Getting the Labs Into the Game

A federal lab helped solve a problem at Robert Menzi's start-up, Protiveris.
A federal lab helped solve a problem at Robert Menzi's start-up, Protiveris. (Marie Poirier Marzi)
By Ellen McCarthy
Thursday, June 16, 2005

This is the kind of advantage Washington technology companies long for as their geographic right:

In the spring of 2004, Robert Menzi 's Rockville company, a start-up developing a complex instrument for nanotechnology and biotechnology research, hit a wall. The tool's microscopic lasers wouldn't focus accurately, and the firm's scientists couldn't figure out why. After months of grappling with the problem, Menzi met a few officials from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), who suggested he send a guest researcher to work in the agency's Gaithersburg lab to help solve the puzzle. A few months later, Menzi's start-up, Protiveris , had its answer -- an adviser at the agency suggested the use of a particular machine, and it worked like a charm.

Whenever there is talk about the strengths of the Washington tech economy, proximity to federal labs and university researchers -- among the best resources around -- is cited. But many of those who've studied the relationship between the commercial tech sector and labs belonging to the government or an ivory tower say cooperation is not nearly as deep as it could be.

The routes to collaboration are often unclear. "I think it's very ad hoc," said Menzi, who fell into his relationship with NIST somewhat by chance.

And ethical questions about the way federally funded researchers work with businesses can deter cooperation. Some officials worry that the government loses impartiality by sharing resources with individual companies. In February, the National Institutes of Health banned researchers from acting as paid consultants to companies after government investigators raised conflict-of-interest concerns.

Last week, Menzi told his tale at an NIST technology showcase that is part of a series being sponsored by the Maryland Technology Development Corp. (TEDCO) to foster more productive relationships. About 200 people were briefed on NIST research and opportunities for commercial companies. Along with the guest researcher program, tech firms can broker deals to use the agency's facilities and initiate joint projects.

TEDCO, which will hold its next showcase in Fort Detrick on July 14, has signed agreements with a dozen federal labs to formalize the avenues through which local companies can work with the agencies.

Local venture capitalists are also trying to help things along. Last week, Mark Frantz of the Carlyle Group , Harry Weller of New Enterprise Associates , Rich Harris of SpaceVest , Jonathan Ebinger of BlueRun Ventures and several other venture funders met with deans and provosts from major research universities, including Virginia Tech , the University of Maryla nd , Carnegie Mellon University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology . The idea, Frantz said, is to make sure university officials know how venture capital funds work and how they can push innovations into the commercial world.

The Virginia Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) is altering its approach, as well. The organization originally set out to create a large database categorizing all the labs and research departments in the state so that entrepreneurs could look up potential partners. That method turned out to be too broad, says CIT President Peter Jobse , so the organization is working to target specific research projects that could be used in emerging sectors. So, for example, if CIT spots a group of companies developing nanotechnology or medical diagnostic products, it could pinpoint public researchers doing similar work and pair them up.

The Greater Washington Board of Trade has also been working on a new collaboration model for the past year. The initiative, called the Virtual Incubator Project , asked researchers from federal and university labs to submit presentations on technologies that might be the seeds of start-up firms. The 20 proposals were narrowed to five, and a team of advisers is now evaluating the viability of each prospective business. If the plans look promising, the intention is to recruit management teams to start the new firms, said Martin Mullins , co-chairman of the initiative and vice president of technology licensing at Georgetown University .

What's the best way to get caught in secret merger talks?

Chuck Saffell and David Karlgaard have some idea.

A year ago, Nortel Networks hired Saffell to find a way to make the Canada-based company a major player in the government information technology sector. Saffell moved from San Diego to Washington, hired an investment bank to look for acquisition targets and studied dozens of companies. In February, he met with Karlgaard, chief executive of Fairfax-based PEC Solutions, and 10 weeks later had brokered a deal to buy the 20-year-old contractor for $448 million.

The night before the deal was to be announced, Saffell and Karlgaard went to a Washington Nationals game to blow off steam. The two happened to be caught on camera, their faces blown up on the big stadium screen and broadcast to the television networks.

"The next morning, people kept rushing up to me saying, 'Hey, I saw you on TV,' " Karlgaard said.

Much to their relief, nobody caught on to the merger, and the deal to form Nortel PEC Solutions closed last week.

Moves of Note: Drew Ladner , former chief information officer for the Treasury Department , plans to announce today that he will become the general manager for JBoss Inc., an open-source software company. JBoss is based in Atlanta, but Ladner will stay in Washington to promote the firm -- and open-source technology in general -- to government agencies. The term "open source" generally refers to software that is developed collaboratively with code that is free for all to see.

"I wanted to dive into an opportunity area that would shake things up over the next five years and reached the conclusion that open source was really at the point where it could make a difference in government," Ladner said.

Ellen McCarthy writes about the local tech scene every Thursday. Her e-mail address ismccarthye@washpost.com.


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