My Soapbox: Joe Sprengard, General Nano

As things so often do, General Nano began with a question: “What is your plan?”
That’s how Joe Sprengard, CEO of General Nano LLC, described his first meeting between two University of Cincinnati inventors, Dr. Vesselin Shanov and Dr. Mark Schulz, who had discovered a new form of carbon nanotube technology. In customary Cincinnati fashion—a town where everyone is seemingly linked to everyone else—a mutual connection between the doctors and Sprengard led the group to set out in 2008 to see if their business had legs.
Turns out it had more than legs, but wings as well, with the bulk of General Nano’s first five years primarily focused on aerospace and defense. General Nano has had great success manufacturing new forms of lightweight, conductive reinforcing materials, and recently reached a major milestone with the ability to manufacture continuous rolls of its Carbon Nanotube Technology (CNT) sheet materials. In fact, within the next year, Sprengard says the company will increase its production rate 20 times over its current rate.
As General Nano prepares to graduate from the HCDC Business Center, Sprengard emphasized the company’s desire to become part of the social fabric of our region. We recently sat down with Sprengard to learn more about the business.
Could you provide a little background into how General Nano got started?
Dr. Shanov and Dr. Schulz were (and still are) at University of Cincinnati. They co-manage the Nanoworld Lab. In 2007, as part of a research program, they grew some really long nanotubes that caught the field of science by surprise. The NSF (National Science Foundation) put out a press release on their work, and not far after that, Wright Patterson Air Force Base reached out and were interested in learning more about the technology.
At that point, they didn’t have a plan for the technology, and they were looking for something to help potentially launch a business if it made sense. I happened to know some folks that knew them that connected me. So it was a relationship I had that led to my meeting them.
I called it my 9-to-1 job, 9 p.m. to 1 in the morning, as we vetted the technology to try and understand if we could really make a business of this.
So that is really how it started—in response to a question from the Air Force, which was, “What’s the plan?” That lead us to spinning off a company, and that in and of itself has taken a long time. You need a million dollars worth of money just to have the equipment to manufacture some prototype products.
Can you describe what, exactly, General Nano produces?
The first thing we do is manufacture lightweight, conductive reinforcing materials. We happen to use a carbon nanotube material to make these materials, but the bulk product form we manufacture generally are lightweight, conductive reinforcing materials derived from a patented carbon nanotube technology (CNT) that we license from the University of Cincinnati.
A carbon nanotube is a graphitic structure—very lightweight. It is single layer of graphitic material by the nature of how it grows in a cylinder, and, therefore is a hollow structure.
So basically you have this hollow structure and on the perimeter of the cylinder are the carbon bonds, which are very conductive, very strong.
The problem has been—it’s about a 25-year-old technology—how do you make bulk material forms that people can actually buy and use when you are using materials literally on the nano scale? Because people don’t manufacture things at the nano scale. So what’s put us in business is our ability to take carbon nanotube materials, then convert them to what we call bulk product forms that existing industries and supply chains can procure from us and build applications for.
So your team has had pretty rapid success since beginning in 2008. What has been the critical component behind the ascension? It seems like a big part is figuring out how to manufacture in bulk form.
The growth for us has mostly been related to manufacturing material forms that customers can easily integrate into existing manufacturing systems and those forms having the properties that customers are after.
So it’s not enough just to make a carbon nanotube that you can convert to bulk form, but it has to obviously deliver to the end-user the material properties that they desire. That has been big in accelerating the growth of our company: that combination of bulk form plus the desired properties and then a finished application.
As far as applications are concerned, I know you have worked with organizations like the Air Force and NASA. Has that been the primary area you’ve focused on to this point in your development?
For the first five years, we have primarily been driven by the aerospace and defense industry, which makes a lot of sense because most things in those fields are related to weight and performance. Cost per pound on air vehicles, whether a commercial aircraft or military weapon system, drives a lot of the economics—the overall cost—of those systems.
So they are always looking for lighter weight systems, but also increasing performance. We like to say in our business you can buy your way onto a commercial or weapon system if you can reduce cost and improve performance. It isn’t enough to only do one or the other.
Primarily, our technology the past five years has been used to replace heavy metal systems that they are putting into carbon composites. So if you flew in an airplane, say, 20 years ago, it would have been all metallic or maybe a little composite material, but not much.
Today, depending on which aircraft you’re on, it could be 50 percent carbon fiber composite, but there’s been a problem when they moved from metal to composites in that it lost some of the functionality that the system required—mostly electrical conductivity, for example. And now they’ve thrown metal back into the composite to get the conductivity needed, but that adds weight to the system.
So it kind of defeats the purpose: going from metal to composite and now throwing metal back in.
So it’s about finding the middle ground?
A lot of what we’re involved in is making carbon fiber composites better. So we are not making carbon fiber composites or I should say replacing fiber composites.
There has been a lot of misinformation out there when we have had others who have written about our company. We are not in the business of replacing carbon fiber; we are in the business of making fiber composites better.
The nomenclature can get mixed up a bit. It’s carbon and it’s fiber. What is the difference between a fiber and a nanotube? There is nanofiber, so the nomenclature can certainly get confusing.
Not to take us too far down the rabbit hole, but from what I’ve read, it seems the nanofibers are where a lot of the early research was done, and now it has veered more toward the nanotube as far as the area where more successful engineering has taken place.
Right, and our business is a good example of that. When we first licensed our technology from University of Cincinnati, the product form we were most involved in was taking nanotubes and making them into a yarn or fibrous material.
There were a lot of reasons for that, but it proved very difficult to manufacture, so we made a transition—or what some in the startup community might call a pivot—to sheets and nonwoven products. One, because of ease of manufacturing, and two, the ease of integration as far as the material is concerned.
So the process your team has utilized in developing sheet technology is called chemical vapor deposition. Could you describe how that process works?
Yeah. I kind of describe it as similar to baking a pizza.
Right, so we first start with “dough” which is a very conventional substrate. In our case the “sauce” would be our chemistry, which is where most of our intellectual property is. Then once you have those two, you put it in the oven to bake it.
And you might put other ingredients in there, but the chemical deposition reactor is nothing more than the oven you’re using to bake the “pizza.” Instead of it just being temperature, which is what an oven would be, ours is not only temperature, but also gases or certain chemicals we are injecting into the environment that interact with the “sauce,” which in our case is the catalyst. That reaction causes the nanotubes to literally grow like grass.
So we are effectively planting grass seed if you want to use another analogy, onto a substrate, putting it into an oven, adding the “sunlight” and “water” and other necessary reactants to then cause the grass seed to grow into a bed of grass.
We pull that material out of the oven and now you have vertically aligned nanotubes that happen to be longer than most other people or companies manufacturing nanotubes are making. Because we are able to grow them longer, we are also able to create product forms others have challenges creating.
Mostly sheets, for example, that have good mechanical integrity, so that customers can buy sheet products from us and actually integrate them into things like carbon fiber composites.
Looking down the road a bit, beyond strictly aerospace and defense, do you see there being potential application markets that General Nano’s technology would benefit?
In terms of nanotechnology, there are a lot of different applications that can fit under the term nano. Specifically for us, it is the carbon nano materials. Clearly, aerospace and defense have been our focus in the early stages and at the moment, but we do have other priorities.
For example, we are very interested in energy, particularly in wind energy. A lot of the same problems that the aircraft community has are found in the wind energy community as well.
The big blades that they use need to be lighter, stronger and more conductive. In fact more composite materials will be used in wind energy over the next five years than in aircraft. We see a big transition in that market, so wind energy is important.
Second is oil and gas. Very high value in applications for improving down hole drilling. Some of the technology they use our materials for includes sensing elements. Ways to sense damage and detect damage before it occurs. Which is great for nanotube sheets because it is a conductive material and can act as a sensor that allows you to detect strain or mechanical failure. So if you detect failure before there is a failure, you avoid having a pipe that breaks.
So essentially an extreme preventive measure? Knowing well in advance there is a problem coming down the pipe, so to speak?
That’s right. It is creating intelligent down hole drilling systems.
We are also interested in—this is a more recent focus—the 3D printing community. Just like when printers first started, people eventually wanted better inks, ink with different capabilities, so there is a big incentive in the market to find better materials to print with.
The nanotubes offer lightweight, stronger, conductive printing materials to print parts. There is some work going on in the field today, and that is a position we are interested in.
Next week we are visiting with a large global company that most consumers in the world would know. For them, thermal interface materials are very important.
As things like cloud computing and big data become even more prevalent than they already are, the requirements on systems that manage data are also changing. The ability to manage heat is very important.
A lot of those are areas where we either have active dialogue with supply chain partners or end-users, or they are areas where initial relationships are forming. So they are areas that are important to us as we focus on trying to balance our portfolio of applications.
Aerospace and defense are important, but lead times in those fields can be very long. You know if you fly on airplanes you aren’t really interested in getting on planes that have new technology right? You just want to land safely—that’s what you care about. Landing safely and not paying an exorbitant amount of money for a ticket.
So we recognize there are risks in terms of longevity and lead-time, but there is a big upside once you’re spec’d into aircraft systems because they are not easily replaced.
Basically, we are at a stage as a company where portfolio management of our applications, things that are near term that are offsetting the long-term cycles of aerospace, is really important.
So do you guys work at the Hamilton County Development Center or offsite?
We have three offices here in this building. One for more administrative functions, which is this space we are in. Downstairs we have our first pilot system, and we are also building out a second lab for further production capability. So we have gone from one small space here to three.
And the second lab expansion is the major, recent lab expansion you are in the midst of now?
Yes, right now it is just epoxied floors with power being put in. The equipment isn’t even installed yet, but our transition for the next manufacturing platform will have to be out of HCDC. Our current lab here at HCDC is to further validate some of our next level of maturation. To support a goal of a kg/day manufacturing platform we will, as they say in this building, graduate from HCDC. Which is the whole intent of this organization.
You are from Cincinnati originally. Growing up here, did you aspire to make a career for yourself in Cincinnati and ultimately start a company in the region or is your current situation more a matter or right place, right time and, more important, right opportunity and right preparation?
That is a good question. I certainly never saw myself; my background was not in engineering or materials science. So I certainly hadn’t planned on being in this industry, but I ‘ve been very fortunate to have a really good team around us of talented people so that my role is really what I have been trained in. Which is mostly business development and trying to connect in the marketplace, opportunities with our technology.
Growing up here, my father worked at GE in aircraft systems for 30 years. So I kind of knew about aerospace, but I think he would tell you I wasn’t necessarily too involvedit wasn’t a hobby or anything. But General Nano can have a successful future in this community for many reasons.
One is the aerospace supply chain that exists here. The two largest commercial aerospace companies in the world spend more money in Ohio than anywhere else in the United States.
Also, there is Wright Patterson right up the road and NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. I’ve grown to learn and appreciate the magnitude of the supply chain that exists in and around Cincinnati.
While it wasn’t something I’d necessarily thought about being involved in, probably what gave me the confidence was that my previous role or career was as a strategy consultant for a company here called KMK Consulting. I was fortunate to travel to a lot of great innovation and commercial markets in our country—everywhere from California, Florida, South Carolina—and I learned about how these markets evolved and some of the challenges they had.
What I came to appreciate is the level of leadership and risk-takers I’d met along the way. Not just risk-taking for the sake of risk, but people or home grown companies, which I’ve always had a passion for, and the stories around them.
Think Procter and Gamble in Cincinnati. Certainly it’s very different today than it once was, but you have some companies that don’t have a tremendous amount of allegiance or ties and are just where they are because a customer is there.
The vision at General Nano has always been to represent, to the best of our ability, and build this company here and be a part of the social fabric building toward the future. Knowing the heritage in aerospace, heritage in technology development, being in the Midwest with the engineering horsepower around—there’s a lot of precedent for why we can win here.
When I saw those factors, combined with the proximity to Wright Patterson, it all just fit. Of course, every economic development organization in this city and state has had a role in where we are today.
The state, through Ohio Third Frontier funded our initial equipment; CincyTech funded an Imagining Grant before we even had a business plan; Hamilton County Development Center is where we have been housed the last five years; we’re now doing work with CintriFuse on more marketing and market entry strategies.
So our success hasn’t just been because of the team we’ve assembled, but also, I think, because of the resources this community has put around us. This community has all the infrastructure that is needed to leverage a small business.
I know starting out it was you and Drs. Shanov and Schulz, and you recently expanded by about five people. Are the new members on your team people from around the region and UC, or is the goal right now to bring in the best talent from wherever you find it?
Our team today is seven people, and it is a combination of homegrown talent and recruited/imported talent.
That won’t stop; we’ll continue to have that mix. In fact, one of the biggest moments in terms of my personal experience with this company was when we recruited our first out of state engineer who relocated his family from Texas.
That was two years ago, and it felt to me that we were no longer just an idea. We were actually affecting families, they were betting on the future of this company.
We’ve also had a feeder—two members of our team today were at University of Cincinnati.
Were they part of the Nanoworld Program?
One was, yes. One was a Ph.D. at the Nanoworld Lab. A former employee of ours was also a masters student out of Nanoworld. She did awesome work for us before relocating to Portland.
We will always keep an eye on Nanoworld talent, but there’s a shift in our business where it seems to be less about the high input science and more about the high throughput-manufacturing people.
So we recruited, not long ago, our first executive who has built a career in manufacturing materials for large markets. That’s important because as we transition to a market entry phase, we don’t look at ourselves as a startup anymore. Our customers don’t look at us as a startup anymore.
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Benjamin Plattner is a freelance writer, University of Cincinnati graduate (B.A. in Political Science) and an uber-votary of coffee, food, drink, music, travel and Cincinnati’s newfound momentum (feel free to contact him to discuss any of these things). He lives in Columbia-Tusculum with his luminous wife Ieva and their canine cohorts Violet and Clover.