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November 15, 2021 | Tom Ballard

IC COHORT 3 UPDATE: Trevor McQueen discusses how Neptune Fluid Flow Systems traversed COVID-19 challenges

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series on Cohort 3 of “Innovation Crossroads.” Earlier this year, the cohort graduated from the program. Each article will focus on what’s next for the innovators and their companies.) 

By Kailyn Lamb, Marketing Content Writer and Editor, PYA

Like many of his colleagues in “Innovation Crossroads,” Trevor McQueen was worried about the effects COVID-19 would have on his company. With Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) shut down to all but essential personnel, many of the innovators were out of luck when it came to lab space and experimenting with their tech. But McQueen, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Neptune Fluid Flow Systems, decided to look on the bright side of things.

“I learned this when I first started my business: What you think you are going to do, is not what you are going to do,” he joked.

Read more about McQueen’s start at “Innovation Crossroads” in this article.

Although the shutdown made it difficult to make use of the technical advantages of “Innovation Crossroads,” McQueen said the program quickly changed gears to help innovators progress on the business side. “We went through all of what it really means to be a businessman rather than a technical scientist, which is actually a really good thing,” he said.

The program also tried to be flexible for innovators, opening funds that were typically used for travel to virtual conferences. McQueen also said that “Innovation Crossroads” talks shifted to be more business oriented, including tax workshops, talks on hiring, and more. One thing of value that McQueen took from the program was learning how to price his product.

“Which is a non-trivial process when you are the only person in the world who makes what you make,” he said. “You have to set the standard rate.”

Due to the pandemic, “Innovation Crossroads” and DOE leadership have given Cohort 3 no-cost extensions on some of the program’s funding, including travel and research funds.

Despite setbacks from the pandemic, Neptune was able to make strong progress in the last year. The company was awarded two patents and earned revenue through product sales. (Read more in this article.)

In the long-term, McQueen said he is also eventually hoping to hire people. Although the innovators in Cohort 3 received an extension of their funding, the Department of Energy still has a hiring freeze in place.

Neptune works in thin-film cryogenic sample preparation. McQueen’s company helps freeze biological samples so that they can be better seen under an electron microscope. This particular type of lab space already had safety restrictions where more than one person needed to be in the lab at a time. But when ORNL opened with social distancing rules in place, only one person was allowed in the lab. It was a catch-22 for McQueen.

When the Spark Innovation Center opened at the University of Tennessee Research Park at Cherokee Farm, McQueen saw it as his chance to get back in the lab. Before then, he had managed to do some design work from home. He called Spark his “saving grace.” He was able to start lab work again by October 2020.

“Without that, I would still not be in lab, as I mentioned our lab at ORNL is stuck in this impossible situation,” he said.

The lab space at Spark allowed McQueen to get preliminary data that he could use in proposals for projects and funding.

With restrictions starting to ease, McQueen hopes that the local business community can link back up with start-up communities in Nashville and outside of Tennessee. McQueen said his business has a “niche market” in the area, but he hopes outside communities can work together to provide resources to entrepreneurs.

“I’m not talking about McDonald’s or something like that, I’m talking about actual hard tech and the life sciences,” he said. “Focusing on the small companies and how to help is far more important than all the big ones.”

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