How and Why National Security Labs Fuel Local Innovation: Kim Budil, LLNL and Andy McIlroy, SNL

Dec 22, 2021

Episode Season 1 - Episode 4

Host Brandon Cardwell speaks with Kim Budil, lab director for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Andy McIlroy, associate labs director for Sandia National Laboratory and leader of the California site, about the mission of the national labs and how that intersects with fueling the local innovation economy.

Read the Episode Transcript

Brandon Cardwell 00:02
This is the Startup Tri-Valley podcast, featuring in-depth conversations with the leaders who are making the Tri-Valley the go to ecosystem for science-based startups. I’m your host Brandon Cardwell, Executive Director of the gate Innovation Hub and Daybreak labs. Welcome to the Startup Tri-Valley podcast. I’m your host, Brandon Cardwell. Our guests today are Kim Budil, lab director for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Andy McIlroy, associate labs director for Sandia National Laboratory and leader of the California site. Thank you both for coming on the show.

Kim Budil 00:32
Thank you for having us.

Andy McIlroy 00:33
Thank you.

Brandon Cardwell 00:34
So there’s so much ground to potentially cover. Not only do I have one lab leader here, I have two lab leaders here. And I want to get right into it. But I wanted to start with a brief introduction from each of you, at least how you got to the positions that you currently hold within the lab. So can you wanna go first?

Kim Budil 00:52
Sure. And I’ll resist the urge to say sheer luck. So I’ve actually been at Lawrence Livermore for my entire career, more or less. I came as a graduate student many, many years ago. And so I have, over the arc of my career, worked across most of the major programs and scientific elements of the laboratory. I’m a physicist by training. And so I’ve had opportunities to work on our defense missions on our global security missions in science and research management. Over the course of that career. I spent five years at the University of California Office of the President where I oversaw Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos and Lawrence Berkeley Lab. And that really gave me a view of the big picture on how the labs operate. And I’ve spent time working in the government. So I’ve seen this problem from every possible angle, the only job left was lab director. And so I’m very excited to have this opportunity.

Brandon Cardwell 01:45
All right, and great foreshadowing for the rest of the conversation. Andy, how about you?

Andy McIlroy 01:49
I’m with Kim, I’m trying to resist sheer luck. You know, I started at the lab in 1981 at Sandia as a postdoc, and was here for a couple of years and then moved to the Aerospace Corporation down in Los Angeles, which is the laboratory that works with the Air Force on space and satellite programs and things. So I got to, I got to check the rocket scientist box on my resume, which was, you know, is worth about as much as it sounds like, and then came back to Sandia had a great opportunity to continue my research career here in in energy and combustion and spent about a decade working as a combustion scientist in our commercial research facility, then became a manager, Senior Manager, kind of working my way up into management, then, was in a great place to be involved with helping stand up Livermore Valley open campus, which I’m sure we’ll talk more about later. And that role led me into some other leadership roles in our nuclear deterrence programs, Deputy Chief Technology Officer for the laboratory and then working my way through a program office and energy and homeland security, and then had the good fortune to have the opportunity to step up to this level.

Brandon Cardwell 03:04
Great. So in both of your descriptions of your background, you mentioned a lot of different elements you’ve worked on for the labs, which I think to the casual listener, may surprise them, or at least be a point of increase. What do the labs do? There were a lot of things you just described, what’s the mission of the labs? Why do they exist?

Kim Budil 03:23
So both of our labs have a similar mission space, although we work on different aspects of it. So I always say we’re a national security lab with a nuclear core. So our core mission is ensuring the safety, security and effectiveness of the nation’s nuclear deterrent. My lab works on the physics part of that nuclear explosive package. And Andy’s lab works on the engineering components of that. So we have a very symbiotic relationship. But we work on a huge range of national security missions, across countering the threat from weapons of mass destruction, assessing adversary capabilities and doing work with the intelligence community developing tools and technologies for arms control, but also climate security, energy security, big efforts in biosecurity and bio resilience. So really a very, very broad spectrum of missions and a wide range of science, technology and engineering that underwrites that. So there’s hardly a discipline, you can name that we don’t have people working in the lab.

Andy McIlroy 04:21
And I could just say ditto, because actually, our labs have a lot of similarities, a lot of parallelisms. But we have a lot of complementary capabilities along the way. And so as, as Kim said, We Lawrence would represent themselves as a physics lab in the nuclear deterrence programs. Sandia very much identifies as an engineering laboratory and we’re responsible for all the non-nuclear components of a nuclear weapon, which is actually a fair amount of the system. We work in all the same program spaces that Kim was talking about, because we’re both national security laboratories. We do a lot of work with the DoD [Department of Defense] and the IC [intelligence community]. I think something that a lot of folks in the local Bay Area don’t understand is that what you see of Sandia in California is sort of the tip of the iceberg. We’re about 2000 people here, we’ve got another 12,000, folks in Albuquerque. So we have actually a pretty broad laboratory touching the IC/DoD, we have significant work in the energy space as well, as well as working with our Homeland Security partners. Here in California, we particularly steward the bioscience capability for the laboratory as well as our energy and homeland security programs, in addition to our nuclear deterrence responsibilities that we do with Lawrence Livermore.

Brandon Cardwell 05:33
So the labs are both collaborative and competitive in that sense.

Kim Budil 05:37
Yes, we call it coopetition.

Brandon Cardwell 05:39

Andy McIlroy 05:40
Or that we are competitive mates.

Brandon Cardwell 05:43
All right, two new words. I can add to my, my lexicon there for you guys. And has that historically been the case that Sandia is more on the engineering side of the nuclear deterrence and nuclear weapon development program? Right.

Andy McIlroy 05:57
Matter of fact, that’s where Sandia came from. We were originally the Z division in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. And in the late 40s, the engineering mission was recognized to be a unique part of the nuclear deterrence program, and Sandia was spun out of Los Alamos. And then the reason we’re here in Livermore, is that the physics lab, Lawrence Livermore, got established, we needed to be here to help with the engineering for those systems. So we’re here because Lawrence is here.

Kim Budil 06:26
So Sandia plays a really important role. They’re sort of the swing players in this mission space, who work very closely with Los Alamos and very closely with Livermore. And Livermore and Los Alamos were established to be peer competitors. And so, you know, Sandia is the bridge that ties those two together.

Brandon Cardwell 06:44
Okay. Andy said about 2000 people in the California site here, Kim, what’s the headcount at Lawrence Livermore?

Kim Budil 06:51
So we’re about 8000 employees.

Brandon Cardwell 06:52
Okay. But across your two labs, how many of those are focused on the sort of science and technology piece versus other kinds of operational administrative roles? Ballpark?

Kim Budil 07:02
I would say about half our staff works and technical roles. So everything from technicians and scientific support staff through to PhD researchers.

Brandon Cardwell 07:12
Okay, that’s a lot of people focused on scientific discovery and engineering work here in Livermore.

Andy McIlroy 07:17
And our statistics are almost exactly the same, right about 50% that are involved with the core r&d work. And then of course, we’re both running small villages. And it takes a lot of support staff to make all that happen. So we’ve got business folks, HR folks on both sides of the street, safety, security, janitors, people looking over the wildlife on our sites, it’s all there. So it takes a village to keep these things running.

Brandon Cardwell 07:48
So if you were going to talk to somebody who was pretty unfamiliar with the two labs, and explain to them work that’s going on today that is relevant to the world that they see what program areas, do you think it’s important or important for the average person to understand what you’re working on.

Kim Budil 08:05
So we currently have a set of four mission areas that are really focused on the problems of today. And so I’m going to just give you a snapshot of what that looks like. So if you look at the world situation today, our peer competitors and in geopolitics have pretty significant capabilities and pretty aggressive programs to modernize their defense capability. So Russia and China. And that’s both in the nuclear and conventional space. So this challenge of understanding how to reduce the threat from nuclear weapons and how to create a more stable global environment is a very significant effort for our laboratories. And that’s looking in the nuclear space, but also across all the domains of competition and defense, space, cyber, Conventional Munitions, other things. The next one really is biology. I think we are all very clear now that emerging pandemic disease is really a threat to our way of life. We’ve spent a year and a half in kind of a holding pattern trying to deal with the current pandemic. And this response relative to normal response times has been quite fast. So we’ve been working for about a decade to develop new ways of developing therapeutics and vaccines using high-performance computing and novel experimental approaches. So really transforming the way we think about disease response, both surveillance and the development of therapeutics and vaccines, taking those timelines way down, so that we’re never in this position again. And then the last one is climate. And of all the agencies in the government, the one that’s had the most persistent focus on climate as a threat is the Department of Defense, because they go out in the field, and so they see very, viscerally the effect of a changing climate on their operations. And so that brings in energy security decarbonizing the environment, developing strategies to really adapt our infrastructure to a changing climate and to mitigate the impacts of a changing climate.

Brandon Cardwell 10:08
Great. Andy?

Andy McIlroy 10:09
You know, the problems of the world are a common thing. And so I, again, am going to kind of echo much of what Kim said, and maybe just give you a little bit of color of how we’re approaching some of those problems. In the nuclear deterrence space, it’s very much a literal hand in glove partnership, we co-deliver all of the products in that space. Sandia has got a fairly large program working for the Department of Defense and other national security partners. And in that space, you know, primarily at our Albuquerque laboratory, we do a wide variety of things that include next-generation, hypersonic vehicles include advanced radars that allow us to detect IEDs and theater and save many lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. We’ve also got a particularly strong focus on the cyber problem that Kim mentioned, it is you know, you can’t go up I would say a week, maybe even a day, sometimes without reading about some incident, in some of them are getting to be large and significant. Colonial Pipeline comes to mind there. We’ve got a very large effort in cyber, and it’s an area that we’re paying a lot of attention to these days, because it is just – it is here, front and center. As I mentioned here in California, we also steward the biology capability for Sandia actually worked very closely with our partners at Lawrence Livermore in this area as well. We’re very focused as well on and really partnering around this idea about how we rapidly respond to an evolving bio threat, whether it’s natural or manmade. And this last year has been if nothing, just a big motivator to exercise those capabilities. And I think both labs have a lot to offer there. I think Lawrence comes from the computing and kind of physics science perspective, we come from an engineering perspective, and it’s a great balance between the two. We focused a lot on diagnostic development and actually developing feelable diagnostic capabilities, as well as thinking about how you take a systems engineering approach to developing next-generation therapeutics and doing that on the rapid timescale that Kim was talking about. And then climate. That is an existential threat to us all. I think. And, you know, we’ve heard that from the President, my own lab director, has said that as well, in, you know, I think both labs are looking to bring the immense capabilities that the taxpayers have invested in with us to bear on this, this really difficult problem for the nation.

Brandon Cardwell 12:47
Are there specific focus areas within the climate challenge where the labs are really pushing hard? Think of battery technology, renewable energy? Where do you see that?

Andy McIlroy 13:00
Yeah, so I would say they’re there for the actual big thrust that our lab is looking at. And they actually kind of take a step back from specific technologies, but we can drill into those too. So we’re looking at adaptation, because we feel like, you know, it’s all too obvious that climate problems are here, and we’re going to have to deal with them. Then we look at mitigation, what can we do particularly to reduce carbon intensity, and improve our stance there. But we think about a couple of other things, too. One is what we call situational awareness. How do we really understand who’s emitting what, what is going on in the atmosphere. And that’s a broad-based whole of government response. But the labs have some unique capabilities to bring that. And then the fourth area that we’re looking at is around trying to understand what intervention would look like, in trying to mitigate climate change. And we’ve thought about that as a separate issue. I think it’s something that the nation doesn’t want to go down right now. And for good reason. It’s a lot of questions about unintended consequences. But as we look around the globe, we see others stepping into this space now. And we feel as a national security laboratory, that it’s important for us to understand what the possible consequences of that could be, and understand what others are doing in that space in order to keep the nation in a secure and safe place with respect to that. So those are four major areas we’re looking at. Here in California, we’re particularly focused on biofuels. And thinking about the next generation fills that space. There are some sectors that are going to need liquid fuels for a while. Airplanes are a prime candidate. So that’s one big focus for us. We’re also spending quite a bit of time thinking about renewable energy across our whole laboratory. We work across the whole spectrum of renewables from solar to wind. It’s actually a pretty large program across our lab. So we’re looking really at a broad based approach and looking to bring specific strengths that the laboratory has into each of those areas.

Kim Budil 15:02
So we have some similarities. And I think one of the themes you’re hearing here, you know, there are 17 Department of Energy National Labs. And that suite of laboratories have many things about them that are very similar, sort of base capabilities, great science and technology, etc. But we really complement each other well in terms of how we deploy those capabilities. Now, there’s two other things that we’re doing that I think add to what Andy has said, one is in the area of carbon capture and sequestration, we have a really long history and understanding geology and subsurface science, actually growing out of, you know, the long legacy of doing nuclear testing, so many decades of experience, most recently deployed to really understand seismology and motion of ground structures. And so we have developed new technologies and new strategies for capturing carbon and then sequestering it in either deep underground storage or repurposing it, turning carbon dioxide into useful chemicals. So recycling. And the second one is looking at climate modeling. So the very first global circulation models were actually developed at Livermore. growing out of our large-scale modeling and simulation efforts, again, from our national security programs, we’re now at a scale of computing, where we can do very, very finely resolved calculations down to several kilometers and scale. And so at that level of resolution, you can start looking at the influence of topography. You know, it matters if there are mountains or plains, and it matters if there is water in the area or not. And helping communities really understand what the implications of a changing climate will be in their local environment, is really gonna be enabled by this type of technology.

Brandon Cardwell 16:52
So this is a good segue, I think, to this question of partnership. You’ve mentioned several areas, climate, cyber, high performance computing, I’ll throw in additive manufacturing, which is a really interesting area, an area where we help spin a company out, it’s now in the Northeast called Seurat Technologies from Lawrence Livermore. How do you think about the work that you do as national laboratories in the broader context of not only the regional innovation ecosystem, but nationally, and even internationally, you have a number of academic and industrial partners. How does the lab think about both labs, think about how far they take a technology in terms of your own research pipeline, and working with partners outside the labs.

Kim Budil 17:41
So the national labs are designed to reside in an interesting space. So academia focuses on basic research and very long time horizons. Industry operates on very short time horizons and returns on investment. And so we can, we’re very good at bridging that gap. So working with academia and with industry to sort of take the basic research and turn it into practical applied technologies for deployment, and then working to get them out, you know, into the public sector. But there’s a growing shift, I would say, in the research ecosystem, that we’re trying to take advantage of making those partnerships much more prevalent, much more essential to the kind of work we’re trying to do. And even expanding that group of partners to include communities and state and local governments to include philanthropic entities and to include international. And so the need for us to really cast a wide net is very high. You know, I’ve always said that, if you look at the, you know, number of smart people inside the fence vise outside the fence, you know, we’re only going to do our very best work when we have access to all of the knowledge that’s around there. But in a few areas, we simply couldn’t do what we’re trying to do without that. So I’m going to just give a one short example. And in the bio space, we’re trying to apply high performance computing to develop drugs and therapeutics. Well, we know a lot about high performance computing. And we know some about biology. We don’t know anything about clinical applications or biomedical research, or how pharmaceutical companies decide to develop a drug and what’s required to get FDA approval. So we’re building partnerships with colleagues, for example, at UCSF who do clinical research, with GlaxoSmithKline. That’s a big pharma company that can help us understand the process for screening molecules and developing drugs, and then working with our partners in the federal government to understand how the regulatory environment needs to be shaped to make those things happen. So I think it’s, I think it is the, the essential component of the next couple decades is building novel kinds of partnerships.

Andy McIlroy 19:56
When we look at a lot of the work that we do in the national security space as an Engineering Laboratory, we’re actually in that space often taking things all the way to practice and even, in times producing things, but that’s a very unusual space because of the captive government nature of it. When we start to look at some of the high impact areas that Kim and I were talking about in climate and energy, we really can’t do anything that has real impact without partners. Because it’s the private sector who brings these new technologies to market. And that is just incredibly important for us, particularly in the energy space. There’s nothing that our laboratory, I think, Lawrence, as well does without one or more industry partners, and often with other partners from academia or other laboratories. An example that I would highlight here is work that we’ve done over the past half a dozen years with the Department of Energy, about looking at optimizing new engine designs, new fuels, biofuels driven, options, and trying to think about how we get those out into the marketplace. That project involves several different laboratories, including LBL, and Lawrence Livermore. It included partners from both the biofuel sector, from the traditional energy companies, think big oil, and our partners in the automotive sector, who were actually producing the engines, because it really took that full suite of folks to think about how we could create the innovations that we needed in a way that would actually make it to the marketplace. And so, these partnerships are really important. And in some of these cases, these partnerships are getting quite complex. And it’s both a challenge and a huge opportunity, because as Kim said, there’s just so much more horsepower. When we all get together, we can get a lot more done.

Brandon Cardwell 21:52
So how does that relate to the Livermore Valley Open Campus (LVOC) do you think is something that I’m certainly very interested in talking about? I have an interesting personal interaction with that having been running the i-GATE organization, which was co-founded by your two labs in the city of Livermore for the better part of 10 years. And really, the LVOC was coming up around the same time, which I think has really changed the way that a lot of people, even locally, look at the lab. I grew up in Livermore. And unless you had a family member who worked at the lab, it was sort of the, you know, the fortress at the edge of town that, you know, it was sort of like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, except for nuclear weapons and national security and things like that. But the Open Campus is clearly aimed at dealing with some of the challenges that you’ve identified. Andy, I think I am a paraphrase. Or you can tell me if I am getting this wrong, but it was probably 10 years ago that I heard you say, following World War II, you could go around to the top five universities in the United States and hire the top 5% of the talent, and you would have the best workforce for science and technology in the world. And that’s not necessarily the case anymore. And you’re hiring people today from all over the world. And you want to work with partners, often from all over the world. And you need a place to do that. So the open campus, I think, is really interesting. And there’s some concrete examples in AML [Advanced Manufacturing Lab], CTRL, previously, the different work that’s gone there. So what is the open campus and what’s the point of it?

Kim Budil 23:31
So the Open Campus is, as you described, a way to lower the barriers to the kinds of partnerships we just discussed. I think the AML, the advanced manufacturing lab that we just put in the Open Campus is a really great example of that. We’ve had a very large research effort on additive and advanced manufacturing for about a decade now. And this is also a field that’s really growing in the private sector. And so we want to do two things we want to learn from the private sector, and bring the most advanced thinking tools and technologies into our environment. So we can apply it in our national security missions. But we also want to take all this incredible innovation that’s been driven by government investments, and ensure that it gets into the hands of companies and private sector entities who can really derive the public benefit from that R&D. And so the AML really allows us to very easily bring industrial partners or academic partners, have been bringing equipment and people and spend time with our researchers really having that kind of very close working relationship and exchange. It’ll also really facilitate our engagements with academia. And again, if you, you know, we can bring people onto our sites. It is not impossible. But it’s not something you can do on five minutes notice, you know, you just can’t have people drop by. So, creating an ecosystem where we can have that kind of free flow of people and information and ideas and exchange is really the underlying philosophy of the Open Campus.

Andy McIlroy 25:12
Brandon, I know, you probably listen to me tell the story too many times, because you basically just just hit all my talking points from our long and storied relationship around the Open Campus. Kim described it so well, it’s, you know, it’s about creating an area where we can easily and fluidly interact with a wide range of stakeholders in the private sector, in academia, even from other laboratories and do that in a way that doesn’t create a lot of barriers, as Kim said, we can bring folks on to our the main parts of our site, but quite frankly, it involves a lot of paperwork. And it’s, it’s kind of a bit painful. And this environment is really, it’s, it’s friendlier, it’s easier, it’s more flexible. And it’s what we need today. Because even to execute our core national security missions, we’ve got to understand what’s going on in the broader world, we’ve got to interact with folks as as, as you described, and the Open Campus gives us a place to have those interactions, to maximize the value of the taxpayer investments in our laboratories, as Kim said, by getting technologies out of the laboratories and into the private hands that are going to make the most of them. So it’s a win-win, really, I think, for the laboratories, for the community and for the nation here. And it’s just a great resource. And, you know, one wonders why we didn’t do it sooner.

Kim Budil 26:42
I will just mention, you know, people don’t, the lab is sort of a fortress on the edge of town, it’s really a little closer to town than it was when I came here. But it’s also important to us, that people understand the benefits that our local community, the state of California, you know, our local stakeholder community are deriving from the laboratory. So it’s a way for us to bring those programs and those activities outside the fence and give people access to them. I really do worry that because of our national security focus and our federal sponsorship, we sometimes don’t take the time to talk to our local communities. And to think about the direct impact we’re having on the state of California. You know, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about climate, California is quite literally a living lab for a changing climate, we have everything going on within our state that we need to really think about hard wildfires, droughts, rising seas, large agricultural regions, densely populated urban areas, everything we need. And so building those relationships, opening ourselves up to those conversations, I think this is a tangible way we can say, you know, we really do want to have that kind of partnership, we want to have that dialogue. We want to be a part of the ecosystem in California, not just in this, you know, more distant federal role.

Brandon Cardwell 28:13
Yeah, I think from my vantage point, I’m obviously i-GATE is in and of itself a proof point of both national labs desire to connect more regularly with the local economy. And we’ve had some great successes in doing that, in terms not only of licensing of technology from the labs and spinning it out, which tech transfer, I think, is what a lot of people think about when they think about how did the labs influence the economy? When you get closer to it, you see, there are a whole number of ways that the labs influence the economy. And this split, this sort of spin in notion that you’re talking about, I think it’s really fascinating and something a lot of people don’t think about. To your point, if you tried to quantify how much top talent is inside the fence at the labs versus outside the fence. There’s more outside the fence. And so the ability to bring those folks in and work collaboratively is great for national security interests. It’s also great for our region. Like I just met a couple of weeks ago with the CEO of Vector Atomic, which is a startup that’s now based in Pleasanton. They’re got 40 people, I think, or something like that. And they are here because of the AML. They started their work on Lawrence Livermore open campus in the AML and then grew and they’re doing quantum sensor work, which is way beyond my comprehension abilities, but looks very, very cool. I got to tour their facility. So being a magnet for companies is obviously a way that the labs are impactful to the region, but purely as a talent magnet. Also when you think about the volume of people who have exceptional skills and unique experiences bringing them into the area. And for me, personally, you know, this goes beyond sort of my work, running Startup Tri-Valley and I gay but just as a resident of this community, we also bring in people who come from from all over the place, and so the, the cultural impact of the labs, I think can really be seen throughout this community as well. So I think there’s a number of ways that the labs have been impactful over the, I mean, how many decades when did the labs first establish next year is our 70th anniversary? Okay, so it’s been a while. So there’s some other things that are going on in labs that I’ve been able to be a part of that have been really fun. For me, the National Entrepreneurship Academy, the National Lab Accelerator, I mean, these are things that I think are important to point out to folks who are looking to better understand what’s going on within at least our local labs, and I think more broadly across DoE. So it could seem a little bit counterintuitive, why the labs would be trying to encourage entrepreneurship amongst their workforce. And maybe I’ll say it for you. But I think one of the things that’s been really striking to me about being a part of those programs is the fourth site that I think both labs and the leadership within those labs have had to say, it’s not that we want our folks to leave the research that they’re doing and go out and commercialize companies. But boy, do we need them to be able to understand how to communicate value to the private sector and to partners. So is that some of the genesis of why the labs are investing in those types of programs?

Andy McIlroy 31:21
That is a piece of it. I mean, I think it’s twofold. One is trying to think about how we best transition technologies out of the laboratory. And although we never want to see our best and brightest, leaving the laboratory, because we think of them as family, sometimes the best way to get that new technology out into the marketplace, is to have the inventor go out and drive it because they’re the ones who created it. And so in some cases, it really is a win, to have that transition happen. And we’re both big institutions, we can, we can weather a few really smart folks leaving, and sometimes they come back to the other big piece, though, is exactly what you said. We also need to help our folks within the laboratory who, you know, live in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, so to speak, understand what the outside world looks like, and what are the innovative practices that happen outside? How do you communicate to a broader audience the impact and excitement of the technology? How do you think about what a market looks like when we’re working with our federal sponsors on national security programs, that’s not really something we talk about. And yet for a lot of our other work, where we’re thinking about energy and climate, thinking about new therapeutics for diseases, these are things we absolutely need to be fluent in. And so the entrepreneur academies allow us to build a cadre of folks who have that fluency. And so they’re better able to interact with folks outside. And sometimes that’s what’s needed to transfer the technology is to have someone inside who can talk to an entrepreneur outside who’s got the desire to start a company, but is looking for that intellectual property, that would really make the difference.

Kim Budil 33:14
I think that’s really important. Both of our labs have a not insignificant number of people I would call serial entrepreneurs, their idea factories, just people who are very creative. And over the arc of their careers within the laboratory, they’ve been able to turn their skills to develop numerous new technologies. I mean, we have people who have lots of patents, for example, they’re just very creative and have that entrepreneurial gene, and instinct. And we have lots of people who have great ideas, but who don’t have weren’t born with the, you know, the complete skill set to really understand how to take those ideas, from the idea phase through to realizing a new technology, how to build partnerships, how to think about developing their work, engaging with the outside world. And so these academies are a recognition that there’s a real skill set that underwrites that and we can help people build those skills. And I think that’s important. My watchword for 2021 has been purposeful. I would characterize this as a shift from opportunistic entrepreneurial activity to purposeful entrepreneurial activity. And I think it’s important both for what goes outside the lab, but also for how we work inside the lab.

Brandon Cardwell 34:28
Well, I think it’s working. I recently did the regional resources panel that we always do for the national Entrepreneurship Academy along with Jonathan Ting andTri-Valley Ventures. And it was some of that may have been the content. I mean, we introduced a pretty exciting new program, we’re Tri-Valley Ventures is going to provide capital and we’re going to provide no cost facilities to startups in the life sciences and what we generally call deep tech spaces. And we’re able to do that, thanks to the sponsorship from both of your labs and the City of Livermore covering the cost of our incubation activities through Daybreak Labs. So that was fun to be able to talk about with all those folks. But it was by far the strongest and most rapid response from that community. And the years that I’ve been doing that. I don’t know if it’s, you know, could just be that there were more overachievers in that group who wanted to reach out and learn more. Have you seen any generational changes, as you’re I mean, you guys are hiring a lot of folks, right?

Andy McIlroy 35:27
Yeah, at our lab, I think we’re now at the point where 60% of the folks have been here less than 10 years, and almost 40% have been here less than five years.

Brandon Cardwell 35:36
That’s a big change, right?

Andy McIlroy 35:38
It’s a big change. And, you know, one of the things we’re seeing is that it’s an attractor, to the laboratory to have things like entrepreneurial leave programs to have these entrepreneurial academies, folks want to come to a place where that’s a possibility. And that can be part of your career. And I think it’s good for the labs and good for the local community. Obviously, you know, we have part of that economic engine that isn’t just the salaries we bring, but the intellectual capabilities you talked about. And so it’s definitely a win. And certainly, the newer folks that are coming in the laboratory, we’re seeing a much stronger desire to move fast to have impact soon. And sometimes in our national security programs, that can be a challenge. And so having other outlets for that, that are still in the context of the laboratory are really I think, can be important to us to be successful going forward.

Kim Budil 36:30
We’re living the same demographic shift, Andy described, and we’ve grown net, nearly 3000 employees in the last five years. So wow, you know, a big influx of new people. One of the beauties, and you heard it from both of us, one of the beauties of having a career at our labs is the opportunity to work on many different problems over the arc of your career. I think this really just adds to that opportunity space. You know, there is an enhanced focus in higher ed today on entrepreneurship and business as a potential outlet for, you know, PhD researchers. And so, you know, people who are coming in as early career researchers are coming in with more instinct to move in that direction than perhaps when I went, you know, when I was in graduate school. And so I do think there is a demographic trend associated with that. For me, it’s very consistent with this idea that the beauty of these careers is the opportunity to go where the interesting problems are, and they change over time. And so you can learn and grow over the course of your entire career.

Brandon Cardwell 37:32
So in that regard, do you find being in Silicon Valley in the Bay Area to be an advantage for your labs? Or is it? Does it make it difficult to retain? How do you balance those trade offs?

Kim Budil 37:45
If you phrase it the other way I’m just gonna say yes.

Brandon Cardwell 37:47

Kim Budil 37:48
It’s an opportunity and a challenge. It does draw many people, I mean, the rich ecosystem means that there are lots of opportunities for people. So for example, if you have a partner who’s in a different field, you know, the space is rich, to identify dual job opportunities will be one example. In certain fields, the challenge is a little bit higher. We’re a little bit different in terms of the kind of work we do and the kind of career arc we offer. And so I think that’s a differentiator for us. And that sense of mission, commitment to this, having this bigger impact. Working on things that have national importance, really is what draws people ultimately to us and gets them to stick in our environment. And the incredibly sweet tools that we give them, you know, biggest computers in the world, the world’s largest, most energetic laser, you know, we got a lot of cool toys, if you want to come work for us.

Andy McIlroy 38:48
So, you know, being in the Bay Area is absolutely a win I think for laboratories. Are we in a competitive environment where, you know, our employees have other opportunities that they sometimes go out and take? Yeah, absolutely. And some days when it’s a particularly impactful employee who finds a great opportunity someplace else that it pulls at your heartstrings. But on other days, like today, I had coffee with a fellow who was in our cybersecurity area and left to go to a private company. He’s been there for a while, we’re talking about the puts and takes of both parts. He said, You know, my heart’s really in the national security mission. So I want to spend a little bit more time in the private sector because I’m enjoying this. But I’m going to be back and, you know, we wanted to make sure that he knew that we were interested and vice versa. So we do have folks who move back and forth to and the opportunity to do that and not have to pull up your roots and move. The Bay Area’s really, you know, almost unique among the national lab environments. Many of our national labs are in pretty remote locations with not a lot of other opportunities around. So, we’re really very lucky to be, I think, in this innovation hotspot that is the Bay Area. And it’s net is a huge win for us. And I think you see it in both Sandia California and Lawrence Livermore that were often at the forefront of pushing technology operations, everything for the National Lab complex.

Kim Budil 40:22
I think I wouldn’t underestimate just the sheer attractiveness of the Bay Area when I’m out running in February without wearing a parka and a ski hat. I talk to my colleagues on the East Coast. Yeah, it’s nice here.

Brandon Cardwell 40:34
Yeah, I could see that we’re gonna have a 72 degree Saturday in the middle of November. I’ll be coaching soccer in shorts tomorrow. So yeah, and certainly, your lab’s presence in the Bay Area is really impactful, in a positive way to us too. I mean, just on the basis of spin outs, and the sort of tech transfer piece of that, I mean, the digital droplet PCR tech behind Quanta Life, which then spawned a whole host of other companies, including 10X Genomics, is evidence of that Sandstone Diagnostics coming out of Sandia. Don Arnold, who has been an incredible champion of our work, was an ex-Sandian who spun a company out. SafeTraces and Buzzkill Labs were founded by a former Lawrence Livermore employee. So we see that for sure, one of the things that I think a lot of people don’t realize is that, the infrastructure that supports a lot of the startups here began as a support for the labs. So the precision machine shops, the engineering, design firms that are here, many of them are high performance cable companies, I mean, all these things that are not splashy and don’t make, you know, CrunchBase or PitchBook headlines, because they’re not venture backed companies. But they are essential to supporting these kinds of device and diagnostic companies that are here largely because the labs needed that work done early on. So sometimes the labs’ impact is difficult to see unless you’re right up close to that challenge. But it goes far beyond just the tech transfer piece.

Kim Budil 42:07
Yeah. And your points about the Bay Area’s an incredible tech ecosystem. So access to people, access to partnerships, access to capital, infrastructure, just as you described, is really quite unique in this area, relative to what we see. With our, you know, some of our other national lab colleagues.

Andy McIlroy 42:30
I mean, you really can’t beat the Bay Area for intellectual capital. And you know, when to national labs, or maybe still minority players, it says something, we’ve got two other national labs, you know, in the Bay Area, SLAC and LBL, two major research universities, world leaders, Berkeley and Stanford, and Silicon Valley, and the, you know, the biotech world here is is incredible. When you put all that together, it’s you know, it is an amazing ecosystem that we’re able to live in and work in here. And be part of and it’s just, it’s really exciting. And, you know, I think we develop this locally, as you described when we were a little more isolated. And you know, Livermore didn’t always look like part of the Bay Area, it used to be a little cowboy town on the edge of things

Brandon Cardwell 43:19
I remember, it wasn’t that long ago.

Andy McIlroy 43:23
But you know, now we really are very much part of the Bay Area, and so that it all seamlessly fits together. But it is just, it is such an exciting place to be. And I, I know, my colleagues in Albuquerque are often quite envious of the environment that we’ve got here. And particularly the startup culture of the Bay Area. There’s nothing like that in New Mexico, I’ll tell you, and they’re very envious of the vigor, just the excitement in the Bay Area, the access to capital, the access to the experience that we have here. You know, if you want to start up a company here, you can find somebody who’s been a founder before of 5, 10 other companies who will mentor you. It’s a really unique environment that we find ourselves in here.

Brandon Cardwell 44:05
Yeah, one of the things that I have said frequently is that the concentration of managerial talent within the startup space is one of the major unfair advantages, certainly of the Bay Area. But even in the tri Valley, if you think about the number of folks who have run multiple companies from seed all the way through to IPO, a lot of them live out here. The demographics of our region are largely family. And those are people who’ve been in industry for 10, 15, 20 years. And we’ve seen that ability and part of the reason why we sought out the partnership at Tri-Valley Ventures is their limited partner group for the fund is largely comprised of operators who have built companies. The companies weren’t always built here in the Tri-Valley, but the people are in the dry Valley. I feel like we’re going through this inflection point as a region that started around the 2017 timeframe really with Tri-Valley Ventures fund number one, our shift back from an incubation standpoint, really to our roots. I mean, we were founded to try and help build a stronger technology ecosystem and started the ecosystem anchored around the labs not solely captive to the labs, that’s a lot of pressure to put on you all, to try and create an entire startup ecosystem on your own. But as we really move back into this life sciences and deep tech focus, in partnership with Tri-Valley Ventures and their network of operators, bridging into a national lab ecosystem that I think is as supportive as it’s ever been of engagement with the regional economy. I’m really excited about what the next five to 10 years looks like, from that standpoint. So what do you all see as next? Open Campus? National Labs? What’s on the horizon? I know we’re in a weird time right now, where it might be a little difficult to sort of see through the edge of the storm. But to the extent you can predict, what do you think?

Kim Budil 46:02
Well, I certainly think we’re at an inflection point in the open campus. There’s now enough physical infrastructure in the open campus, for it to start operating in the way that it was envisioned when it was originally planned. So I’m really excited about that we have some new buildings out there, we have a renovation effort that the University of California is doing on their facility to make that a multi campus,

Brandon Cardwell 46:26
That’s the Hertz Hall..,

Kim Budil 46:28
The Hertz Hall complex, so that’ll be an effort, bringing many more academic students, etc. We have the AML. And we have other plans, we always have plans and schemes and schemes wrapped in schemes. So I think that’s great. And we have real support from the Department of Energy to really think about outward engagement, beyond tech transfer, really building these partnerships and helping. For me, one of the things I’m most excited about is building some partnerships with the state of California, around our efforts in climate and energy. I think we have a real opportunity and real moment of the political forces coming together to do some technology demonstrations at scale, and understand, are there opportunities for us to really change the vector on what’s happening with the climate through decarbonisation, or deployment of new technologies or grid resilience, that’s going to require very unique and large scale partnerships with communities, with the state of California with the federal government with the private sector. And I think we’re really well positioned to do it, we’re in a really unique moment where the technology is basically ready to go. The political will seems to be present, there may even be money to support it. And so I’m really excited about taking that for a drive.

Brandon Cardwell 47:46
So is the remaining constraint there just sort of coordinating all of that and in driving its implementation?

Kim Budil 47:53
Yeah, one of the biggest challenges for doing these big deployments of new types of technologies is really building support and enthusiasm within the communities you’re going to go into. You know, it’s one thing for us to say, we have this great solution to all your problems. It doesn’t always feel like that on the ground. So there’s a lot of relationship building and education that needs to be done. I talked about carbon capture and sequestration, you know, that has not been deployed at scale. And people have many questions about the implications of the technology. So we want to, you know, do a multi-layered effort here, where we’ll help people understand how the technology works, what the implications are, safety aspects, potential benefits, and really build community support. For a deployment, for example, with industry partners, we have a lab foundation, the Livermore Lab Foundation that’s playing a role for us in this area by helping us with educational efforts and community building, and really rebuilding our relationships with the state and a new way to because they are a partnership and their investment in this is going to be critically important. It’s not something we can do by ourselves. So I don’t want to be in the position of being viewed as those people who just show up and say, “Well, we’re super smart. So we’re just gonna tell you what you need. And, and here it is.” I don’t think that’s likely to be successful.

Brandon Cardwell 49:15

Andy McIlroy 49:16
You know, I think DOE has acknowledged that and in some of the current thrusts that they have around what they’re calling place based initiatives, and it’s the realization that, as Kim says, a great idea in the abstract isn’t very impactful. It’s got to fit into particular more thinking about new types of energy infrastructure, it’s got to fit into the place that you’re putting it in. So, you know, a solution that you think about as being perfect for Livermore might not work in Truckee, you know, and it might be different yet, even when you’re looking at Los Angeles versus the Bay Area. And so you’ve really got to be thinking about the environment that you’re going into And of course, it’s going to look even more different if you’re thinking about, you know, a rural environment, on out on the coast or in the Central Valley, or you’re really worried about how you’re going to get power and water to farms. So it’s really going to be important for us going forward to be thinking about how we partner with communities, we’re getting a lot of support from DoD on this front. I’m on the board for the California Council of science and technology. And we just had a meeting today where we were talking about how we bring together these federal programs, with state initiatives. And you know, California is such a leader in this space, that there’s a huge, huge inflection point here a leverage point, as the federal money starts to roll in the commitments that the state has made both monetarily and in policy, we’re ready to lead the nation really to continue to lead the nation in this transition to carbon free energy economy. And hopefully, you know, in a little further future, a netzero existence where we really are not contributing any carbon back into the environment. That’s a huge, huge lift, California, has already made big steps and is ready to go. They’re partnering between the federal efforts that Kim and I are part of, along with the tremendous efforts that the state puts in as well as our local government. I mean, I was blown away by the presentation from the city, on the Net Zero plan, that has been put together for the city. It is really forward looking for the city here in Livermore. So we’ve got a great partnership all the way from, you know, the city to the state, the feds, and I think the labs are just excited to be part of that and help drive that forward.

Kim Budil 51:44
Yeah, I just want to add, I can’t help myself, because you brought up something that’s very near and dear to my heart. So we there’s four Bay Area National Labs, we are uniquely situated right on the edge of the Bay Area, sort of the gateway to the Central Valley. And another focus of this place based set of activities that DOE is leading now is focusing on underserved communities, and communities that are undergoing energy transitions. And so our unique location, our ability to bring all of this intellectual might of the Bay Area into the Central Valley, which has less of that infrastructure, I think it’d be really game changing for the state of California. I’m really excited about that.

Brandon Cardwell 52:28
Yeah, there are parallels, I think, in terms of the collectivism challenge of things like climate to housing, or homelessness or other broad social challenges that we face where a person can recognize intellectually, that there’s this challenge that needs to be addressed. But when the impacts uniquely accrue to a place and the benefits don’t uniquely accrue to a place, you get a lot of resistance. And we see that with solar panels in North Livermore, and we see it with, you know, housing development pretty much everywhere, that if this thing you’re asking me to do isn’t going to solve the whole problem. And other people aren’t being asked to make similar kinds of, you know, quote, unquote, sacrifices, whether it’s the look and feel of a community or cost or whatever it is, you know, the sort of why should I have to do this piece. So that coordination between national labs, state counties, cities, nonprofits, those who were really on the ground in those communities seems like it would be essential just going off of, you know, observations related to things like trying to get housing built. And it’s easy to sympathize with those who are not very excited about that prospect. And they’re saying, Well, you could build all this housing, it’s still not going to impact the affordable housing issue. Other people aren’t doing the same things. So I hope and if I can help, I certainly would like to make some headway on some of those challenges.

Andy McIlroy 54:00
You know, I think one of the exciting things about a lot of renewable energy technologies is that they have a lot of wins in them. And part of the challenge is to help people see those and, you know, all pointed electric vehicles, you know, it’s not just that they’re reducing the carbon footprint, the CO2 that comes out, it’s also completely eliminating the soot, and the nitrogen oxides, which create the smog that we see, you know, these are benefits that you really will accrue for everybody. And for some communities in particular, who live near freeways, things, you know, where you’re getting a lot of particulate loading that’s leading to asthma. You know, there are community adverse effects that can be eliminated by these transitions. But we’re not doing a very good job talking about sort of all these benefits and why yet, you know, the transition is maybe challenging, but it’s about a lot of net wins here. And I think trying to help people see that, see how they can be part of that successful future is going to be really important. And this really requires more than the technical base of the laboratories. It requires partnering broadly, with folks in the community with public health folks, really understanding what the issues are and communities and then thinking about how these solutions can tackle them, because sometimes they can tackle them in surprising ways.

Brandon Cardwell 55:29
Well, it’s helpful that both labs continually produce city council members for the city of Livermore. So we’re at least achieving some good leadership in that regard. Having Bob Carling certainly was in senior leadership roles at Sandia for a long time and the once council member and mayor Bob Woerner did at least a stint at the Livermore Lab.

Andy McIlroy 55:50
And Gina

Kim Budil 55:50
Gina Bonanno

Brandon Cardwell 55:51
Of course, yeah, Gina too. So it’s a it goes on and on and on. And I think it’s actually a huge advantage for us. I sort of joke about it, but having people who understand really complex systems and how to manage large stakeholder groups, that should probably be a prerequisite for elected service. I think it’s it’s contributed to Livermore’s competence and effectiveness in terms of leadership. So, and yet another way that the labs have have impacted that maybe it’s not obvious. So

Andy McIlroy 56:26
We also produce a cadre of leaders who are good at working through government bureaucracy.

Kim Budil 56:32
Glad to help

Brandon Cardwell 56:33
I’m sure you do. All right. Well, I think that’s a wonderful place to leave it. Andy and Kim, thank you both so much for coming on the show. I really enjoyed the conversation. Hopefully we’ll have you back sometime soon.

Andy McIlroy 56:43
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.

Kim Budil 56:45
Thanks very much. It was really fun.

Brandon Cardwell 56:50
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