Starting Up With Harsh Environments
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fiber sensors for harsh environments, the department's Photonics
Laboratory spun off a company to meet an immediate need by
the U.S. Air Force for jet engine instrumentation.
Before the Virginia Tech breakthrough, taking measurements at
high temperatures in harsh environments had been difficult and
costly. For example, in coal gasification plants, where the temperature
is critical to the process, thermocouple temperature sensors
are corroded in just a few hours. In high-temperature, high-pressure
oil reservoirs, conventional sensors last only 300 hours after
installation - and it costs more than $1 million to pull the
head and replace the sensors.
Tech's new sensors can provide multiple years of service in environments
characterized by high temperatures (approaching 3500° F),
high pressures (exceeding 20,000 psi), intense electromagnetic
fields, and corrosive atmospheres.
"There are many applications of the new sensor technology,
ranging from petrochemical to aerospace," said Russell May,
president of Prime Photonics,
Inc., the new spin-off company. "However, we are initially
concentrating on developing a family of sensors that can be used
in instrumentation in gas turbine and jet engines."
May and Anbo Wang founded Prime Photonics in 1999, and are currently
negotiating with VTIP for rights to the sensor technology. May,
who had prior experience in a start-up firm as one of the founders
of Fiber & Sensor Technologies, Inc. (now Luna Innovations),
handles the business operations and has contributed to its growth.
Although he is a co-owner of the company, Wang, who is a professor
and director of the Photonics Laboratory, does not take an active
role in the day-to-day operations of Prime. "I concentrate
on the company, and Wang concentrates on Tech's rapidly growing
Photonics Laboratory," May said.
Prime was established through a Phase I SBIR grant through the
Air Force. "We are still in the R&D stage because of
the very strong emphasis on reliability and safety by the ultimate
end users of the technology," May said. "The sensor
instrumentation will require extensive laboratory and field testing
before being adopted on a widespread basis. The applications
will not be just military, although initially it will be because
the Air Force has immediate needs," he said.
"We are excited about working with the Air Force,"
he added. "They are results oriented. We are working on
an industrial, not an academic, schedule. They have a research
objective they see our technology fitting in, and they are holding
our feet to the fire to meet their objective."
In addition to serving as president of Prime, May has a half-time
position as a research assistant professor on the department's
faculty. "I am officially half time in both positions but
it seems like full time at both places," he commented.
"Starting up Prime has been pretty demanding on my time,"
he continued. "Over and above the technical work, I'm spending
time on the job learning how to run a company. I was classically
trained as an engineer, so it has been a matter of constant learning
on the job," he said.
"Fortunately, the Blacksburg environment is a particularly
good one to be in that position because of the opportunities
afforded by the university and its affiliated organizations,
such as the Business Technology Center and the Small Business
Institute. Also, we have an office at the Corporate Research
Center, which is a good environment. There are other start-ups
with which to collaborate or commiserate, depending on the day,"
One of May's prime concerns is staffing up as the firm grows.
"I do not think we will be as constrained by funding as
by labor," he said. "I am concerned how we will find
the qualified engineers who will do the work." At this point,
he does not have a plan to use students as employees, although
he would be open to the possibility. "I'd prefer full-time
employees," he said, "but it depends upon my success
"If we were to hire graduate students to work at Prime Photonics,
I would hope that, when they completed their studies, the company
would be successful enough that they would grow into ownership
and remain part of the success of the company.
May has enjoyed the current atmosphere of encouragement and enthusiasm
concerning spin-offs in the university community. "This
is new territory for the university," he said. "It
seems the administration is embracing the concept and that the
mechanisms are falling into place in a way that protects the
interest of the university in education and research, yet leads
to economic development in the community.
"It is one of the missions of a land-grant university,"