9 Q&A: 9 questions for the CEO of high-tech startup General Nano

CINCINNATI - General Nano, LLC  manufactures lightweight, conductive materials used by the aerospace industry. the company recently garnered a $2.25 million grant from the U.S. Air Force to further develop its patented carbon nanotube technology. 

9 Questions for General Nano’s president and CEO, Joe Sprengard.

1. How did the company get its start?
Our company started actually at the request of the United States Air Force. About seven years ago, the University of Cincinnati was manufacturing some long carbon nanotubes which caught the science community by surprise and prompted some interest by the Air Force. The Air Force encouraged spinning out the company to manufacture this material and that started about four years ago, so for the last four years we’ve had a pilot operation at the Hamilton County Business Center. We were initially manufacturing nanotubes and converting them into a fiber material. Today we sort of shifted gears and are now essentially manufacturing carbon fiber composite made from nanotubes.

2. Why is this type of technology in demand?
The application that’s really driving our business is composite fiber. For example, the plane people flew on 20 years ago was made 100 percent out of metal. Now, depending on what kind of plane you’re on it could be up to 50 percent carbon fiber. The 787 that Boeing manufactures is 50 percent carbon fiber and when they moved from metal to carbon fiber composite, they lost some of the functionality like electrical and connectivity properties. So they added metal back into the carbon fiber composite, which is what they were trying to change in the first place.

So a lot of what is driving our technology is making carbon fiber composite better, making them lighter, stronger, making them more functional, without increasing weight which is what they do by adding metals.

3. What made you recognize the need in the industry?
I think we specifically go back to a trade show called Nano Technology for Defense, where companies like ours are invited by the defense department to talk about our technology. In those sessions, you hear a lot about the needs of the defense department. And so much of this was really understanding their needs and figuring out if our material would help address those. So we like to say we’ve done a pretty good job listening to the market and then building products that address the things that they’ve identified as mission-critical technologies.

4. What challenges have you faced as a start up?
First our company started with $100,000 grant from the department of defense and it takes at least a million dollars in capital equipment to make the material. So there’s a perfect example of a practical challenge that we really needed to find good partners like the University of Cincinnati that had existing infrastructure that we could utilize. So one of the early challenges was trying to demonstrate proof of concept when you don’t have infrastructure to do that work, but you needed that proof of concept to justify the amount of money. 

5. Who’s your competition?
There is other technology out there other than nano materials, so any product that’s a lightweight conductive material would be a competitor. But as far as strictly nano materials, carbon fiber-based materials in sheet type form, we’re one of fewer than five companies in the U.S. that have done this and have this capability.

6. Do you see potential for commercial use?
Aerospace and defense is a very early adopter of new technology because the materials are mission critical, but the price of the materials aren’t quite commercial price points. So aerospace is important to us early on. But we’re just now in the process of diversifying our application portfolio.

7. What are other applications for this type of material?
We’re looking at things like structural health monitoring – so putting these materials where they want to measure the integrity of things like sporting goods. We’re also looking at energy, oil and gas – automotive is a stretch at the moment, but BMW just recently started using carbon fiber to manufacture their first carbon-fiber based car that they’re going to be launching in the future.

8. It seems you’ve had a fortuitous beginning. How difficult was it for a start up to land a military contract?
It’s not easy to launch a materials company and secure a contract, but we were certainly fortunate, but it’s also been a lot of hard work to get to this stage. So we think we put proper focus and execution to get this, it wasn’t by accident. 

9. What’s next for General Nano?
Our very next milestone is really demonstrating the next level of scale of our technology, what will happen next year in 2015. We’re raising the money now to do that and we’re selecting the equipment manufacturers now. That’s all happening and it takes about a year to get that next facility up and going. 

We’ve got other things that involve the advanced demonstration of our technology in various aerospace and military applications, where you actually have the material flight tested – so that’s for us is the second big thing.