By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Steve Getley had worked in 20 countries before he agreed to at least take a quick look at the Knoxville area for a position that Dyson Group PLC, a United Kingdom-based corporation, wanted him to accept.
The year was 2002, and the native of Great Britain had his own business where one of his consulting clients was Dyson. In a recent teknovation.biz interview, Getley said that he was advising the company on a technology called cerafome, a ceramic foam aimed at the fuel cell industry.
“As a courtesy, I came to have a look,” he said with his distinctive British accent.
Getley recalls that it was spring time. After getting a rental car, he headed for the company’s West Knoxville location, passing over the Tennessee River bridge on Pellissippi Parkway.
“I looked at the view and said, I’m coming here,” Getley recalls. He followed that decision with a quick call to his wife, in essence saying get ready to move with their then two young children – a nine-year old daughter and seven-year old son.
“I’m still here,” Getley says with a laugh.
Along the way, he has transformed from employee of a company, originally founded by legendary local entrepreneur Sam Weaver as Millennium Materials, into the President, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Co-Owner of MillenniTek, Inc. His partner is Oak Ridge-based MSTI.
“Our main product is neutron absorbers for nuclear reactors,” Getley says. “It’s a very niche business with a very select group of customers.”
Yet, simply saying MillenniTek is a manufacturing business would be a significant understatement. Not only is the company an advanced materials manufacturer; it is also a developer, supplier and designer of those materials and technical ceramics.
“Over the last three years, we have developed a number of new technologies and products,” Getley says of his conscious strategy to diversify.
One of his latest interests is 3D printing or additive manufacturing, specifically taking a powder and making ceramics.
“It (3D printing) is still limited as far as the market,” Getley says, noting the technology is best geared to R&D and prototyping. “It’s still quite a way off from becoming a production tool, but it’s really useful for specialty jobs.”
He adds that “additive is all about resolution,” referencing the depth of the layers that are added during the process. As printers are developed to make them much thinner, the expensive polishing process to remove rough surfaces is reduced considerably.
Getley comes by his interest in ceramics naturally. He was born in Stoke-on-Trent, a region described as the ceramics center of the United Kingdom.
“We’re a ceramics company, but I don’t just employ ceramics engineers,” the CEO says in describing his management philosophy. Others on his team include those with an aerospace background and a Six Sigma manufacturing certification.
“You want people from as many different backgrounds focusing on one topic,” Getley believes.
One of the company’s newest endeavors is a patented process for ceramics injection molding that uses non-volatile binders. Describing processes that use volatile binders as “nasty and undesirable,” Getley says MillenniTek’s is environmentally friendly.
“It is an innovative solution for cores that are used in the foundry industry,” he explains.
Getley has a myriad of interests. In addition to being a ceramic engineer, he also restores old cars, plays the guitar, writes songs, and develops electronic control systems.
He is most proud of MillenniTek’s quality record in producing neutron absorbers that currently stands at 98 percent yield.
As an entrepreneur and inventor, Getley also has advice for others in the region.
“Failure is not necessarily a bad thing,” he says, adding a famous English phrase, “Keep calm and carry on.”
That’s exactly what he is doing 12 years after arriving.
“I can’t think of a better place than Knoxville to be,” Getley says. “It is a hidden jewel.”