Roughly a year ago, Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, NM, and Ardesta LLC, Ann Arbor, MI, announced a partnership aimed at transferring MEMS and microsystems technology to start-up companies in the commercial sector.
The partnership allowed Ardesta nonexclusive rights and license to use Sandia’s SUMMiT process – Sandia’s Ultraplanar Multilevel MEMS Technology – an advanced five-level polysilicon surface micromachining MEMS technology that allows for increased complexity and functionality beyond that which was previously possible.
Things were moving smoothly ahead; Ardesta established an office in New Mexico in August of 2001.
David Williams left his post as director of Sandia’s Microsystems Science, Technology, and Components Center to join Ardesta and hopefully make the partnership work.
Then, just months after the Sandia-Ardesta agreement was signed, the events of 9-11 hit, changing everything. Sandia, a national lab, is on the grounds of Kirkland Air Force Base, Williams said.
“On 9-11, the base got shut down, and it was difficult to have access to the labs – it cost us a quarter, candidly,” said Williams. “However, we lost none of the passion for the relationship.”
Additionally, said Williams, the lab’s focus immediately became trained on aiding the military with technology.
As the situation began to return to normal, after several months went by, the goal of commercializing Sandia technology became even more relevant.
“Sandia is even more committed to the commercialization of technologies, particularly in this technology segment,” explained Williams. “The need to establish a viable small tech industry in this county is becoming more apparent – and of more urgency – to Sandia than it had been in the past. Unless you have an industry base, you’re not going to meet full national security needs.”
The 9-11 attacks also gave Williams, a long-time Sandia employee before leaving for Ardesta, pause for thought.
“There’s only been one time since I came to Ardesta that I looked over my shoulder and thought, ‘Did I do the right thing?'” said Williams. “It was two days after 9-11. What I came to recognize in very quick order was that I am doing what the nation needs me to do. I’m creating this industrial base.”
Williams is now CEO of a SUMMiT-based fab in Albuquerque, the National Microsystems Accelerator (NMA), a consortium founded by Ardesta, The Next Generation Economy Inc., the U. of New Mexico, Technology Ventures Corp., and Sandia.
The NMA fab is currently being set up, according to Williams – Next Generation will provide equipment, Sandia the SUMMiT technology, Ardesta the CEO (Williams), the U. of NM a CTO, and Technology Ventures is chasing down federal funds for the fab. The NMA is being set up to create a prototyping-through-production capability in Sandia’s SUMMiT technology. SUMMiT is supported by the infrastructure of the SAMPLES (Sandia Agile MEMS Prototyping, Layout Tools, Education, and Services) model.
“It’s the agent we need to create start-ups,” said Williams. “Sandia’s not a production lab – that’s what this thing is, a production lab.”
The fab could have its line in place with the technology running within a year, said Williams. It could be in production within two, two and a half years, he estimated.
Ardesta has also made its first investment ($3 million), in MesoSystems, which isn’t a Sandia spin-off, but is based in Albuquerque, in order to be close to the U. of NM and Sandia. MesoSystems is a perfect example of how 9-11 has moved certain companies forward, said Williams.
Before 9-11, MesoSystems’ primary technology concerned air sampling for black mold, etc. Now the air-sampling tech is focused on anthrax detection, said Williams.
In addition, said Williams, Ardesta is now actively engaged in due diligence with the first of four companies it hopes to invest in, work with in the NMA, and then spin out within two years.
Ardesta is looking at four market segments to target with Sandia’s technology. They’re segments that can provide benefits to both military and commercial needs, including optics, wireless, bioscience, and commercial/industrial (sensing and controlling applications).
For instance, said Williams, in the bioscience field, the technology can be used commercially for point-of-care and drug discovery concerns, and in the military for protecting citizens and soldiers from chemical and biological attacks.
Sandia not only provides the technology model for startups, but first customers, as well – in the form of the Department of Defense and other government agencies.
“Sandia is pretty tolerant,” said Williams. “They take best efforts. Sandia’s mission provides us with the first customer.”
That’s not only good for the startups, but for Sandia as well, Williams explained. Now when Sandia competes against other labs to be the developer of a technology, the lab also brings commercialization partners along – the NMA’s startups.
Ardesta is looking for investment partners in the startups they’re contemplating, Williams remarked.
“The nature of this tech, being a disruptive technology, is that it’s going to blossom, it’s going to take off, but it can also be squashed and killed – if you get bought out, changed,” noted Williams. “One of the ways to resist that takeover is to share these investments. This stuff has been hyped and over-hyped for a while. There are some solid investments out there. There’s smart money being spent.”