Nuclear lab turning from weapons to commerce


Los Alamos, N.M. Twice a year, a Maryland biotechnology company's top researcher visits a mountaintop compound here -- the birthplace of the atomic bomb -- to provide updates on a joint venture that could reduce a day's work mapping human genes to seconds.

The unusual venture links John D. Harding of Gaithersburg-based Life Technologies Inc. with scientists at one the nation's top nuclear weapons laboratories. And that blending of skills and lab techniques could revolutionize technology and profits in the drive to tie nuclear weapons architects more closely to business.

The legacy of the Los Alamos National Laboratory has been the Manhattan Project and 50 years of nuclear weapons research, but its future might increasingly depend on linking nuclear, computer, laser and other technologies to the needs of commerce.

President Clinton wants the nation's three nuclear weapons labs -- Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore in California -- to earmark 20 percent of

their budgets for research not connected to weapons and that can be transferred to industry.

Los Alamos officials say their lab can meet that challenge. About 40 percent of its $1.1 billion budget involves research other than on weap

ons, including mapping human genes, disposing of nuclear materials and detecting fingerprints with gold flecks. But only about 3 percent of the budget goes to public-private ventures.

-! "We want American industry to

recognize these labs, which they have felt have been closed to them," said Michael G. Stevenson, Los Alamos' associate director for energy and environment. "We want them to recognize our value."

But Lawrence J. Korb, a defense policy specialist at the Brookings Institution, is concerned that nuclear weapons experts might be making decisions better left to marketing executives.

"It's an agency like any government bureaucracy trying to stay in business after their basic job is over," Mr. Korb said. "You have to realize those folks may understand how to blow up the world, but they don't know what you and I want to buy."

Edward A. Knapp, a former director of the National Science Foundation, summarizes the lab's challenge this way: Can scientists skilled in basic research meet the specialized needs of industry?

"It can be done, but it will be hard," said Mr. Knapp, who heads the Santa Fe Institute, an interdisciplinary research forum. "I don't think there are any opponents to making the shift. I think there are people who are very worried about having some competency in nuclear

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technology in case the world became a hot spot again."

Los Alamos officials say their commitment to basic research will continue and that the labs will remain "stewards" of the nuclear weapons arsenal. Their priorities, however, will shift toward maintaining the weapons arsenal and, more important, toward cleaning up their own nuclear waste dumps, which it is estimated will cost $100 billion and take decades to complete.

Amid pinons and cedars in the Jemez Mountains northwest of Santa Fe, Los Alamos scientists are working to harness energy from hot rocks at the earth's core, to virtually eliminate the radioactivity of nuclear wastes and to track the movement of radioactive material in air, water and soil.

Supercomputer software once used to determine the ability of a projectile to pierce armor is being adapted to research the transport and storage of nuclear materials, oil exploration and chemical refining.

In the past two years, Los Alamos has entered into 35 research and development agreements worth about $89 million, a cost shared by the lab and its corporate partners. Those partners include big companies such as Hughes Aircraft Co. and small ones such as Life Technologies.

"The labs have gotten off to a very fast start. They have gone out and solicited cooperative working arrangements with industry," said Rep. George E. Brown Jr., D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee

on Science, Space and Technology. "What we don't have at this point is a measure of how successful they have been in terms of transferring technology" to develop products and create jobs.

But Los Alamos hasn't been in the technology transfer business that long. Most cooperative research agreements were signed last year and cover two to three years.

And the lab has yet to undergo what its director, Siegfried S. Hecker, calls "a business revolution," a fundamental change in the way officials manage the lab's operations.

"There are not many people in the lab that understand the commercial culture of a business corporation," Mr. Brown said. "The only way you're going to develop products is to have business people send their own engineers and scientists in there and find out exactly what the labs are doing and what relates to the business commercial" side of it.

That's pretty much how researchers at Life Technologies in Gaithersburg teamed up with Los Alamos scientists.

Four years ago, Los Alamos sent queries to life sciences companies in search of industrial partners. Mr. Harding, Life Technologies' chief research scientist, was drawn to a pro

posal to develop a ultra-high speed technique to identify sequences of DNA, the building blocks that determine genetic makeup.

"It had the most commercial potential over the long term," he said.

Los Alamos offered expertise in applied physics and laser technology, which Life Technologies did not have. Life Technologies could offer its experience in enzyme study and organic chemistry.

The two joined forces in 1991 to develop a piece of equipment that uses sophisticated laser technology, patented by Los Alamos scientists, to identify and characterize human genes. The new technique could increase the speed at which genes are mapped, from the industry's rate of less than 10,000 segments a day to 1,000 segments a second.

And that could provide a crucial advantage for scientists trying to catalog the 3 billion pieces of genetic instructions that run the human body. "If you had a book in front of you, you would have to know all the letters in the words [before] you could read the sentences and paragraphs in the book," Mr. Harding said.

Life Technologies has exclusive rights to license any technology that evolves from its $4.5 million re

search partnership with Los Alamos. The company would then pay royalties to the lab. The new product could be sold to researchers, pharmaceutical companies and, perhaps, hospitals.

"So this was a nice wedding. Each party brought different and complementary areas of expertise to the project," Mr. Harding said. "We had to make sure the project made business sense as well as scientific sense. It's important to understand that both we and Los Alamos recognize this is a high-risk, high-reward project."

In recent years, Los Alamos' fledgling industrial partnerships have earned a small amount in royalties through such licensing agreements -- about $100,000 annually. But officials say the payoff to lab scientists is usually in research dollars rather than royalty checks.

If lab scientists seek big money, they usually leave the federal payroll to start their own businesses, officials say. At least 38 spinoff companies, almost all in the Los Alamos area, have been formed by former lab researchers. Their work includes selling computer security technology to banks, manufacturing propane valves and marketing lasers.

Still, long-term results of the new cooperation between federal labs and private business are uncertain. Irwin M. Pikus, director of the science and technology program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the nature of research and development "is such you can't predict which venture will be successful."

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