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From Idea to Startup: Lawrence Livermore’s Tech Transfer

Each and every one of us has been touched by our national lab system in more ways than we realize. That’s especially the case with the Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL), whose innovations and cutting edge technologies continue to impact us in surprising ways. They help us parallel park and make our cars safer via crash simulation. They fund satellite imagery of the world around us (does Google Earth ring a bell?). All of these innovations were created by scientists and engineers from LLNL — a lab that boasts an Entrepreneur’s Hall of Fame. Propel(x) had the chance to discuss the triumphs and opportunities that reside in the lab with Roger Werne, Deputy Director of Industrial Partnerships Office, of this technological pioneering lab.

Propel(x): Talk to us about the founding and the charter of the Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Werne: Livermore was founded in September of 1952 as the second nuclear weapons design lab, Los Alamos being the first, to support the nuclear weapons capabilities of the United States. In more recent years, we have become  a national security laboratory. This means that we do the R&D necessary for the federal government to implement national security policy. But,  nuclear deterrence, or what’s called the stockpile stewardship program—which is the maintenance and upkeep of the nuclear weapons program of the United States—is still our number one mission. Essentially, any problem the United States has that involves science and technology with a national security flavor tends to be within our mission space. We’re about 6,500 employees right now, with a budget of around $1.7 billion for fiscal year ’17.

Propel(x): Are the LLNL’s technology transfer efforts tied to the original mission?

It is the  formal mission of the laboratory to take whatever technologies are invented in the course of our national security mission , and get them into the hands of the private sector in order to create value for the US economy. So we do research for purposes of national security, and some of that research has commercial value. It is my job as part of the Industrial Partnerships Office to get  technology and know-how out the door, and into the hands of private  industry.  In this process we deal with large and small companies which are looking for know-how or new technology to license and  start-up companies which are looking for a new technology to solve a market-based problem.

Propel(x): Can you give us few examples of commercial successes?

Werne: We’ve chronicled our commercial successes through what we call the Entrepreneurs’ Hall of Fame here at Livermore. It  includes 19 members who did their early training and development at the laboratory and then transferred  their technology to the private sector, which usually led to the building of successful companies. For example, in the mid-80s, John Hallquist developed a computer software code , named DYNA3D.  This software modeled the bending, folding, and collapse of metal structures better than anything else available at the time and the automobile industry picked up on this software as a way to do crash simulation.  John Hallquist left Livermore and formed a company called Livermore Software Technology Corporation. He commercialized DYNA3D as LS-DYNA, which allows for calculations rather than experiments to evaluate automobile safety under collision conditions. And that code has become the standard in the world for automobile crash simulation.  It  saves the automobile industry billions of dollars a year in terms of avoided costs. LS-DYNA and  Livermore Software Technology Corporation are the pioneers in that field in the entire world.

Another example involves Walter Scott, a scientist who worked on satellite technology while at LLNL , and concluded that there would be commercial value in satellite imagery  looking back down at the Earth yielding valuable information about everything from asset location to crop- information. . He cofounded a company called DigitalGlobe which now provides the imagery for Google Earth.

Another technology developed   at Livermore was  Chromosome Painting, which is a molecular diagnostic technique utilizing labeled DNA probes to detect or confirm chromosome abnormalities. It enables the healthcare industry to diagnose and screen to various type of cancer.  Chromosome Painting was licensed and commercialized by a series of companies  named Imagenetics, Vysis, and now Abbott  , and today it is a significant tool in the medical technology quiver.     Furthermore, Livermore, Los Alamos, and Lawrence Berkeley, pioneered the human genome program back in the 80s, and Livermore  developed tools to characterize chromosome 19. The three Labs can lay legitimate claim to having pioneered the human Genome program

Finally, we have a technology called micro-impulse radar, which  is a very small, inexpensive radar system that was developed by Tom McEwan an LLNL engineer.  It can measure the relative distance and speed between two moving objects very rapidly. LLNL licensed  that technology to over 40 companies in a variety of markets including automotive  and today, whenever you see an automobile that’s got collision avoidance warning on it or automatic parallel parking, that’s probably the “grandchild” of the  Livermore technology. It’s been in the private sector for about 25 years now, and it has revolutionized the safety of automobiles.

Propel(x): Let’s talk about a newer start-up that we both have connections to called SafeTraces (Note: SafeTraces is a Propel(x) alumnus company).

Werne: SafeTraces is based on a technology that we call a DNA barcode. It was originally developed for the Department of Homeland Security and is basically a sugar substance  with a known DNA signature.   It’s being developed  by SafeTraces to track our food supply from field to table to ensure food safety. For example, let’s say you are a farmer growing cantaloupes. Each cantaloupe would be sprayed with the DNA barcode in the field. You record the DNA signature for that particular location on that particular product. You then take that product to the marketplace. If there’s ever a problem that arises you can take a sample off of the skin of that cantaloupe and trace it back to where it came from. You can trace its entire history from field to countertop and know exactly what happened to it and where. It currently takes weeks or months to trace a food product back to it’s source.  Being able to trace them back to their source rapidly, which is what you can do with SafeTraces, is a significant benefit to the food products industry and to the consumer(http://www.safetraces.com/).

Propel(x): How do entrepreneurs who are interested in licensing LLNL  IP  get started?

Werne: Livermore has raw technology, usually in the form of licensable patents, and we can license those patents to a company, either exclusively or non-exclusively. In working with a company, there are two things we do, i.e.  negotiate business terms and conditions for licenses to transfer technology , and   cooperative research and development agreements or CRADAs, , which are cooperative research with the private sector, to transfer knowledge and know-how.  If an entrepreneur has a particular need for a technology and they want to look at what Livermore has developed, they can go to our website, https://ipo.llnl.gov/ ,  and contact one of our Business Development Executives will help them figure out what is relevant to their needs.  Then we can invite them to the laboratory,  to have more detailed discussions.  After discussions, if they are still interested they can begin licensing negotiations. To us, a successful technology transfer is a license or a cooperative research and development agreement which helps  transfer our technology or know-how to the private sector.

Propel(x): What’s the ideal relationship between an entrepreneur and a LLNL scientist at the root of an innovation?

Werne: An experienced business entrepreneur from the outside—who understands how to develop a company and product and how to attract capital for financing—paired with a Livermore scientist who is the expert on the technology, is the most successful combination for starting a company. For example, when forming a new company, the outside experienced business professional might be the CEO, and the Livermore scientist might be the CTO, and it’s the combination of the two plus some capital from the investment community that is the beginning of a potentially successful company.

Propel(x): Speaking of capital, how do you work with angel investors and VCs, and what would you like to communicate to them about your efforts?

Werne: It’s that early stage—from starting the company to the very first investments—that is the critical part for us, and that’s where the angel community comes in, because the angel community tends to be a little more tolerant and willing to put their money down at a much earlier stage in a company’s maturity. We’re searching for angel investors who are a bit daring and an entrepreneur who’s got a vision and knows the market. And then we’ll try to provide a technology and an individual who can carry the technology forward into a product that will have commercial value.

Propel(x): Lawrence Livermore has had a tremendous impact globally in its technology, and the past has been successful, so we’re wondering how you see the future unfolding and where Lawrence Livermore is going to have tremendous impact in the next 20 years?

Werne: Livermore has been prominent in high-performance computing over the years. An example of this is the automobile crash simulation that I talked about earlier. It solved a real problem and has had a significant impact on the automobile industry.   Furthermore,Computer tools used to help decode the human genome were developed at the national labs as well. From those early days, the field of bioinformatics has evolved which brings significant computing power developed at the Labs to identify pathogens based on genetic comparisons.  These tools are being acquired by the private sector and will be further developed and accelerated to improve human health.  Over all the national Labs want to transfer  our knowledge of high-performance computing to the private sector to maintain U.S. competitiveness. The rest of the world has figured out that high-performance computing is important as well, so it’s going to be a bit of a horse race in that respect.

The other area where I think we’re going to contribute is nanotechnology and additive manufacturing. The laboratories are significantly involved in additive manufacturing and other forms of microtechnology and nanotechnology in which there will be significant market capabilities developed. But which  problems in manufacturing they will  actually solve is an open question at this time. Trying to predict what a market need will be 5 or 10 years into the future is extremely difficult. So we develop the technology, present it to the private sector, and then it’s their job to figure out where it might be useful in terms of future applications. We need to know a little bit about the market and the market needs to know a little bit about us, and that’s one of my jobs,  to make sure the market knows a little bit about us.

Propel(x): Is there anything else you would like the readers to know about the Lawrence Livermore National Lab?

Werne: LLNL, and all of the national labs, are open for business.  One of our entrepreneurial advisors, Bob Tilman, who was cofounder of Digital Globe with Walter Scott, called Livermore a “Business friendly technology  giant.”  I want that to always be true. We are constantly trying to get our technologies in front of the people in the private sector. They understand markets, we understand technologies, and when it comes to finding a technology that will  meet a market need, we may be able to help.  Technology transfer is a shoulder to shoulder business with a company. You’ve got to be talking constantly and exchanging ideas and needs and capabilities so that somewhere along the line someone will say,”You know, I think that might work.” And that might be the beginning of something good.

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