(EDITOR’S NOTE: Participants in Cohort 2 of the “Innovation Crossroads” program operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have completed their two-year Fellowship that was extended a few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What did they expect? How was the experience? What’s next? This is one in a series of articles that provides those answers. Today’s spotlight is on Justin Nussbaum, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Ascend Manufacturing. His lightly edited responses follow.)
- When you arrived nearly two years ago, how would you characterize the expectations that you had as far as the work that needed to be done during your Fellowship? At the beginning of this program, I was expecting that “Innovation Crossroads” would help springboard us into the marketplace through technology advancement. It has done this, as so much more. As the saying goes, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” That proved to be true in this case as well. I didn’t realize all the details that needed to be solved in order to transition from the lab to the industry. This involved not only technology development but significant business modelling as well. This included developing marketing plans, sales projections, creating supply chains, estimating employee’s and their costs, technology development plans, milestones, etc. etc. etc. The mentors at “Innovation Crossroads” and technology experts at ORNL have been invaluable in assisting Ascend Manufacturing in transitioning into developing these plans, speaking with investors and transitioning into the marketplace.
- How “true” have you been to that path? Have you pivoted and, if so, how? Initially, the plan was to design and fabricate our additive manufacturing platforms and sell them to interested parties. However, the required capital and time required for this would be immense. After conducting the research on what this would require, I realized it would be significantly cheaper, quicker and easier to develop the systems for in-house use and use them to sell components we manufacture. This way, we would act as a contract manufacturer who is able to offer unique capabilities that no other company in manufacturing can offer. We will have a steady source of revenue and can use that to develop our systems for sale later down the line.
- Now, as you prepare to move forward, how would you describe the progress that you have made and the position in which you find yourself and your start-up for the future? Significant progress has been made both with our business development and our technology. We have now signed-on multiple strategic partners as material suppliers, manufacturers, future customers and beta level partners. In addition, we have a pilot level 3D printer that is currently producing components for material testing and application specific testing. This system will aid us in determining performance parameters to feed into our revenue model and has already been used to produce and mail demo components to interested parties. We are now on the cusp of an investment, which will bring us to the marketplace in less than a year.
- What are the next few milestones? Our next current milestone will be to wrap-up our investment, hire a team and lease warehouse space to begin scale-up operations. Other future milestones include the design and production of our commercial 3D printing system that will become the workhorse of our contract manufacturing business.
- Will you remain in the region or move elsewhere? Due to our involvement with “Innovation Crossroads,” we were able to receive multiple grants and funding opportunities. Some of them include an ongoing relationship with ORNL. Due to the vast talent in this area from UT and ORNL, as well as a large number of manufacturing companies in the area, Ascend Manufacturing will be staying in the area for the foreseeable future.
- As Cohort 4 arrives at ORNL, what advice would you offer them as to gaining the most advantage they can during their two years with “Innovation Crossroads” and the team? Ask questions. There is an extreme amount of experience and talent encompassed by the “Innovation Crossroads” team, your mentors, co-workers, etc. When starting a business, there’s going to be lots of unknowns. These members are on your side and willing to help; however, they can and will often go out of their way to do so. The only way to access this knowledge and transfer it to your business is to ask questions. This community is extremely helpful and can assist in just about every aspect of building a business.