Disruptive technology is embraced in sectors where customers are eager to tear up and replace old models for doing business. That’s not so much the case in the metals industry, which produces the raw materials for items from jet engines to hip replacements.
“Because we’re disruptive,” said Paul King, “it’s very hard to get traction.”
King is the president and executive director of Ampere Scientific, a 5-year-old startup in Albany, a small city 70 miles south of Portland. The company sells an MRI sort of tool that can precisely identify flaws in real-time for metals such as nickel and titanium, making the end product safer. They are also developing a separate device that increases a manufacturer’s control over the electric arcs that are key to metal processing, which improves the metal quality. (Ampere Scientific is not to be confused with Ampere Computing, a new server chip business.)
The eight-person company’s technology can ensure that metals are safe for use in high-performance applications. King points to a Southwest Airlines flight last year and an American Airlines attempted takeoff in 2016 as instances where metal defects were to blame for engine failures. Ampere Scientific’s tool could have revealed those problems in advance, said King. Current technology, such as ultrasounds and X-rays, can’t identify flaws that an MRI can.
Ampere Scientific’s founders invented their Electric Current Locator (ECL) technology while working at the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Albany, one of the 17 Department of Energy National Labs.
The company has received $930,000 in federal grants, including recent funding from the National Science Foundation. The state of Oregon has provided $200,000 in grants and Vertue Lab, an impact investing organization formerly called Oregon Best, has invested $150,000. Ampere Scientific has raised $450,000 from angel investors.
The startup is selling to smaller metal processing companies, and there’s interest from customers in Asia and Europe. King would love to sell to Portland’s Precision Castparts, a Berkshire Hathaway company that’s a market leader in metal fabrication and worth billions.
“What we provide is this extra quality control step,” King said. And the tool they’re developing can help reduce waste and conserve energy, he added.
To really grow the company, they need FAA regulations to change to support the use of their technology, or for airlines to demand it from suppliers, King said. One option for gaining customers is to lobby congressional leaders to call for increased safety in metal components.
“As we continue our company trajectory,” King said, “we aim to revolutionize the metals industry.”
We caught up with King for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
What does your company do? Our product ensures that metals used in extreme environments and safety-critical applications, from jet engines to hip replacements, are defect free. The type of defects detected by our technology can cause catastrophic failure under the extreme conditions that they are intended for, and cannot be detected any other way. Although these failures don’t happen often, they can be fatal when they do. A prime example of this was at the Chicago airport on Oct. 28, 2016. A defect caused a jet engine to explode, resulting in the complete loss of an aircraft. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
Inspiration hit us when: Every technological revolution begins with new measurement systems! With this in mind, we knew that we would be disruptive in the metals industry when we began to understand the richness of the new information we were able to measure during the processing of the metals. This information enables much finer control over the ultimate quality of the metals through process improvements made available through our technology.
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Angel investment has been a must for us. Together with grant funding, this has allowed us the runway to fully develop our product into an industry-hardened tool capable of withstanding the harsh environments they are intended for. With a good choice of an angel investor, great things can happen.
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: Our people, of course, and the brilliance that our team brings to work every day.
The smartest move we’ve made so far: I think our smartest move overall was to engage with the National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corp program through the Oregon State University Advantage Accelerator (where we were awarded Entrepreneur of the Year for 2014). Not only did this help us identify industry needs, but it opened a lot of doors for additional mentorship, business support and capital — doors that would otherwise be closed or that we didn’t even know existed.
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Our biggest mistake so far was to think that because our technology is disruptive to the industry, the industry would embrace it and sales would immediately go through the roof. The reality for us is that the well established industry we are entering is hesitant to adopt new technologies without established proof of value and cause-and-effect validation. We constantly hear that everyone wants to be the first “second adopter.” Because of this hesitancy, our sales cycles have proven to be a lot longer than we predicted where we are just now (in 2019) gaining traction.
Which leading entrepreneur or executive would you most want working in your corner? David L. Joyce, a vice chair of GE and president and chief executive officer for GE Aviation. Because of his leadership role in the jet engine industry and his strong ties to both commercial and military customer base, Joyce would be a key figure in helping us as we disrupt the age-old metals manufacturing technologies with the modern measurement and control systems we are deploying to fully understand the electromagnetic forces at play in metals processing and how best to manipulate them to the greatest benefit.
Our favorite team-building activity is: Sitting around the table discussing other things we can invent, develop or market. We call this our spaghetti throwing exercise. What sticks is worth investigating!
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Curiosity and the drive to investigate things of interest.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Stick with it. You have to *know* that your product is valuable and you have to stick with the course. Being an entrepreneur is a bit like being on a roller coaster, there are many ups and downs. You have to ride those out and keep focused.