TechFire incubation warms up ideas for the marketplace

June 10, 2016

By Ann Lansinger, Energetics Technology Center

Inventors who want to pursue ideas they have developed at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory have a pathway through a new incubator that is located near the Adelphi Laboratory Center.

The new incubator, TechFire ARL, is located at 10000 New Hampshire Avenue in Silver Spring and has dedicated office space, co-working space, and meeting space available to ARL employees and retirees wishing to either start a company, work collaboratively with university or industrial researchers, or need off-site meeting space for up to 25 people. Anyone interested in taking advantage of the incubation business growth services may apply for admission at the incubator.

As the Incubation Program Manage at TechFire-ARL, I have been talking to potential entrepreneurs and connecting businesses with resources that could lead to new products with an emphasis on Army technology.

Paratek Microwave, Inc. is one company that got its start in an incubator, the HEAT Center, which was located in Harford County. This company was founded by ARL employees in 1998 to commercialize the research they had been doing at ARL on the development of tunable dielectric materials for a suite of low-cost, novel microwave components and scanning antennas.

Within 10 years, Paratek had raised over $100 million from domestic and international investors and had three sites to accomplish engineering and manufacturing before being acquired by BlackBerry.

Incubation is a conduit for transitioning technology effectively.

The question I get most often is: "'how does TechFire work?'

The process starts with a researcher who is interested in an entrepreneurial endeavor sitting down with a panel of experts to talk about it. A good candidate is someone who is passionate about commercializing their idea, can demonstrate a proven market for their goods or services and is coachable.

The incubator offers mentoring and advisory services.

Entrepreneurs who are admitted into the TechFire ARL incubator have different levels of need. Some first time entrepreneurs will need help in defining a business model or preparing for a funding presentation, while others will need advice on marketing, human relations issues, and/or financial guidance. Intellectual protection is another area where entrepreneurs frequently need guidance not only on filing for a provisional patent but for constructing an IP strategy for the company.

Most people we work with are strong in some areas and need support in other areas of business.

Mentoring is provided by TechFire ARL's Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, who typically have successfully started, run and oftentimes sold more than one company. Advisors are business subject matter experts who volunteer their knowledge and skills to the incubator. In addition, ARL scientists and engineers may interface with small entrepreneurial companies working to commercialize ARL technology by providing technical advice.

The length of time companies will be in incubation varies. Typically, they will be in the program two to three years but, depending on the trajectory, they may need incubation services for a longer or shorter period of time.

While in the program, each company will meet with the TechFire ARL Incubation Program Manager every six months for a progress review, and to determine specific tasks the incubator will provide, and certain "homework" the company will agree to do—all designed to move the company to the next level of growth.

At some point during incubation, certain graduation milestones will be established. When met, the company will "graduate," meaning they will no longer require incubation services. Milestone examples may be that the company has reached a certain level of revenues, has acquired a fully formed Board of Directors, or has received equity funding. Graduates are welcome to return for short incubation engagements or to request connections and introductions.0 Some successful graduates may offer to provide coaching services to new companies coming into the program.

In addition to providing opportunities for new technology-focused businesses, the ETC technical team looks for promising ideas within the ARL patent portfolio that have commercial potential, Lansinger said. For example, a student team in the University of Maryland DC I-Corps FedTech program recently selected to study the potential for successful commercialization of a brain wave technology.

The team determined that this technology was a "Go," meaning it has commercial potential and a proven market. This team has since decided to form a company and apply for incubation. In this case, the ARL researcher may decide to remain involved with the company as an advisor, thereby reducing the risk and increasing the chances for successful commercialization.

At the end of the project instead of graded recommendations, the students who studied this ARL technology came back with the desire to take the invention to the next stage of development, and one of the factors that reduces the commercialization risks of the endeavor is the ARL researcher's willingness to stay with the project as a senior technical advisor.

That is a tremendous example of a technology being picked up and brought to the next step by DC I-Corps Fed Tech, then considered as a commercial project. The next step is the TechFire admissions process.

The first company accepted into incubation at TechFire-ARL is MOOVR, which is developing an adaptation for the ARL omnidirectional treadmill (patent expired). MOOVR is developing a miniature treadmill motor with object recognition to start the treadmill, various speed controls based on the targeted object's change in distance from the sensor, and a kill switch mechanism which will be activated when the program no longer senses an object in range. The treadmill will keep pace with the runner, running, slowing, stopping and moving faster along with the runner.

They are also interested in adding a Virtual Reality component, which will allow the runner to "compete" with world class runners, or run in a different environment such as desert, mountains, or beautiful scenery.

In the TechFire Southern Maryland program, active clients working with Indian Head Naval Surface Warfare Center and Patuxent River Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division have grown at a consistently rapid pace since August.

TechFire specializes in helping businesses commercialize Department of Defense technology. The connections with federal entities are important, because with it comes an understanding of government-specific nuances.

This is part two of a three-part series special to ARL about the Energetics Technology Center's tools available for ARL current or retiring scientists and engineers. Part three of this series will highlight the TechFire-ARL portal.


Last Update / Reviewed: June 10, 2016