Lab Work Produces Commercial Spinoffs

ONE of the co-developers of light-tweezer technology says that life as a small businessman has some surprising parallels to working in a national laboratory.

That's because even government scientists sometimes have to raise research funds for projects. "That was certainly true at the life-sciences division of Los Alamos, where I worked," says Tudor N. Buican, co-founder of Cell Robotics Inc. in Albuquerque, N.M.

Dr. Buican labored on projects dealing with the analysis and sorting of single cells for more than 10 years. In the late 1980s, he grew more and more interested in a technology called "automated optical trapping," which uses a focused, low-power laser beam to raise and hold tiny objects such as chromosomes. He figured that by combining an optical-trapping device with mechanical devices that made it easy to use, he could create a product that would be valuable in the growing field of biotechnology.

Eventually, Buican and his work on optical-trapping attracted interest from a heavy-machinery company that wanted to diversify. In April 1991, he left the lab together with his partner, Dr. Ron Lohrding, and started Cell Robotics.

"It's a very exciting opportunity to take technology you've thought about and worked on for some time and try to build something people will actually buy," he says.

So far Cell Robotics has sold some prototype systems, but it's still a ways from making money. Under its agreement with Los Alamos, the company pays royalties on five patents, which are government-owned but were all co-authored by Buican.

Buican's advice to aspiring scientist-businessmen is to negotiate an exclusive license with a national laboratory, as he did. Also, he recommends getting a good lawyer. One thing lab work doesn't prepare you for is the amount of paperwork you'll face.

"The national labs do have a lot of unique technologies that could be turned into products," he says.

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