Researchers examine a "homemade" rare earth purification column packed with alginate beads with bioengineered microbes embedded in them. This LLNL-led effort holds promise for the development of an innovative, cost-effective, “green” bio-adsorption technology to sequester and recover rare-earth elements from low-grade resources. From left: Dan Park, Suzanne Singer and Yongqin Jiao. Photos by Julie Russell/LLNL

News release from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), May 31, 2016.

The 2016 LLNL Lab-Corps cohort of researchers Yongqin Jiao, Tania Ryan, Suzanne Singer, and Michael Stadermann recently returned from in-depth entrepreneurial training at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Denver.

An eight-week program that started in early March, the Lab-Corps national training teaches the process of moving high-impact, real-world technologies into the private sector.

“There is a lot of preliminary investigation required before making a product that people need and are willing to pay for,” explained Tania Ryan, the entrepreneurial lead for one of the two LLNL teams. “I believe the scientists who participated will take back a broader view of product development.”

Lab chemist Michael Stadermann seconded the thought. “I think Lab-Corps has broadened my view of the big picture of a technology space. Academic papers are one good source of information, but especially where the framing of a practical problem is concerned, it is best to get directly in touch with a stakeholder to get an idea of what the problem actually is and what the boundary conditions of the solution look like.”

“Lab-Corps has demystified the process of building a company for me,” Stadermann added. “My most significant learning experience was the application of the scientific method to a non-science problem:  We had to formulate hypotheses about our business, customers, value, partners, and then validate them through interviews.”

Lab-Corps activities train and support principal investigators in identifying private market opportunities and formulating the technical testing and business structures necessary to bring research into the marketplace.

“Lab-Corps is a mini-business school,” explained Suzanne Singer, an LLNL mechanical engineer. “We learned how to get out of our labs, how to think money, and learn business lingo.”

Lab microbiologist Yongqin Jiao agrees. “There is so much we can learn through talking to customers, a lot of which you can’t find through reading papers.  Various people with different backgrounds have a lot to offer and there is something to learn from everyone.”

The Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) selected Jiao and Singer’s project, “Micro Miners,” and Stadermann and Ryan’s project, “Saline Solutions,” for the 2016 Lab-Corps cohort based on each team’s project proposal.

Micro Miners uses bacteria to extract rare earth elements from geothermal fluids; Saline Solutions desalinates water using small electrical charges.

Proposal funding supported training activities and market research.

“It’s safe to say that my workload has doubled since starting Lab-Corps,” Jiao said. “However, I would recommend it to anybody who conducts basic or application-based science.”

Jeff Roberts, the point of contact for LLNL to EERE, lauded the Lab-Corps program. “It’s an exciting program for people who are interested in how their technology fits within clean energy,” Roberts said. “We have some natural entrepreneurs at LLNL, and Lab-Corps provides an outlet for them.”

Rich Rankin, director of LLNL’s Industrial Partnerships Office and interim director of the Economic Development Office, also praised Lab-Corps’ success.

“The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well at LLNL,” Rankin said. “The Laboratory has a cadre of scientists, engineers and others who are very interested in seeing our technology move into the marketplace.

“Since we began Lab-Corps and the follow-on National Lab Entrepreneurial Academy (NLEA),” Rankin added, “we have seen an increase in interest in interaction with industry, more effective meetings with investors and industry partners, as well as more interest in working on projects that are interesting to industry and will have a commercial impact.”

The program and training also expands beyond the scope of business.

“While the skills that are being taught are meant to assist in spinning technology out of the national labs,” Stadermann noted that, “the skills and customer-oriented thinking that the program conveys are useful for any scientist who wants to build a new program or get more resources for an existing project.”

Singer points to Lab-Corps as a resource for LLNL researchers. “Our colleagues at LLNL also have benefited from hearing about our Lab-Corps experiences. I think they have expanded their knowledge and potentially are applying the methodology to their research.”

Jiao said that she has grown through the Lab-Corps program. “I feel less intimidated and more comfortable talking to strangers or making phone calls. Lab-Corps also taught me how to incorporate economic analysis to make stronger value propositions.”

“I think having the Lab-Corps knowledge and experience is going to help tremendously no matter what space or subject of research you cover,” Jiao added.

LLNL and its partner laboratory, Sandia Livermore, are one of five laboratory sites participating in EERE’s Lab-Corps program: Argonne, Idaho, Lawrence Berkeley and Pacific Northwest.

-- Michelle Rubin