LIVERMORE, CALIF.—It seemed like a great idea at the time: In the spring of 1987, chemist Bob Peny, armed with a quiet resolve and the patent to a pollution-reducing process he had discovered while a researcher at Sandia National Laboratory’s Combustion Research Facility (CRF) in Livermore, left a secure, challenging, and well-paying job to start his own company, Technor Inc.

Launched with a Department of Energy Small Business and Innovation Research grant, the startup seemed destined to be a shining star in the federal government’s technology transfer heavens. Even the Secretary of Energy publicly acclaimed the “exciting potential” of Perry’s new technology. What better weapons could an enterprising scientist hope to be armed with upon sallying forth into the venture capital jungle?

So far, however, Bob Perry’s weapons haven’t been enough. His promising technology has yet to help anyone breathe easier—or to make him a millionaire. It will be at...

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