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UNM eyes Sandia Laboratories contract

Sandia Signs
Sandia Signs

The University of New Mexico is talking to several private companies about the possibility of collaborating on a bid to manage the $2.4 billion Sandia National Laboratories.

The contract for longtime manager Lockheed Martin expires in September with a potential six-month extension. Meanwhile, the National Nuclear Security Administration has said it plans to put a new contract to bid, although it has yet to do so. Lockheed Martin has managed Sandia since 1993 and says it wants to continue doing so.

“If the contract is rebid, we’d like to see ourselves as a significant collaborator with the contractor that wins the award,” UNM president Bob Frank said in a Journal interview Tuesday.

Frank said a number of private companies have expressed interest in partnering with UNM, and the university has met with all of them.

“It’s sort of an elaborate dance at this point. They’re all interested, but it’s elaborate and complicated,” Frank said.

Frank said a management partnership including UNM could result in a more integrated relationship, with a greater number of university faculty and students working in the labs. More important, it could lead to the commercialization of technologies developed at the lab.

For example, the university’s nonprofit, Science and Technology Corp., could help commercialize Sandia inventions that otherwise would go unsold. STC.UNM fosters university research and inventions by helping its creators found start-ups. The organization founded seven start-ups in 2012, according to its website.

What’s more, UNM would provide faculty advisement and graduate students to work on Sandia projects.

In turn, the partnership would help UNM “give some of our students not only a Ph.D., but some experience with a startup,” said engineering professor Joe Cecchi, who is spearheading the initiative. It could also help attract more faculty to the university, he said.

Frank agreed.

“So we help the lab, the university and the community grow these products in a way that we haven’t done in the past and we see this as a win for all of us,” Frank said.

There are several ways the university could reach that collaboration level.

It could, like the University of Tennessee, partner with a private contractor and form a limited liability company. That’s a model UNM officials explored last year when they took a three-day tour of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is managed by a limited liability partnership between the University of Tennessee and Battelle Memorial Institute, a private nonprofit headquartered in Ohio.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which has a $1.65 billion budget and employs more than 4,400 full-time employees and 841 students, conducts energy, science and national security research.

Battelle also manages six other U.S. Department of Energy labs including Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York and Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls.

Cecchi said talks between the university and private companies are in early stages. He said he could not reveal names of companies the school is working with.

“Our thought at UNM is that we would bring value to a team in the management operation in several distinct ways. We really believe that UNM being on a team would strengthen that team significantly both in the competition (for the contract) but also in the long run,” Cecchi said.

UNM already has several partnerships with Sandia, including two faculty members who work both for the lab and UNM. It’s working on hiring a third.

But the school wants an even greater role within Sandia.

Cecchi said that’s not a far-fetched concept, and that more and more universities are partnering with national labs. The University of Tennessee and Battelle partnership began in 2000.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal


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