WRITER: Adriana M. Chavez
Trashard Mays, a graduate student at New Mexico State University, is using valuable resources provided by Arrowhead Center at NMSU to commercialize vacuum technology developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory that solves a problem scientists and technicians have grappled with for years.
Through its TechMatch program, Arrowhead Center is working to match aspiring entrepreneurs with technologies and creative works that are available to commercialize, and provides access to inventions and technologies developed in New Mexico. TechMatch is an initiative funded by a U.S. Economic Development Administration i6 Challenge grant that supports Arrowhead’s Next Generation Entrepreneurship program.
Mays is working on a master’s degree in industrial engineering and a master’s in business administration.
With the help of the TechMatch program, Mays has worked on defining customer segments and needs for the Vacuum System Assembly Tool, which was developed by two engineers at the Air Force Research Laboratory and is specifically geared toward assembling Conflat flange joints on an ultra-high vacuum system. The problem that the tool was attempting to solve was an issue that scientists and technicians experienced when attempting to connect two horizontal sections of pipe.
A copper gasket must be placed on the inner machined recess of one flange, or the “knife edge,” and then the second flange brought close enough so that its knife edge also touches the gasket to hold it in place while the flanges are bolted together.
“As you can imagine, it’s hard to hold the gasket in place and properly secure and bolt the joint. The goals in creating these joints, proper placement of the gasket, and the bolting of the flanges are to create a vacuum seal that will keep the system at the low pressure and maintain a contamination-free system,” Mays said.
These systems are most often used for material testing and environment simulation.
Not only has Mays attempted to solve this problem with the help of TechMatch, the program has also helped to match Mays with the inventors of the technology he was exploring, and allowed Mays to work with an organization that already had a trusted name and following.
“This was invaluable when it came to reaching out to customers and gathering insights over the phone. In the sector, the high degree of technical understanding required to understand system processes means that most novel systems or applications employ some type of proprietary component. So, more often than not, businesses were not readily willing to share too much information,” Mays said.
Mays said that while gathering insights from some of the potential market segments was still somewhat difficult, the process would have much more difficult without the backing of the AFRL.
“The program also allowed me to learn about a market that I otherwise might have never ventured into. Through the process of gaining these potential customer insights, I was able to better understand how specialized the technology was within the vacuum systems sector,” Mays said.
It was because of the TechMatch program that Mays was able to participate in a summer cohort of Aggie I-Corps with the technology. In 2016, Arrowhead Center was awarded a three-year, $300,000 grant for the Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Sites program. I-Corps is a National Science Foundation initiative to leverage university research to create new innovative businesses and increase the economic impact of inventions created at research institutions around the country.
Kramer Winingham, program director at Arrowhead, leads the Studio G, Aggie I-Corps and TechMatch programs to support entrepreneurs and technology commercialization.
“New Mexico has great technology developed at our research institutions and national laboratories,” Winingham said. “There is a tremendous opportunity for economic development in matching these technologies with entrepreneurs to start businesses in New Mexico. TechMatch and Aggie I-Corps were created to make this happen, and this project with AFRL is a great example of connecting entrepreneurs to technology developed in New Mexico.”
The AFRL is the main arm of science and technology for the U.S. Air Force. Kirtland Air Force Base is home to the laboratory’s Space Vehicles and Directed Energy Directorates, the Air Force’s centers of expertise for research and development in space vehicles and directed energy.
Matt O’Brien, the Technology Transfer Program Manager at AFRL in New Mexico, said he is always looking for new ways to expose companies and entrepreneurs to AFRL-developed technologies as well as promote opportunities to collaborate with AFRL in New Mexico.
“AFRL has a great working relationship with NMSU’s Arrowhead Center and Studio G and we were excited to have the opportunity to enter an AFRL technology into the summer Aggie I-Corps program,” O’Brien said. “I am not the inventor of the VSAT, but I was able to explain the problem that led to the invention as well as explain the novel features of the invention. Trashard and I met once a week during the summer Aggie I-Corps program and discussed progress as well as challenges.”
O’Brien said he also helped get technical questions answered and introduced Mays to researchers who could give more insight into the technology need, as well as providing next steps for how to license the technology from AFRL.
“Through his customer research, Trashard provided AFRL with a very thoughtful presentation that highlights the opportunities for the VSAT technology. This valuable feedback helps my office make future decisions regarding the technology,” O’Brien said.