(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another article in our series spotlighting the start-ups that comprise Cohort 2 of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s “Innovation Crossroads” initiative. The companies are a little beyond the halfway point in the two-year program.)
Justin Nussbaum, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Ascend Manufacturing, told us in this late 2018 teknovation.biz article that his father had a lot of tools that were available to the young son as he grew-up in Clearwater, FL.
“I enjoyed using them and, over time, they slowly became mine,” he says. “I liked to take things apart. If I wanted something, I just built it.”
That curiosity led him to the University of South Florida where, as a volunteer at the school’s Micro-Integration Lab, Nussbaum was exposed to 3D printing. His interest in 3D printing began with the repair of a Fab@Home, one of the first commercially available hobby-level 3D printers. Nussbaum then used the printer to conduct research for his master’s degree and made his first invention disclosure for that work.
Today, Ascend Manufacturing is developing an additive manufacturing system, called Large Area Projection Sintering (LAPS), that offers many advantages over new and traditional technologies.
Here are Nussbaum’s responses to our questions on progress.
- When you were selected for the inaugural cohort of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s “Innovation Crossroads” program, how would you describe the state of your technology and where you were in standing-up a start-up? When I was first selected, Ascend Manufacturing did not exist, and our most advanced system was about the size of a microwave and only capable of 3D printing components that were about an inch long and a quarter of an inch thick.
- Now, a little more than halfway through the two-year experience, how would you answer the question? Since acceptance into the program, Ascend Manufacturing has been incorporated and went on to raise $25,000 from my alma mater’s technology transfer office to fund our first industrial 3D printing pilot system. This system is approximately the size of two refrigerators bac- to-back and capable of printing parts up to 6″x4.5″x6″ in size. In addition, this system will be capable of continuous printing, making it possible to print over 10,000 parts per day. The system is nearly complete and should be functional by the end of the month.
- What have been the biggest changes and how has the “Innovation Crossroads” program helped with the progress that you’ve made? “Innovation Crossroads” has been instrumental in business development activities. “Innovation Crossroads” has helped refine the business plan and prioritize opportunities. For example, since Ascend Manufacturing will be producing manufacturing equipment, you would think the manufacturers would be our primary customer. However, we decided to use third party distributors to sell our systems to these manufacturers which will minimize the size of the staff required by Ascend Manufacturing to support sales, technical support and maintenance. Additionally, these distributors already have an existing clientele network with potential customers and an existing logistics and supply chain network. While my focus has been on the requirements of these manufacturers, I’m beginning to build a network of distributors for when we get to market.
- What more do you expect/hope to accomplish before your two-year Fellowship ends in May 2020? Before Cohort 2 ends in May 2020, I plan to have a fully functional industrial 3D printing system. The goal is to upgrade our existing system from hobby-based microcontrollers and laboratory-based software to a system which operates on industrial hardware and software. Additionally, through research and development at the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, our technology will be optimized to provide the maximum performance.
- Will you be ready to take the technology to market or will you continue to have to further advance it? At the end of this program, the goal is to be about two years from releasing our final production model. However, we expect to have sold a handful of our beta systems for early revenue and feedback.
- How have you found the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region in terms of its support for tech-focused entrepreneurs? Knoxville-Oak Ridge has been extremely helpful for business development. So much so, that my wife and I decided to buy a home here and plan to stay in the area after my Fellowship with Innovation Crossroads ends. From the gracious accounting assistance provided by PYA to the business Law Clinic at UT and Launch Tennessee, Ascend couldn’t be in a better location. The UT Law Clinic has provided free legal assistance by drafting agreements and documents which otherwise would have cost thousands of dollars. Launch Tennessee provides grant match funds and grant writing assistance which we hope to take advantage of soon. Additionally, we have become a member of the (Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council’s) Energy Mentor Network which provides business development refinements through a high caliber team of mentors.