Circling in on laboratory breakthroughs

Dynamic Supplier Alignment CTO Wayne Gutschow.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

It’s a rare business plan that doubles as a regional economic strategy.

But then Dynamic Supplier Alignment is in the rarities business. As a supply-chain specialist focused on early-stage enterprises, separating the wheat – innovative technologies with real commercial potential – from the wannabe chaff is business as usual.

It also puts DSA in a unique position to evaluate new sciences and cherry-pick further investments, and has encouraged the Selden firm to initiative Stony Brook University programs preparing workforces to populate those high-tech startups.

MEAn Technologies, a spinoff-in-waiting expected to incorporate this summer, perfectly illustrates what DSA Chief Technology Officer Wayne Gutschow calls “the DSA circle.”

Based on science developed by SBU Distinguished Professor Miriam Rafailovich, co-director of the university’s molecular engineering program, MEAn Technologies – a play on “membrane electrode assemblies” and “nanotechnology” – is developing a proprietary process that could dramatically improve fuel cell efficiency.

But there are many astonishing innovations that never make it out of university laboratories, noted Gutschow, simply because scientists aren’t trained for business.

“Technology commercialization tries to happen all the time,” he said. “But if you don’t have the right technology or the right people behind it, it’s not going to happen.”

What often happens, he added, is graduate-level students develop some kind of technology but lack the know-how to commercialize it – and without sufficient career opportunities on Long Island, they depart, with the tech “left in the lab.”

Enter the circle, DSA’s “immersive certification program designed specifically for small businesses,” according to Gutschow, who simplified it into five basic steps: identify a potential technology, assemble research and commercialization teams, form a startup, secure funding as necessary and graduate into a “holding company” that serves as a portal between tech startups and investors.

A big part of the process is T3C, combining “tech transfer” and “tech commercialization,” a DSA-directed program designed to give SBU researchers the business acumen required to commercialize their laboratory breakthroughs.

About halfway along the circle is MEAn Technologies, which is capitalizing on Rafailovich’s attempts to improve high-density PEM fuel cell efficiency by coating cell membranes with gold nanoparticles. The science is naturally more involved, but Rafailovich and her student researchers know their stuff, according to Gutschow.

“All the hooks were there,” he noted. “But it wasn’t getting out of the lab, because there was nobody to commercialize it. That was the first bullet point on the DSA circle.”

Dynamic Supplier Alignment also helped Team Rafailovich enter PowerBridgeNY, a New York State Energy Research and Development Authority-funded clean-energy “proof-of-concept center” run by Columbia University and Brookhaven National Laboratory. The team – including subject experts recruited by DSA – emerged from the PowerBridgeNY cycle in March 2015 with a $150,000 award.

“Now we had some money to work with,” Gutschow said. “We had a team, we had money and we were following the DSA circle very closely.”

The team – including Gutschow, who will shepherd MEAn Technologies as interim CEO until a permanent executive team is assembled – recently completed SBU’s Innovation Boot Camp, sharpening its pitch for eventual investor presentations. It’s completed several third-party field tests of the fuel cell-enhancing technology, with impressive results.

And it’s created a “gold nanoparticle-enhanced membrane” that can be incorporated into third-party fuel cell-manufacturing processes or applied by DSA to third-party cells and “sent back to their assembly line, like nothing happened,” Gutschow told Innovate LI, “only now they’re putting out 40 percent more power.”

Dynamic Supplier Alignment, meanwhile, is following its T3C mantra by preparing the SBU students to be MEAn Technologies’ future staff.

“Most importantly, the product is being developed by Stony Brook students under Dr. Rafailovich’s supervision,” Gutschow said. “We want to keep people connected with the technologies and understanding that they are the persons who should ultimately be employed by the future companies that utilize them.”

The $150,000 it earned through PowerBridgeNY got it to commercialization’s door, but MEAn Technologies will soon need to step up its funding efforts, applying to NYSERDA and other state programs and appealing directly to private investors.

“This is where DSA’s experience will really benefit the newly formed startup,” Gutschow noted. “We supply the technical resources, the supply-chain management and the acceleration to market, the things the client doesn’t have time to do. The handholding through the incubator process, straight to a successful rollout.”

A $2 million round will cover another two years of development and a commercial rollout, according to the interim CEO, and raising it should become easier when MEAn Technologies officially incorporates this summer. When it does, it will also be one of two spinoffs under a new “holding company” designed to bridge tech startups and investors.

Dynamic Supplier Alignment already has a web developer working on the holding company’s public portal, which will allow investors to view the stable of companies inside – to start, MEAn Technologies and STAR Solutions, a spinoff of Detroit-based Nextek, which itself spun out of BNL research – and help the companies access the investor world.

State agencies including NYSERDA and the New York Department of Labor are already throwing their support behind the portal, according to Gutschow.

“They like the idea that it’s two-way,” he said. “That somebody who’s looking to support a program, like an angel network, can look in and see who’s coming through the circle’s five steps, and also that companies within the portal can look out and see the funding opportunities.”

Full circle, it’s a business plan that not only keeps DSA busy but buttresses the regional innovation economy – exactly the kind of plug Long Island needs to stop its dreaded “brain drain,” Gutschow noted.

“This is our home,” he said. “There are revitalization projects around the Island where they’re trying to attract businesses. We want to work with them and with the state programs and make sure the businesses have the employees they’re going to need.

“It has to start with the people,” Gutschow added. “People don’t have an incentive to stay if they can’t have a career. We can keep them here. It just comes down to being able to afford to live on Long Island.”