DEBRIEF: Lee Cheatham, BNL’s prince of partnering

Go east, young man: While the bulk of his education and the entirety of his professional career have occurred in western locales, Lee Cheatham’s path has led him finally to Long Island. The director of Brookhaven National Laboratory’s new Strategic Partnerships Office packs a world-class education (B.S. from Oregon State, M.S. from Washington State, Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon, all in electrical engineering) and abundant professional experience. Included: VP of product engineering for Ameritech Library Services, CEO of a Zillow-like real estate software startup and head of computer sciences at a Department of Energy facility servicing the U.S. Army and FEMA.

Now, the DOE is hoping that rich résumé will help him push BNL to the commercialization forefront.

UNTAPPED POTENTIAL: One of the things that attracted me here, the thing I like most about BNL, is the untapped scientific work that’s gone on here for years. There’s great science around the accelerator and the other large machines here, many of it in the life sciences, begging for a connection with the outside world. That’s what I’m trying to do: connect this great science to the private sector and other federal agencies. The depth and breadth of the science here, and making connections to private enterprise – that’s the real opportunity.

RIGHT AT HOME: I grew up in the Northwest and most of my professional life has been there, as well as my education, except for graduate school on the Midwest. There’s a perception that things are very different here, that Long Island is exactly like New York City. Until you get here, you don’t realize how not true that is. With the wineries and the sod farms and the flowers in bloom in the spring, Long Island feels a lot like Willamette Valley in the Pacific Northwest, where I went to school. I’m finding it a lot less foreign than someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time here might have expected.

ON-THE-JOB LEARNING: We only opened the Strategic Partnerships Office Jan. 5, so I’m still learning about the Long Island business climate. I’m starting with the research institutions and other organizations that are partnered with the laboratory and committed to the new economy. What I’m seeing first is a very strong sense of research-based enterprise among these institutions. There’s an awful lot going on here in regards to scientific research.

IT TAKES A VILLAGE: The other thing I’m seeing is there are a lot of people here committed to moving the Long Island economy forward. I’ve attended several events and I’ve seen these people looking at what can be done to engage companies and make sure the proper infrastructures are in place. That’s really positive. I’ve been listening to what people are saying and how we can transfer that into a positive role the laboratory can play.

BEEN THERE: The thing I learned most from experience with my startup company is that it definitely takes a team. That was probably my biggest mistake: not building out a large enough and diverse enough team quickly enough. One person can only do so many things; we each have only a certain set of skills. While I understood where I wanted to go and the technology we could put behind it, it would have moved a lot faster if I’d brought in people with the right industry experience sooner.

KNOW YOUR PLACE: Scientists are trained to be investigative in a really important way, but that’s not the same skill set you need to start a company or move a company forward. There are a lot of things that can be done to support scientists who are interested in how their science is applied, to help them understand the business world and make the application of their science more effective, but I’ve met few scientists who could make the transition from working in their lab or working on their computer to becoming a successful CEO. They’re few and far between.

WINNING FORMULA: Part of it is communication – making sure the language doesn’t get in way, because there’s a jargon that goes on in business and a jargon that goes on in science and they’re certainly not the same. But it’s also about perspective. A successful business doesn’t have to somehow taint the scientific objective. That perspective has to be monitored, and when it’s done right the transition of science into effective commercial applications can work really well.

PLUGGING THE DRAIN: One statistic has been mentioned at virtually every meeting I’ve attended, a major concern about Long Island losing its young talent. That is very worrisome. Building a sustainable economy is a very long-term prospect; it’s not something you do in a year or two. It’s built from the ground up, not only with infrastructure but with the people. I’m still learning the landscape, but if this is as serious a problem as it’s made out to be, we need to keep talking about it.