Q&A: Stephen Ban of Argonne National Laboratory

May 21, 2007

CHICAGO - “ The Illinois Venture Capital Association has interviewed Stephen Ban of Argonne National Laboratory to discuss its technology transfer activities, how the lab measures success and how it interfaces with the venture capital community.

Illinois Venture Capital Association: Please describe the basic ingredients of the Office of Technology Transfer at Argonne National Laboratory.
Stephen Ban:
Argonne is comprised of numerous divisions. Each of them may have several different labs. There are on the order of 50 labs that serve a specific purpose.

We don't interface with all of them in principal. The function of the Office of Technology Transfer is to work with scientists to help produce intellectual property and then to provide facilitation of that intellectual property into commercial use.

This is accomplished by interacting with industry as well as developing a number of licenses and performing outreach to stakeholders. This is to get the technology into use so benefit to industry and users can come from it.

IVCA: Being based within an hour of Chicago, how much of your technology transfer initiatives are regional in scope as opposed to national or international?
That is a really good question and a difficult one to answer. I would say it is close to a 40 to 60 percent split between the Midwest and other regions.

Most of the Midwest work comes from Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. Much of the rest comes from the east coast. We don't do as much collaborative work as we should with the west coast.

IVCA: How do you measure success?
We have several metrics and measures of the various ways intellectual property is created. Getting invention concepts into final form to submit for patents and licensing technologies for market use are measures of the commercial impact of the technology we develop.

We track administrative effectiveness through measures of efficiency of how contracts are processed. We administer the Work for Others program, which is the external contracting activity that all the divisions are involved in with industry and other federal agencies.

We also monitor the royalty return on licensed technology. Success at Argonne is in measuring the impact of technology whether in the world of intellectual property, scientific papers, establishing a patent portfolio or in terms of commercial acceptance and the impact on the market.

IVCA: One company getting a lot of positive recognition as of late is Advanced Diamond Technologies (ADT). Please talk about working with that organization.
About four years ago, we decided that the technology behind ADT was broad enough and had a lot of potential as a business start-up.

The technology had been developed for a decade to provide a platform with significant potential for expansion into several markets and had a lot more potential with additional research. Those are the characteristics we look for in a technology area that might be a candidate for a start-up.

We went to U.S. Department of Energy officials and suggested that this would be a viable Argonne start-up. After a lot of discussion with them, we convinced them that this is something Argonne should do. We launched ADT as a new venture.

The company has attracted some venture capital and some additional funding from the government. This was a milestone. Up until that point in time, start-ups that came out of Argonne were managed by the University of Chicago's ARCH. Neil Kane became the initial founding CEO.

IVCA: When it comes time to raising private capital, is it optimal that you identify the founding executive before raising private dollars?
Absolutely. Investors are largely influenced by markets and people more so than technology. In my experience, technology is the underlying foundation. We say you have to have a man/woman, a plan and some money.

The person has to be right, the plan has to make sense and you have to track down the initial capital. The requirements have generally come in that order. Still, I don't mean to diminish the fact that the plan is built on technology.

IVCA: How do you know if a start-up has significant potential for multiple appropriations, R&D and can be applied to several markets?
There are probably two or three solid candidates coming out of Argonne that we look at every year. No more. That is on top of hundreds of projects that are ongoing. We evaluate each solid candidate for its broad platform possibilities and the market needs it can address.

IVCA: Finding that man or woman manager can be a very prolonged process, right?
Yes. The most difficult step is getting a match with someone who is motivated to pursue the technology, has the necessary entrepreneurial and technical background and is business savvy.

IVCA: How does the Office of Technology Transfer fit within Argonne's overall mandate as a federally funded research institution?
The technology transfer mission is to work with the divisions to deliver the technology to the industry in a proactive manner. We strive to work with divisions to identify partners and joint programs and be proactive to help match a technology with a partner.

I use that term in the general sense. Perhaps it is an R&D sponsor or maybe it is a collaborator. In order to obtain the benefits through commercial use, we provide a service to divisions to help identify and exploit opportunities.

We get involved with divisions to identify possible sponsors and possible licenses. We also participate in communication efforts in technologies. New programs might get started in a division through our joint commercial interactions.

Most important, we try to identify those technologies that will have a high impact.

Nanotechnology applications are important as are new types of solar cells. Those areas justify putting a significant amount of resources into targeted activities. We are working with specific divisions that are involved in these areas to complement their R&D programs.

IVCA: How can you best interface with the venture capital community?
We are pursuing several possible models so we can interface more effectively with the venture community.

In the past year, we have had several meetings with venture capital firms looking for ways to satisfy some of their interests as well as facilitate a better interface to get emerging technologies on their radar screen.

Right now, our thinking is to develop some form of a periodic interface. We enjoy talking to venture capitalists on how to improve emerging technologies and get their feedback as to what can make a particular project a great investment.

We are in the early stages of forming such an advisory relationship with some local VCs. We are eager to move ahead on an informal basis because the input of VCs can have an impact on Argonne.