It takes capital to move from concept to capitalization

Mark Norfolk, PE,

President & CEO Fabrisonic

This morning I sat in a kickoff meeting for a NASA funded SBIR on 3D printing metals in space.   This made me ponder the impact that the SBIR/STTR program has had on Fabrisonic’s growth. 

The SBIR and STTR programs fund a diverse portfolio of startups and small businesses across technology areas and markets to stimulate technological innovation, meet Federal research and development (R &D) needs, and increase commercialization to transition R &D info impact.

If you had asked my opinion of SBIRs ten years ago, I would have told you that they were corporate welfare for ‘SBIR mills.’    While I still think the system could better address companies that are making a majority of their revenue off of SBIR contracts rather than as a means of creating future revenue paths through innovations, I have come to realize the huge impact that they have on technology startups trying to cross the valley of death.

All small businesses need capital, but technology companies need CAPITAL to take an innovative idea to real world production.  This is especially true of companies making hardware.   Traditional funding mechanisms such as venture capital may be available and expedient.  However, the owner/innovator/window washer usually must sacrifice their first born to access the cash.

What small technology companies yearn for is non-dilutive research and development (R & D) funds.  You must have cash to develop high technology, but you do not want to dilute the ownership of your company. The SBIR program solves this problem.  The government funds R & D under favorable terms that allow the small business to leverage the results in the commercial sector.  This can be hugely beneficial if you are in a space where non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and confidentiality limit the ability to publicize all the really cool technical developments.

At last count, Fabrisonic has worked on 14 SBIR programs, half of which have resulted in Phase II awards. The objective of Phase II is to continue the R/R&D efforts initiated in Phase I.  Learn about all three SBIR phases at this link.

While only one project has moved forward to Phase III (direct sales to the Government), many of these programs have spawned commercial sales that leverage the R&D results from the SBIRs.  Two of our largest commercial successes would not have been possible were it not for SBIR results. 

Below are a few highlights from Fabrisonic’s SBIR journey

Fabrisonic developed the SonicLayer®1200

Research with NASA on a small scale metal 3D printer for the space station led to the commercialization of a new commercial system, the SonicLayer 1200.  The smaller footprint of this ultrasonic additive manufacturing (UAM) machine allowed us to reduce the price dramatically. UAM combines a unique room-temperature metal deposition process with the ease of traditional CNC milling. Our patented ultrasonic ‘print head’ is integrated into 3-axis mills to create a hybrid additive-subtractive process. Swapping from additive to subtractive is as easy as doing a tool change. By offering a more affordable UAM printer, more companies were able to invest in 3D metal printing technologies.

See our article on Fabbaloo.com https://www.fabbaloo.com/blog/2019/5/27/fabrisonic-to-space

Plot of strain magnitude in the xy plane of a PBF build.  Points A, B, and C indicate discontinuities in the build detected through the Smart Baseplate.

Partnership with companies DLA and Luna Innovations led to the development of instrumented build plates for other 3D printing technologies.   UAM allows strain and temperature sensors to be permanently embedded in a build plate allowing operators of Powder Bed Fusion systems to monitor builds for flaws in real time.  Process monitoring for 3D printing is a huge need in industry both for quality assurance as well as process development.  The Fabrisonic SmartBuildplateTM permits users to monitor and record real world strain in the part during the entire PBF build.

Smart Baseplate Laser Powder Bed Fusion (video)

3D metal printed heat exchanger

Projects with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) increased Fabrisonic’s capability to print monolithic heat exchangers from aerospace aluminums and coppers.

Download our case study: Building an interplanetary heat exchanger.

One last note of advice:  Limit your SBIR proposals to projects that directly align with your commercial vision.  First, because you may waste precious resources on projects with a low probability of winning.  Second, because you may waste precious resources on irrelevant projects if you win them.   Too many businesses are enchanted by the revenue SBIR’s can bring and get distracted from their core mission of commercializing THEIR technology.   There is a limited amount of time available to bring a new technology to market.  If you lose focus on YOUR technology, you may get ensnared in the system and end up as a SBIR Mill….


One response to “Fabrisonic’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Experience”

  1. Excellent! 100 different Ohio companies win 220 SBIR awards every year, bringing them $100M in non-dilutive capital. Ohio Aerospace Institute helps these companies learn about, apply for, and manage these grants. This work is generally free to the entrepreneur, paid for by our federal and state tax dollars. Learn more at https://oai.org/contact/

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