U of M startup thrives in a tough economy

Nanotechnology company Rushford Hypersonic expands, wins major grant

 In a small town in southeastern Minnesota, Daniel Fox and his team are in the business of making objects that last forever, and—despite economic challenges—business is good.

Rushford Hypersonic, a University of Minnesota startup, specializes in nanoparticle films. These miracle coatings can make tools, medical implants, and automotive parts harder and stronger.

Since its launch in 2008, the company has expanded its facility to accommodate a growing workforce, applied an innovative technology to meet an industry need, and won a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. Rushford Hypersonic was named one of Minnesota's top 10 high-tech startups in the 2010 Minnesota Cup competition.

It's a remarkable record after a tough start. Rushford Hypersonic launched amid a challenging climate and has experienced the raw economy—lack of investment capital, non-availability of credit, and wavering support from public officials who are under pressure to create jobs.

If those circumstances weren't daunting enough, the startup launched only seven months after a flood swallowed several cities in southeastern Minnesota. In Rushford, the company's headquarters, the entire downtown business district was destroyed, and nearly two-thirds of the town suffered damage.

"We have faced extreme economic challenges as well as major political issues," says Fox, CEO of Rushford Hypersonic. He worked with the city administration on a funding proposal for a new facility, but then the administration changed.

Despite the hurdles, the company has established a diverse customer base and provides an indispensable product. Licensed from the University's mechanical engineering department, hypersonic plasma particle deposition (HPPD) coatings protect objects by improving hardness, wear resistance, and corrosion resistance. The coating is the hardest on the market.

Rushford Hypersonic is applying the coating technology to cutting tools and high-wear items used in the automotive and aviation fields. Companies that use the coatings will see reduced costs for cutting fluids and lubricants needed in the current machine tool industry.

"Our HPPD coatings have been proven on cutting tools and have exhibited results over and over again to last as long or longer than top-end carbide tools with TiAlN [titanium aluminum nitride] coatings," says Fox. "This is very green technology for the end user."

 

The SBIR grant was awarded to Rushford Hypersonic in partnership with mechanical engineering professor Steven Girshick. The team will evaluate the HPPD coatings as applied in medical devices such as prosthetic implants. They hope it will result in implants that will last a lifetime, eliminating the pain of replacement surgeries.

The company would not have been possible without the University of Minnesota, according to Fox. He says the ability to license innovative inventions is crucial for the survival of small businesses, which often cannot afford the R&D resources necessary to invent novel technologies. Under the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, inventions that result from federally funded research can be patented and licensed by universities or other nonprofits. Those organizations then execute license agreements with private industry to bring the technology to market.

"It can take a team of researchers many years, spreading across many disciplines," says Fox. "That was the case of the HPPD technology we acquired from the University. Technology commercialization will become even more important, due to shrinking of small-business working capital and access to credit."

Rushford Hypersonic aims to stay as strong as its product.

"Rushford Hypersonic is a great example of the University collaborating with industry and having a significant impact," says Jay Schrankler, executive director of the University's Office for Technology Commercialization. "The company is creating jobs and will make a profound impact in the medical field."