by James A. Bacon
Wei Zhang, a research scientist at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering, concluded that the polymer coatings he was studying had commercial potential. The chemical, when applied to power lines, aircraft wings or wind-turbine blades, would prevent ice from building up. By affecting the surface bonding at a molecular level, the coating would release the ice before it became too heavy.
The science was promising enough that he won a $150,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to develop it further. He needed a business incubator with low overhead and business support that would allow him to pursue the technology. Fortunately, he found a suitable location — the Dominion Resources Innovation Center. The incubator, founded in a partnership between Dominion Resources and the Town of Ashland, specializes in the technology and energy sectors, providing early-stage companies with inexpensive office space, mentoring, guidance and business support.
“Scientists running a company don’t do well by themselves,” said Zhang yesterday at a re-launch of the innovation center at a new location in Ashland. But the board of directors gave him valuable advice, and he got a useful letter of support from Dominion stating that the electric power industry needs his product. Zhang even worked with Town of Ashland staff to develop applications for protecting landscaping from freezing.
The work went so well that Zhang’s company, Polymer Exploration Group (or PEG for short), won a second-phase, $750,000 SBIR grant take the product to the next stage, as well as a National Institutes of Health grant to use the polymer to develop an anti-microbial coating. At present, Zhang can produce only small volumes of the polymer — a half-liter at a time — and a major challenge is to ramp up his production capability. He sees huge markets anywhere ice is the enemy. At the moment, he says, the most immediate market appears to be fishing boats in the North Atlantic and North Pacific.
PEG, which now employs five, including Zhang, is only one of several promising enterprises to emerge from the incubator, which initially was housed in an old warehouse. The new facility, shared with town public works employees, is located in downtown Ashland in the old volunteer fire department building. The incubator provides nine single-room offices, including three wet labs. The mentoring and support is just as important as the space, if not more. The hands-on board provides a network of contacts and relationships that someone like Zhang, a Chinese national who has lived in Richmond since 2000, would find incredibly time consuming to replicate.
Mary Doswell, Dominion’s senior vice president for alternate energy solutions, said the company committed to support the incubator in 2009 to “send a signal to the community about our interest in innovation.” Now, she said, the incubator is being integrated with Virginia Commonwealth University, the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park and the Innovation Council to create “a regional innovation ecosystem.”
Although Dominion does not insist that tenants work on technologies that interest the power company, things have worked out that way. Dominion could be a customer eventually for Zhang’s ice-shedding polymer, and it could be a partner of Analytics Corp., to commercialize what founder Weston Johnson calls a high-efficiency, high-torque motor that operates at low speeds. That particular cluster of attributes, says Johnson, has applications ranging from industrial fans to wind turbines.
Johnson, who earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Kentucky, launched an earlier business — a hand-held spectrometer to be used by law enforcement — that didn’t turn out so well. But the experience taught him a lot and prompted him to move back to Richmond, where he started work on an idea he had developed in his Ph.D. dissertation. Johnson’s insight is that new materials invested by the semiconductor industry for use in microelectronic circuits make it possible to run motors with electric fields rather than magnetic fields. The process eliminates parts and drives down costs. He claims that the technology, if perfected, could drive down the installation cost of a wind turbine by 40%.
Johnson launched his business with $200,000 raised from family and friends. Locating in the Innovation Center was critical to his success, says Johnson. “The Center provided skill sets that I didn’t have to hire.” Zhang, he says, was an especially valuable sounding board. He has nearly completed his prototype, which he hopes will provide proof of concept ideas and win him another round of investment that will let him build a field-demonstration model.
Only a handful of enterprises emerging from incubators ever create enduring businesses. Zhang and Johnson, both of whom have acquired their own facilities, still have many obstacles to surmount before creating sustainable business models. Whatever their prospects, there is no denying that the Dominion Innovation Center succeeds in incubating big ideas.