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Lab techies pitch business ideas

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sandia National Laboratories electrical engineer Jonathan Wilkerson has built a compact, portable beer fountain to help small restaurants stay afloat.

Fierce competition forces 60 percent of them out of business in the first three years, Wilkerson told a packed audience at Sandia’s second annual lab pitch competition on Thursday night.

“How can they beat the odds?” Wilkerson asked the crowd. “Alcohol can help.”

Wilkerson’s “Draft Beer Anywhere” fountain was one of five competing inventions and technologies that lab scientists pitched to a panel of investors and judges at the Innovate ABQ Lobo Rainforest building Downtown.

Wilkerson didn’t win, but the competition helped build his entrepreneurial skills.

“It helped me identify markets,” Wilkerson told the Journal. “And to get in front of a group of people really makes you focus.”

The night’s top prize went to scientists marketing a new imaging technology to immensely speed DNA sequencing at a fraction of today’s costs. The team used computer chip technology to develop slides with billions of DNA pieces placed on one side and tiny lenses on the other to rapidly project images onto a camera. The slides cost 48 cents each to produce, and they eliminate the need for the $14,000 microscope lens that’s used today.

“Today, sequencing costs $1,000 and 24 hours,” Sandia scientist Adam Baker told the crowd. “There’s been tremendous savings achieved in cost and time over the years, but it’s still out of reach for many. We want to make it cheap and fast.”

Baker’s team will now receive $2,000 worth of in-kind services from the ABQid business accelerator to continue marketing the group’s “Metalens” technology.

ABQid mentored and coached the competing teams and hosted the event, which connects scientists with entrepreneurs, said ABQid Executive Director T.J. Cook. “We’re helping them take their first step on what could become an entrepreneurial journey,” Cook said.

It’s part of Sandia’s Entrepreneur Exloration Program to inspire innovators to take new lab technologies to market, said Jackie Kerby Moore, Sandia manager for technology and economic development.

“We want to build a more entrepreneurial culture at the labs, increase people’s knowledge of entrepreneurialism, and increase the companies coming out of the labs,” Kerby Moore said.

Other technologies at the event included a new social media platform to connect disparate research teams at the labs and other institutions, a new digital camera for ultra-fast imaging, and a 3D scanning service for jewelers to identify precious gems inside stones before cutting them.

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