Originally published in Business Digest, December 1997

EPSCoR Scores Again

by Craig C. Bailey

Since 1992, the Vermont Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), a statewide program based at the University of Vermont, has awarded more than $130,000 to nearly 30 Vermont businesses. As the program approaches the end of its five-year grant with the National Science Foundation (NSF), its administrators are assembling their next NSF proposal to keep the money coming, while focusing the spotlight on the latest round of winners.

Vermont EPSCoR aptly named its Phase-0 small business innovative research (SBIR) grants after the federal Phase-1 SBIR program administered by the NSF. The goal is to prime the pump by giving Vermont businesses $5,000 payments to help fund grant writing for Phase-1 awards, which amount from $50,000 to $100,000.

Janet Franz, project coordinator at Vermont EPSCoR, can cite at least nine Phase-0 winners that have gone on to win federal grants. "I would guess those are low numbers, because we just haven't heard from everyone," she says.

Vermont EPSCoR program director Chris Allen believes the Phase-0 program -- which is partly funded on a matching basis by the state of Vermont, UVM and other Vermont educational institutions -- has been instrumental in opening the door to federal funds for Vermont businesses. He intends to include it in the next agreement Vermont EPSCoR submits to the NSF in July. "If you've got something that's a winner," he says, "you'd be a fool to walk away from it."

Allen, who's also a professor of chemistry at UVM, says the Phase-0 initiative is a high priority, because "It's a vehicle for starting to build a stronger connectivity between the academic structure of the state and its business community."

If the relationship between imitation and flattery is everything the cliché says it is, then Vermont EPSCoR should be beaming. Several states have implemented Phase-0 programs like the one invented here in the Green Mountains by then Vermont EPSCoR chair John Van Houten, chair of the chemistry/physics department at Saint Michael's College. And the influx of inquiries received by the NSF recently lead it to ask Franz to create a kit about the Phase-0 program for it to pass on to curious parties.

Allen says the number of Phase-0 winners fluctuates each year, depending on the number and quality of entries. Out of 28 entries for 1997, here are the seven businesses that got thumbs-up:

Beeken/Parsons, Shelburne
Bruce Beeken and Jeff Parsons are custom woodworkers concerned about the future of Vermont's woodlots.

[Bruce Beeken & Jeff Parsons] Bruce Beeken and Jeff Parsons are career woodworkers who have been creating custom furnishings at their Shelburne Farms shop since the early '80s. Recently the two have embarked on a project to better utilize tree species that are common in Vermont forests. Central to their Vermont Forest Furniture project is the realization that many species found in abundance in local woodlots are not favored for use in high-end furniture. The two won a Phase-0 for their proposal to explore consumer demand for furnishings made with character marked northern hardwoods. "We want to know whether there is a demand for high-quality furniture made from this wood," says Beeken.

In addition to gauging demand, Beeken and Parsons have been refining manufacturing processes that would allow less desirable species to be used more easily in the creation of fine furniture.

Ultimately, the two hope to bring Vermont's forests into better equilibrium by adjusting consumer demand for timber to the state's actual propensity of species. "We think that it is possible for the wood products industry to have an impact," says Parsons, who suggests an effort to "place more emphasis on all grades of the material rather than focusing on just the highest grades."

(See also "Forest for the Trees," October 1997.)

John LaRue, Underhill
John LaRue is an ex-IBMer in Underhill who's keeping the camouflage technology he's invented under deep cover until he can get it patented.

[John LaRue] John LaRue left IBM's Essex Junction facility four years ago, after working approximately 25 years in process development for Big Blue. Operating out of his Underhill home over the past year, he's developed a camouflage technology that he hopes to patent.

"I think it's going to be something that a lot of people will be interested in. But we need to get it protected before we can talk about it," he says, reluctant to give any details. "At some point in the not too distant future, we're going to be anxious to get all the advertisement we can get," he chuckles. "It's just that at this point we need to take care."

LaRue, who has spent time developing other innovations that never came to fruition, is confident of the demand for his new technology but cautious about its future, acknowledging that most inventions don't pan out. Still, he's preparing to begin financing after the patent is in place, which he hopes will happen within a couple of months.

MicroStrain Inc., Burlington
MicroStrain Inc. is in the Vermont EPSCoR hall of fame: The Burlington firm has won six Phase-0 awards since 1992, one each year the program has been offered. The company, founded in the mid '80s by president Steven Arms, develops and manufactures tiny sensing devices that measure displacement within a variety of structures -- from the human body to buildings and aircraft parts.

Vermont EPSCoR awarded MicroStrain a 1997 Phase-0 for a device that measures the peak strain in a structure. "It remembers the peak strain without any power," Arms explains. "It's just a little sensor that can passively store the peak strain that it's experienced."

Measuring approximately six millimeters in length and 1.5 millimeters in diameter, the devices can be networked within a building, bridge or aircraft landing gear, for example, and remotely addressed to determine the amount of stress that has been inflicted on a structure.

"There are peak strain systems out there now, but the problem with them is that they're like fuses: Once they experience the peak strain, they can't be reused. Our device has the potential to be reset," Arms says. "So I think ours, in the long run, will have greater acceptance as long as we can keep it low cost."

Arms, who estimates 60 percent of his time is spent acquiring grants, says the tiny size of the detectors has two benefits. "If it's a fighter aircraft or some other very critical structure, the smaller the better," he says. "And small generally means low cost, especially in volume."

Omega Optical Inc., Brattleboro
Omega Optical Inc., which occupies two Brattleboro locations and employs more than 100 people, manufactures optical interference filters. The devices are used in equipment that performs remote, non-destructive analysis of everything from distant galaxies to processed foods based on the scientific truth that "everything in nature has an optical signature which is unique," in the words of Bob Johnson, D.Sc. Scientists trying to determine the composition of a neighboring planet or the fiber content of a fruit roll-up turn to this technology. Its roots stretch back to the Manhattan Project, the U.S. initiative to develop the atomic bomb during World War II, before the technique was commercialized in the early '60s.

Essentially a sheet of glass carefully coated with layers of thin films, optical interference filters act as switches, allowing only certain types of light to pass through. Johnson, a Brattleboro native who founded Omega Optical in 1968, says the filter manufacturing process is one of vaporizing materials so they can be handled on an atomic level and bonded to the glass. "But in order to do that with precision," he says, "we have to be concerned with all of the residual gas that exists in the process chamber."

Johnson says his Phase-0 award was the result of his firm's efforts to "refine the quality of the deposition process by studying the residual gases that exist in the chamber."

Valley Dental Associates P.C., Waitsfield
Steve Zonies D.M.D., owner of Valley Dental Associates P.C. in Waitsfield, responded to his industry's increasing concern with bacterial contamination by developing technology to remove such build-up on plumbing dental units.

Scott Tighe, a microbiologist from Diffraction Ltd. in Waitsfield working on the project, explains that the tiny diameter (4-5 millimeters) of the many water lines that service a dentist's chair providing irrigation to the mouth and cooling for drills, is a prime breeding ground for bacteria. "It's not likely to be terribly dangerous," he says, "but during a surgical procedure, you don't want to unnecessarily introduce bacteria into the wound."

He's careful to point out that bacteria is present in all water, and draws a clear distinction between the common bacteria the pair's invention is designed to handle and dangerous pathogens. "Why it's been a hot topic, I'm not sure," Tighe says, adding that he's unaware of any articles that have linked heath problems to the slippery biofilm that collects inside dentist water lines.

"We don't want to create any mass hysteria," Zonies says. "This is not a public health hazard. This is merely another hygiene issue for equipment manufacturers to address."

Still, with industry trade publications spotlighting the phenomenon within the past year, Zonies and Tighe envisioned a demand for a device to remove biofilm and disinfect dental units. The two developed a prototype of the invention, which Zonies has been using on a test basis at his 23- year-old practice for the past few months.

While Tighe is confident of the product's viability, he's unsure whether the team will eventually manufacture the device for commercial use or license the technology to another party. "We're taking it one step at a time," he says.

Vermont Electric Car Co., Middlesex
Hilton Dier III (pictured) and Paul Scheckel, owners of the Vermont Electric Car Co. in Middlesex, are searching for a locally grown, alternative fuel crop. They also hope to develop a vehicle to use it. "We've got to get off the fossil fuel addiction before it kills us," says Dier.

[Hilton Dier III] Hilton Dier III of Middlesex and Paul Scheckel of Calais weren't content to wean Vermonters off fossil fuels with occasional conversions of gas powered cars to electric, which is the basis of their business. "We're looking for a locally grown fuel that you can put in your car," explains Scheckel, co-owner of the Vermont Electric Car Co. in Middlesex.

Scheckel, a Nutley, N.J., native who's lived in Vermont for a dozen years, describes the business as more of a hobby than a career. Since the company's genesis in the early '90s, it has converted approximately a half dozen gas-burning vehicles to electric. Both Scheckel and Dier, a native of Middlebury, have other full-time endeavors: Scheckel works in energy audits and ratings for Vermont Energy Investment Corp. in Burlington, while Dier is a self-employed mechanical designer with tenures at Black River Design and Spruce Mountain Design in Montpelier.

"The essential problem that you run into when you build an electric car that plugs into the wall, so to speak," explains Dier, "is that there's a power plant on the other end powered by conventional fossil fuels. It's a lot less pollution to burn those fossil fuels in a power plant than to burn them in your car, but it would be nice to avoid them altogether."

The duo's Phase-0 winning project is twofold: to find a viable fuel crop and to develop an engine capable of using it. "Pretty much anything is less polluting than oil based products," says Scheckel, who's focused on the agricultural side of the plan. He speculates seed oil or ethanol from a fibrous plant might work. "It sure would be nice to do a test of hemp. I hear there's some really good energy potential there," he says, conceding there'll be politics to overcome. "It's one of the things we're going to present.

"Hopefully it would lead to the actual design and modification of a multi-passenger commuter van," he adds, suggesting a Montpelier to Burlington route run on a renewable, locally grown fuel crop.

Dier says they would most likely partner with a local transportation authority for that phase. "We're wrench-twisters," he jokes. "We're not necessarily interested in running a transportation business."

XC Associates Inc., Bennington
XC Associates Inc. in Bennington has been making electronic enclosures using advance composite materials for a couple of years. Co-owner John Bootle explains the company's glass fiber and carbon fiber enclosures are designed to reduce the weight and cost of massive electronic workstations that are common in large ships and aircraft.

Bootle moved to Bennington eight years ago when his employer, London-based international chemical group Courtaulds, relocated him from Coventry, England. He founded XC Associates two years ago with Frank Burzsei, an alumni of Courtaulds who was working for General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y.

Bootle explains the company won its Phase-0 for a heat sink manufacturing innovation. "As electronics get more and more powerful -- and they pack more and more electronics onto a single card -- they generate a lot of heat. So you've got to get the heat out of the electronics," he says with a crisp British clip.

Typically wiring boards are mounted on top of aluminum heat sinks, which draw the heat out of the electronics. "But the amount of power you can take out with an aluminum heat sink is limited by the thermal conductivity of the aluminum," Bootle says, adding that special carbon fibers have thermal conductivity approximately 10 times higher than aluminum, thus making them a viable alternative. "We came up with a manufacturing process that can improve the thermal conductivity through the thickness of the carbon fibers," he says. "It improves the efficiency tremendously."

Bootle says infrared thermography tests helped convince members of the electronics industry that XC Associates was onto something good, and that his firm has received "some really good inquiries" from a few major companies and venture capitalists.

In fact, he says he plans on by-passing the Phase-1 application process in hopes of taking the project directly to the commercialization stage. He says his business has won a Phase-1 award for a previous initiative, and is in the process of negotiating for a Phase-2, which can run up to $750,000. "We know what that route is, and it's a long, tortuous path. So by doing what we've done -- by going straight from the Phase-0 to commercialization -- I think we've cut out several years of work."

Vermont EPSCoR is soliciting proposals for the final Phase-0 awards of this grant period. For information write to: Janet H. Franz, Vermont EPSCoR, University of Vermont, 527A Cook Building, Burlington, Vt., 05405-0125; call 656-7969; fax 656-2950; email jfranz@zoo.uvm.edu; or visit http://epscor.uvm.edu.