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bootstrapping innovation

Doug and Judith Galbraith have dedicated their lives to standing innovation on its head. I first met the unassuming husband and wife team at an SBIR seminar where they spoke to prospective applicants about how to write successful grant proposals.

Since founding Separation Design Group LLC in 2003, they have won $1,666,000 in federal small business grants. With a success rate of 71 percent (five out of seven proposals), they have become a phenomenon in small business development circles. In addition to federal funding, the company has also received a number of smaller grants from Innovation Works and The Ben Franklin Technology Partnership to fund their grant writing efforts and to supplement staff salaries. Recently, the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse made a $100,000 investment in the company.

Doug, who decided to “get down to business” after a year of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, was recently awarded a patent for a novel electrokinetic gas separation technology. He also has three other patents pending, two in separation technologies and one in energy conversion.

Judith’s liberal arts bent (BA art; BS education) provides an ideal complement to Doug’s techno-tendencies. Together, they excel at assembling the human, physical, intellectual and financial resources needed to get advanced research projects off the ground and flying. They think out of the box, both scientifically and financially, and they make every penny count, frequently more than once.

For example, they have multi-purposed their Waynesburg office-laboratories to serve as both a very respectable 57,000-square-foot corporate headquarters and a test-bed for the energy technologies they are developing. The building, which is leased from the Greene County commissioners at what Doug calls, "a very favorable lease-purchase agreement,” is undergoing renovation while the Galbraiths and their research team work inside. The Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority has funded a $100,000 solar thermal collector system on the roof to power the building's combined heat and power (CHP) system, which will utilize the heat pump and exchanger technology that the company is developing.

In contrast to many advanced research projects that are driven by scientific inquiry, all of Separation Design's technologies are driven by a careful correlation between the company’s resources and real-world needs; an exercise that has inspired them to focus on the fields of energy conversion and power mechanics.

While decisions on where to put their resources are made in the marketplace, their research begins with first principles, the fundamental laws of science. Methodologically, Doug, Judith and their team of researchers, define a socio-technological problem; scrutinize it in terms of first principles; and go wherever their findings take them.

For instance, because energy conversion is fundamentally a matter of oxygen consumption, they are developing a high-efficiency oxygen concentration technology, based on Doug’s issued and pending patents, that uses electric fields to increase the uptake rate of atmospheric nitrogen, which comprises about 80 percent of the air we breathe. The other 20-or-so-percent is oxygen, the stuff they’re after.

While investigating ways of improving the nitrogen affinity of a class of materials called zeolites, the team found that no instrument was available to measure their adsorption rates in thousandths of a second. So they set about developing a new instrument called a Dynamic Adsorption Analyzer.

The project was funded to the tune of $100,000 by the National Science Foundation, the concept has been proved and they are now awaiting further funding for prototype development and product commercialization.

On a related front, under a two-year, $814,000 National Institutes of Health STTR grant, Separation Design is developing a Lightweight Ambient Pressure and Temperature Oxygen Concentrator (LAPTOC). The device will employ the optimized materials enabled by the dynamic adsorption analyzer for biomedical purposes.

By means of skillful grant writing, savvy bargain hunting and prudent purchasing practices the company has a managed to acquire all the personnel, machinery, equipment and technology needed to perform every step in the technology development process. Those resources include four Ph.D.s, a mechanical engineer and support staff, a metal casting facility and machine shop, a Hitachi electron microscope, microprobe and x-ray diffraction instruments, a 64 node mini supercomputer, 3-D prototyping machines and everything in between.

Their current R&D project roster includes: Oxygen concentration for combustion and biological processes; heat pumping and recovery; fuel flexible engines; and instruments to characterize ultra-rapid adsorption processes.

It is inspirational to see the spirit of invention and entrepreneurship at work in such practical and visionary ways.

This article first appeared in Tom Imerito’s TEQ column, Innovation Chronicles.

© Copyright 2007, Thomas P. Imerito / dba Science Communications

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