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Economy, Energy, and Entrepreneurship: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Thu, 12/15/2011 - 3:49am
R&D Editors

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Erik Stenehjem speaks on topics including funding, peer review, entrepreneurship, nanotechnology research, and communicating research missions in a social networking environment.

Paul Livingstone, Moderator: Tell us a little bit about yourselves, just to establish things and get everyone talking.

Erik Stenehjem, Lawrence Livermore National LaboratoryErik Stenehjem, director, Industrial Partnerships Office
I'm the Director of Industrial Programs at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. My background is in economics, surprisingly. I taught entrepreneurship at the University of Washington and Washington State University. I believe whole-heartedly in the use of entrepreneurship in taking inventions out of the laboratory and making them available to the public. That process is working for us pretty well.

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is really focused on national security issues and in particular, stockpile stewardship. Our laboratory director, along with the director of two other defense program laboratories, certifies the stockpile every year for the administration.

In addition, we have opened up new focus areas in our laboratory and reached out to other government agencies and the industrial sector to increase our business and maintain our capabilities.

Livingstone: One aspect of government-funded research that may not be as well appreciated by, say, researchers at private companies, or even perhaps our readers, is how projects of national security or importance are assigned to national laboratories or research centers.

Identify how your organization fits into this process and if you've seen some changes recently or over time.

Stenehjem: I think that at Livermore, we have several programs in the national security area that are in fact assigned in the sense that they're programs that we've run for a long time, and have built capability, and equipment, and facilities to conduct. Those are pretty much ongoing, base load programs for the laboratory.

But, as with, most national laboratories, we're all FFRDCs (federally funded research and development centers) and what that basically means is we have a special connection to the Department of Energy. And, as FFRDCs, we can go in and propose work that has not come out as a request for proposal from the Department of Energy and that's what we do.

So, rather than assigning, most of our work, I would say the bulk of our work, is the result of PIs (principal investigators) and program developers going to the Department of Energy and now increasingly, other federal agencies and proposing work to be done that they think needs to fill a gap in a mission area.

And so, we really are a laboratory of entrepreneurs because at the end of the day, we don’t do work unless we sell it.

Livingstone: In recent years, there's been discussion about the peer review process. And, there have been some questions about its effectiveness and even its integrity. What is your organization's opinion about the effectiveness of the current approach to peer review, which relies on anonymity and assumptions of honesty? And, explain changes that you'd like to see with this approach.

Stenehjem: The peer review is essential at Livermore and we use it in our proposal development, we use it in publications, and we use it in our directorate reviews. So, we have external reviewers coming in to evaluate our directorates every year. We have external people coming in to review our LDRD proposals every year. We have about $97 million in LDRD, that’s discretionary money that's used by internal researchers to pursue areas of interest within the laboratory and the DOE mission. Those things are technically reviewed, peer reviewed.

Our publications are peer reviewed and we recently did a count that indicated to us that we're in an upper quintile certainly of citations. So, the publications that we produce are cited very frequently, which is, I think, a demonstration of the efficacy of the overall peer review process. People are turning to us and our peer entities for citations on the the state of the science. So, I think as David said, we’re firm believers in it.

Livingstone: Research and funding in nanoscale technology has been increasing for both basic research and increasingly in product development. Recent findings are shedding some light on the effect of nanomaterials on biological systems. I'm wondering if this affects any research that is taking place at your organization. And, if you feel that some more regulation may soon follow as a result of some of these findings?

Stenehjem: I think we would echo that to the extent that there is a reasonable understanding of the risks associated with nanomaterials, we are following safety and security procedures that would meet or exceed those requirements.

Nanomaterials are used at the laboratory in a variety of ways, for capacitors, for solar collectors, and for carbon nanotubes. Two of our physicists discovered, incidentally, that gases and liquids pass through nanotubes at three orders of magnitude faster than theory predicted, which makes them excellent filters. An entrepreneur started a small company to which we licensed carbon nanotubes for desalinization of water.

So, my hope would be that we don't discover down the road, that there are further problems with nanomaterials because the promises that they have for the country and globally are phenomenal.

Livingstone: How does your organization make adjustments to changes in funding or times when funding seems uncertain? And, that seems to have been quite a bit recently.

Stenehjem: We've set up an office called the Office of Strategic Outcomes with program directors who have responsibility to market our capabilities to other federal agencies. Increasingly we are investing our discretionary resources in building new capabilities in a select set of focus areas that reflect national priorities and needs. We market our capabilities to our DOE and non-DOE clients and essentially compete for work in these areas. This permits us to expand further on new capabilities and to maintain our core NNSA capabilities so they will always be available if needed.

I would follow up that the non-federal work for others, particularly industrial collaboration, is increasingly important to us. We took our eastern boundary—the guards and the gates—and we moved them into the interior. This newly opened space is now referred to as the Livermore Valley Open Campus where people from any nationality can come and interactwith our scientists, our high performance computing resources, our National Ignition Facility and the intellectual property of the Laboratory in a truly collaborative environment.

I would offer one statistic, as a result simply of technology commercialization: Last year, $400 million worth of goods and services were created in the United States with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory inside. So, it's beginning to work.

Livingstone: Now, even if Solyndra represents a single event and perhaps a small percentage of this type of government loan guarantee, there is the risk of other publicized commercial failures related to government funded research. What will this type of possibility mean for your organization? How do you plan to respond to such events? And, what are your thoughts about the current situation?

Stenehjem: I think that as a result of this, there may be a slightly cynical response. We may, in fact, reduce the amount of money that we provide to loan guarantees. But, I don't think that conceptually that will have, or actually that that will have a huge bearing on the investment in laboratories like ours where we’re looking at technological solutions.

A big part of what we do at LLNL is inventing. I draw the following distinction between inventions and innovations: inventions are ideas made manifest; innovations are ideas made commercial. The first is the domain of the scientist/engineer, the second is the domain of the entrepreneur.

It's the job of the entrepreneur to look at the competitive landscape, to look at price points, to look at form and functional requirements, and methods of going to market. Not every invention is going to become a successful innovation. Whether it is selected as a "go to market" idea and whether it competes successfully in the market is an entrepreneurial act. The fact that a particular invention doesn't succeed in the market place is more likely to be a function of a failure of market diligence than technical diligence. The fact is we need more inventions and we need to encourage the entrepreneurship needed to move them from invention to innovation.

Livingstone: The economy's going through a difficult time, making politics also very difficult. What's your perspective on how government-funded research can really help turn things around or at least get things moving forward a little more quickly now that they appear to be a little stuck? How can this type of research stimulate the economy, perhaps stimulate jobs?

Stenehjem: Our economy appears to be increasingly dependent on inventors and entrepreneurs and we've taken steps to bring them together in a partnership that will result in the creation of new technology-based businesses providing technology-based jobs. We regard support to US competitiveness as an important mission of the laboratory.

LLNL is located in the Bay area. Taking advantage of our location, we've established a group of more than 60 entrepreneurs who are interested in scouring through the technologies we've developed in search of the next new blockbuster product or service. It is really fascinating to watch them in this process. They can see things in inventions that mere mortals often miss. If they find something that looks interesting, something that think has commercial potential, we challenge them to take it and we offer them an option to the invention for $1,000.

Further, if an entrepreneur is willing to conduct the market diligence needed to verify its commercial potential, we'll help by doing the technical diligence. That is, we'll make sure that the technology can perform to the specifications the entrepreneur believes are necessary to succeed in the market place.

As I said, we're very committed to the idea that start-ups, and entrepreneurs and scientists are critical to the future of the country. And, we're proud of the fact, and this is the only metric we look at in our laboratory, that last year $400 million of goods and services were produced in this country using Lawrence Livermore technology commercialized by our laboratory. We hope that will grow this to $1 billion and beyond.

Livingstone: One of the important things for government-funded research centers and organizations is to communicate some of their work to the public themselves because they're the ones doing the research and they would be the best to communicate it. How do you approach this task of communicating some of the work that you do and how are you adapting to some rapidly changing technologies that allow you to do that?

Stenehjem: We're attempting to evolve from being just broadcasters to becoming communicators. And, that means you use Tweets, Facebook, and YouTube, but you back it what you're saying with detailed information on our Website and in the literature. If you can come up with something that catches the attention of the proper demographic on 140 characters, we still need to have an authoritative place to send them to follow up.

The other thing that we're doing that's different for us is we used to focus on local, regional, state, then national news. Now, we've gone straight to national. So, we take stories to CNN, we take them to ABC, and CBS.

The effect of that is we get a fewer numbers of stories into those outlets, but the impact is significantly larger because if it comes out of the national news, it's going to get covered in the other places as well. So, we're attempting to move into Web 2.0, but we're also being more strategic in how we get our news stories out.

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