Lab Work

Lab Work Jason Kaplan

A conversation with Sam Angelos about advancing advanced manufacturing at Oregon State University.


OSU's Microproducts Breakthrough Institute morphed in 2015 into ATAMI, the Advanced Technology and Manufacturing Institute, and has been led for nearly a year now by Hewlett-Packard alum Sam Angelos. The Oregon-born Angelos, who before he retired was site manager at H-P’s Corvallis campus, has a Ph.D. in chemical physics from the University of Southern California and specific expertise in integrated circuits, microelectromechanical systems, and nanotechnology.

Angelos intends to kickstart advanced manufacturing and nano materials research advances at the ATAMI lab by making facility upgrades to transform it into a center of research excellence for a new era of academic/business/state collaboration. Even in our fast-moving tech environment, though, Angelos says there’s no shortcut to commercializing next-generation ideas and innovations. Instead it takes extreme focus and dedication, in addition to what he calls “peasant toughness.”

OB: Why ATAMI instead of MBI?

Angelos: MBI was started in 2003 when H-P donated the use of this building [Building 11 on the Corvallis campus] for research in micro and nano technologies. The beauty of having this building for collaborative research is that it is viewed as neutral because it is not on the OSU campus. Back then, I helped catalyze the formation of the MBI in my job at H-P and as a board member with ONAMI (Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute). The state legislature put in $8.5 million to develop labs and research space from the 2006-07 biennium. Now we are funded through OSU, with some general fund dollars coming through rents and user fees — for example, by the college of engineering paying for lab floor space for professors.

Then, one and a half years ago Ron Adams sat down and talked to me about what was going on over here — things were floundering a bit and Ron wanted to see a new direction. The name was changed to be more reflective of efforts related to advanced technology and manufacturing.

OB: So many acronyms! How is ATAMI separate from ONAMI?

Angelos: You have an involved process in moving from an idea to a product. [Angelos draws a sideways funnel.] What happens is you go from Big R research [at the funnel’s large end] moving to little R research, then big D, that’s development, then this thing called commercialization, which is actually a big valley with first productization and marketing and then on to shipping, to the customer getting the product or service. Where ONAMI plays is right here [Angelos points to the part of the funnel after product development begins.] ONAMI is trying to work with companies to fund them, to provide the gap funding so that they can get a market foothold.

This entire process takes long time to incubate, it takes 7-15 years to make an idea and invention real, and what we’re trying to do is figure out here at ATAMI how to catalyze the process in this lab building, and catalyze the interactions between OSU researchers and professors and private industry, as they are doing advanced research and trying to come up with development of products.

OB: What’s your vision for ATAMI’s near future?

Angelos: Our overall mission is to drive economic development in Oregon, by making inventions real, by creating two to three pillars of excellence within advanced manufacturing — likely in advanced material development, additive manufacturing, and advanced manufacturing processes.

Our longterm objective is to be one of the premier research institutes for OSU.

And, in the shorter term, what we want to do is build more lab space and places for researchers to sit so we can bring in more professors and more startups and more companies, and also work closely with Brian Wall and the OSU Accelerator.  The ATAMI building is 80,000 square feet but only 50,ooo square feet are actually currently outfitted. I want to upgrade the last 30,000 square feet.

In doing this, I’m working for the people that I call the rainmakers — Cynthia Sagers, the vice president of OSU’s R&D; Scott Ashford, Dean of the College of Engineering; Sastry Pantula, Dean of the College of Science. They are the ones with the big ideas, the ones coming together to look at this in a broad, holistic way.

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OB: What’s an example of a success story — an idea that became a company that has moved through the commercialization funnel you described?

Angelos: HD+, a company that was started in Oregon that develops portable kidney dialysis devices. Basically this is made up of three laminate materials — it’s almost the size of your cell phone — and is a way to do dialysis that can be put in a belly pack or a wearable container so you don’t have to go to a dialysis center and sit down for a few hours while they filter you blood and it goes through a big system. It’s also an example of where ATAMI has focused — process intensification, which is being able to take materials and processes and shrink them down to make them more efficient and effective.

Anyway it was great technology, there was a fantastic effort done here by researchers, a business was created called HD+ which eventually became Outset, gap funding dollars came from ONAMI, it took several years for the research to come to fruition, then they went out and started for series’ rounds and investors … which takes me to my biggest pet peeve.

OB: Which is?

Angelos: They who have the gold get to make the rules.

[In HD+’s case] a couple of California investors put in a lot of money, and they said, ‘We want you guys here.’ So what happened was, they left, they had to leave. This was a fantastic opportunity for Oregon, jobs were created, frankly at first just a minimal number of jobs. And then when they moved to California they started to grow and that’s where you get your 100-150 jobs. This kind of situation is a challenge, because you do have to realize that companies can be anywhere they want to be, and while we’d love to have more investment dollars in Oregon, but well, we’re a small state and we’re a poor state compared to other states.

OB: How could we improve the ATAMI/ONAMI process in order to keep the companies here?

Angelos: That is a challenge, but it’s not really about the ATAMI and ONAMI process but rather how to make this state more attractive to investors to keep the inventions here and keep the bright intelligent people here. That’s not something the university or ONAMI can necessarily do — it has to come from the leadership of the state. Industry and business people and government legislation make that happen.

OB: OK, back to success stories.

Angelos: Lots of stories have already been successful here. Since 2008 there has been $28 million in research and development expenditures, 10 start up or spin out companies, and eight licensing agreements. Valliscor [chemical manufacturing] is a really interesting story, SHOEI chemicals [maker of electronic conductive pastes and powders] is successful.

OB: And how does ATAMI catalyze more of those in future?

Angelos: ATAMI is at a point where its capabilities and capacity are exceeded by demand.

So ATAMI is building out the lab infrastructure that will catalyze innovation and commercialization – that’s what I’m trying to do and my team is trying to do, by improving and growing the facility, the labs, by building the actual lab walls and the other things that researchers need – the compressed air and nitrogen, the exhaust fans and hoods, the vacuums for particles.

By improving and growing the facility we are already starting to attract some of the really bright and brilliant people. Here’s an example: for advanced manufacturing you need to have new materials, new composite materials, nanomaterials, new ways to develop smart surfaces. About 2.5 months ago, there was this young professor from MIME materials, industrial and mechanical engineering I sat down with, and her name is Julie Tucker. She is doing some really interesting work testing metal alloys. But she needed furnaces and more power than the university can provide. She’s here now – that’s the kind of people we want be here, to be attracted to this space.

OB: And how will you pay to build out that last 30,000 square feet of labs?

Angelos: It will not be funding from the state – it will probably be a loan [through OSU] and with some donations from OSU alumni.

OB: Are there other labs comparable to ATAMI? And is there more you need to do to become a ‘center of excellence’?

Angelos: Sure – Oakridge National Labs is doing some pretty interesting work. And really every large university, like the University of California system and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are trying to develop these environments and create a center of excellence.

Will we get there? I ask myself that question every day. But I wouldn’t bet against us, and I’m dead serious, because we know how to do it. To be successful you have to have four things: commitment; you have to have brutal focus; peasant toughness is the third thing, and a strong finish. For every hundred people that start something, only two finish. The people who learn how to finish are successful.

What is peasant toughness? You are on a sled with everything you own in the world on it; your family and your seed corn and your belongings  — you are being chased by a pack of hungry wolves and they are going to catch up before you get to the safety of the village. What do you throw off to go faster? Making those decisions day after day cultivates peasant toughness.

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Addendum

In March, the Oregon legislature approved $7.5 million toward the creation of another manufacturing research facility: the Oregon Manufacturing Innovation Center (OMIC), an R&D and training center in Columbia County. Modeled on the Advanced Manufacturing and Research Center in Sheffield, UK, OMIC will focus on training the next generation manufacturing workforce. Oregon State University is working with the OMIC team. although the precise interaction between ATAMI and OMIC has yet to be determined, Angelos says.  

A version of this article appears in the September issue of Oregon Business. 

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