Materials in general and ceramics in particular have been passions of Dick Nixdorf and an integral part of his professional life since his days as an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University.
His career has been anything but linear, but ceramics work has never been too far removed from his daily life since he joined the Y-12 National Security Complex (Y-12) in 1969. In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, Nixdorf described a four-decade plus career that included two “tours of duty” at Y-12 as well as key management roles in several companies founded by Sam Weaver.
Today, the President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of (ICS), LLC, is leading a company that develops commercial applications for its patented ceramic fiber filter. From two offices in the Oak Ridge Entrepreneurial Center on the Tech 20/20 campus, Nixdorf and his team design and manufacture filter cartridges that he says “have been found to achieve greater than 95 percent particle filtration efficiency for diesel exhaust, restaurant grease emissions, biomass power generation syngas, and other industrial pollution.”
When Nixdorf started at Y-12 more than 40 years ago, he was one of a half-dozen new engineers recruited to train as replacements for engineers who were expected to retire soon. He was quickly assigned to help develop processing for a new stainless uranium alloy. The fact that he “had a bachelor’s degree, but was doing work beyond the PhD level” seemed to be a defining moment in his young professional career.
At Y-12 Nixdorf was fortunate to work with “state-of-the-art analytical equipment,” something that was not available in college. “The experience taught me how to use tools to understand how materials work at the atomic level,” he said. The expertise that Nixdorf developed during his Y-12 years, including having to deal with top executives, would come in handy later.
By the early 1970s, Nixdorf said the “entrepreneurial bug bit me,” and he joined a company called Computer Design Corporation that had just developed the first preprogramed “chip” desktop computer. “It did long calculations for people instantly,” he explained. “All you had to do was punch in your numbers and get the answer.”
Nixdorf had risen to Regional Sales Manager when the company was sold, and he became unemployed. The experience shocked him, but he landed on his feet at U. S. Nuclear, the first of several Sam Weaver companies. The latter had bought the company in 1974 and moved it to Oak Ridge. “The place needed engineering organization,” Nixdorf recalls, “but I like to straighten out difficult manufacturing issues.”
When Weaver sold the company to Texas Instruments four years later, Nixdorf returned to Y-12 to run the electroplating division. He lasted two years until Weaver called again, this time to serve as Manager of Engineering for a start-up called Nuclear Ceramics. The company manufactured neutron absorber pellets that are still being made today.
Weaver sold the company in 1981 to Eagle Pitcher Industries, and Nixdorf stayed a few years until Weaver again called. This time Nixdorf was asked to help lead research and development activities at American Matrix, a start-up focused on developing a process for making silicon carbide whiskers for the automotive industry. He said everything was going well for American Matrix until a late 1980s concern about asbestos and the similarity of whiskers to asbestos. “It collapsed the company,” he said.
Nixdorf assumed control of the American Matrix R & D facilities and renamed the company ReMaxCo Technologies, Inc. The new company developed and patented a silicon carbide fiber filter and expected to be able to use this knowledge to produce a diesel particulate filter that would allow the trucking industry to meet new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emission standards that were to be effective in 1998.
When EPA extended the original deadline for another decade, Nixdorf put the technology on hold and made his next career move, joining Charles A. Lee’s new start-up, CerWat Corporation, as President and CEO. CerWat was based on patents from the paper industry and a vision for using ceramics to clean water. Nixdorf wrote the business plan and, with the help of Otto Wheeley, secured $2.5 million in funding one month before Lee was killed in a traffic accident. Nixdorf remained for three years before departing and founding ICS in 1997.
“We were really successful in getting people interested in our ceramic fiber filter,” Nixdorf said, citing General Motors and Ford as two examples. He said the executives with whom he dealt recognized the many advantages of his technology, but would quickly add, “We can’t give you an order for three million filters because of the size of ICS.”
To be successful with the automotive industry, Nixdorf realized he needed to find a large, established “Tier 1 automotive supplier who was not afraid of ceramics.” This led him to Honeywell International. With the looming EPA deadline and the projected growth of the technology, Honeywell saw a “natural alliance” with its long-term business interests and inked an exclusive worldwide licensing agreement for use of the ceramic filter for diesel applications.
“I was ready to buy my yacht and go to the Bahamas,” Nixdorf not so jokingly said. In early 2008, he said that Honeywell saw the economic recession on the horizon, cancelled plans to construct a $50 million plant to produce the product, and terminated its license with ICS.
Nixdorf said that ICS “withdrew from the diesel market” and did not try to license the technology for other diesel emissions applications because the recession had placed the whole diesel industry “in the ditch”. “When they (Honeywell) pulled-out, we (fortunately) weren’t dead because we had continued to invest in other environmental (applications),” he said.
Nixdorf did admit that “we were in pretty bad shape financially” after the Honeywell termination, but he also proudly said that ICS did not layoff anyone.
ICS pursued angel and venture money with a passion for two years before he made a connection with two investors at an unlikely venue – a Christian broadcasting event in Nashville. Those two investment firm principals were Joe Cook Jr. and Joe Cook III of the Limestone Fund in Nashville. It is one of the TNInvestcos established in 2009.
Limestone was joined by XMi, another TNInvestco, to make a significant investment in ICS which “allowed us to complete all non-diesel R & D projects and put them in the field for testing,” Nixdorf said. One application helps deal with grease emissions for restaurants in California, a state with stringent new regulations. Another filter application cleans-up syngas generated from biomass power generation facilities.
ICS has retained the intellectual property that Honeywell licensed and terminated. Nixdorf admits that it will be “tough to get back into transportation,” but ICS is exploring opportunities to help with emissions issues in areas such as diesel generators and diesel locomotives.
While his four decade journey has been far from linear, Nixdorf is upbeat about the future for his company and the region. “The biggest sales point for bringing industry to the region is ORNL,” he says, noting that ICS was the first commercial user of the lab’s High Temperature Materials Lab. “The glass is completely full in this region,” he says.