialize in early-stage identification and funding, but on somewhat different scales.

Verge is based in Albuquerque and has a sweet spot of about $600,000 in multiple installments for its investments, Stephenson said.

ARCH is a large national company with $1.5 billion under management and more than two decades of experience bringing research technology to market.

Clint Bybee, managing partner and a cofounder of ARCH said the company’s current fund is $400 million, and has “the expectation over time to invest $8-12 million” in a typical deal.

“But we are happy to invest $1 million, $2 million or $25,000,” he said, “depending on the key piece of risk reduction we would need to analyze in each case.”

Stephenson and Bybee have known each other for a long time. Bybee lived in Albuqerque for six years and they were partners on a project back then.

Neither is daunted by venture capital investments during a downturn.

“Our bet is that we can find some interesting companies that can come out of this,” Bybee said.

Terry Wallace, principal associate director for science, technology and engineering, said the occasion was about “appreciation for all the intellectual capital we have within the institution.”

Technology Transfer Division leader Steve Girrens was master of ceremonies for the event and ended the formalities by passing out brochures to begin getting the word out about LabStart.