Minding Their Business
Professors Venture into New Markets
By Genevieve Chan
Photographs by Chris Milliman
You’ve seen them around campus, in the Great Hall or in the laboratories in Cummings. You may have even sat in one of their classrooms and heard them lecture on the role of the engineer in today’s world. But what sets the following individuals apart is that they are academics actively engaged in entrepreneurial ventures.
As professors they bring knowledge and resources to the companies they’ve started. As members of the new-venture community, they provide Thayer School students with insights into real-world applications of engineering, including the business challenges associated with new companies. Some professors call their entrepreneurial responsibilities “humbling.” All share a collective belief: that in the process of bringing innovations to market, they have become better engineers.
Founder: Stuart Trembly, Chief Scientific Officer
Product: System for reshaping the cornea of the eye through controlled, localized absorption of microwave energy. This is a safe, simple, low-cost, vision-correcting alternative to invasive laser surgery.
Staff: Two managers, one engineer
Intellectual property: Dartmouth holds the intellectual property; company operates under an exclusive usage license; one patent issued, one patent pending
Expertise: Associate Professor Trembly was involved in a previous start-up. For business expertise he turns to Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network founder Gregg Fairbrothers ’76, Borealis investor Phil Ferneau ’84, Tu’96, and Thayer overseer Ralph Crump ’66A.
Advice: “Trust your instincts when assessing people to work with in the business world.”
Ice Engineering LLC
Founder: Victor Petrenko, President and Chief Scientist
Products: A unique ice interface control technology modifies ice adhesion strength, prevents ice build-up, de-ices surfaces, and controls ice friction between any surface and ice or snow. Applications/products include bridge and power line de-icers, cross-country skis with electronically controlled traction, and a novel icemaker for refrigeration systems.
Staff: Four management employees, five research assistants
Intellectual property: Dartmouth holds patents; Ice Engineering retains four exclusive field-of-use licenses
Early funding: Investments from previous patents, angels’ investments, and early contract work
Expertise: Professor Petrenko co-wrote textbooks on ice physics and the physics of semiconductors. He holds 12 U.S. patents, 15 foreign patents, and has 20 more pending.
The upside: “After 22 years doing strictly basic science research, it’s nice to do something that’s really needed.”
The downside: “As a founder, you take failures and setbacks personally. If you have five people on staff, you suffer five times as much.”
Founder: Robert Graves, Chief Technical Officer
Product: Software that allows design engineers to evaluate and optimize millions of design, sourcing, and manufacturing system alternatives in a fraction of the time it takes with existing tools. The goal is to reduce the cost and time of bringing products to market.
Staff: Three expert engineers, one part-time engineer, CEO
Intellectual property: Patents held at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute; company operates under an exclusive license from RPI
Early funding: NSF grant, customer contracts, prize money for business plans
Expertise: The John H. Krehbiel Sr. Professor for Emerging Technologies, Graves is co-director of Thayer School’s M.E.M. program.
Advice: “Make sure your technology is right, your concept is fitting, and your value proposition is well stated.”
Sound Innovations Inc.
Founders: Robert Collier, Laura Ray, and Christopher M. Pearson Tu’02
Product: The next generation of aviation communications headsets. Using proprietary, patented digital signal processing methods for active noise reduction, the headsets cancel noise by producing diametrically opposed sounds. The headsets will enable communication while shielding users from ear-damaging noise levels.
Staff: Tobin Deitrich Th’95, chief design engineer
Expertise: Adjunct Professor Collier specializes in acoustics, hearing protection, and environmental noise control. Associate Professor Ray researches control theory, dynamics, and computer-aided design and analysis. Deitrich is an electrical design and product development engineer.
Advice: Collier on knowing your market: “Work closely with your end-users, focus on human needs, and be guided by real-world applications.”
Product: Therapeutic glycoproteins produced through a patented scalable protein expression technology
Staff: 62 employees
Intellectual property: Glycofi is the leader in the development and production of Next Generation Biotherapeutics™, alone and in partnership with others.
Expertise: Associate Professor Gerngross holds several patents on biodegradable polymers and glycosylation engineering. Dean Emeritus Hutchinson is the John H. Krehbiel Sr. Professor for Emerging Technologies, Emeritus.
Advice: Gerngross says, “It’s very important to have patience in developing the technology. We spent a year of planning and designing without concrete data, but once we set things up the research went smoothly, and we were able to catch up on lost time and beat the competition.”
Microwave Imaging System Technologies
Product: Noninvasive imaging system for better breast cancer detection and improved exam comfort
Thayer colleagues: Tim Raynolds, research engineer; Peter Robbie, design consultant; Margaret Fanning, consultant
Patents: Two patents, two patents pending, and one new provisional patent
Early funding: SBIR grants from the National Cancer Institute
Expertise: Associate Professor Meaney worked in the microwave technology industry for seven years before getting a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Thayer School. Professor Paulsen earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Thayer School and researches various imaging techniques.
Advice: Meaney says, “Entrepreneurs must be willing to learn a lot of skills — such as dealing with regulatory bodies, accounting, and fundraising — outside the realm where they might be most comfortable.”
Synergy Innovations Inc.
Founder: Robert C. Dean Jr., President
Purpose: Creation of innovative ventures in nanotechnology, materials processing, thermal sciences, and energy sources
Latest venture: NanoComp Technologies, which produces long carbon nanotubes for structural composites and electro-energy products
Expertise: Known as the “Grandfather of Start-Ups in the Upper Valley,” Dean has founded or co-founded eight high-tech companies: Creare, Hypertherm, Verax, Synosys (now part of Applied Biosystems), Spectra Energy (now part of FUJIFILM Dimatix), Synergy Research, Inc., Simbex, and Synergy Innovations, Inc.. These companies employ numerous Thayer School graduates. Dean is an adjunct professor.
Advice: “Almost all watershed inventions begin with an individual act.”
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