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December 11, 2023 | Tom Ballard

Recent UT, Knoxville Ph.D. graduate is part of the newest cohort on “Innovation Crossroads”

ThermaMatrix is developing new materials in an R&D environment and for those who require an inline inspection technique.

Ryan Spencer has spent more than a decade focused on nondestructive testing for composites and additive manufacturing.

Now, after graduating just a few months ago from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) with his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, he’s taking a start-up he founded through the “Innovation Crossroads” program operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

The company, one of seven participants in Cohort 2023 of the two-year accelerator, is named ThermaMatrix. It grew out of the research Spencer was doing as part of his dissertation.

Ryan Spencer

“I had earned my master’s degree and was thinking about pursuing a doctorate,” Spencer said. Both his B.S. and M.S. degrees are in Mechanical Engineering from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

As he was contemplating what came next, an ORNL scientist introduced Spencer to Uday Vaidya, the UT/ORNL Governor’s Chair in Advanced Composites Manufacturing. “I learned that he truly cultivates a great environment, and I fell in love with Knoxville,” Spencer said. It also no doubt helped that Vaidya also had inspired several other doctoral students like Hicham Ghossein (Endeavor Composites) and Alex Stiles (Vitriform3D) to also pursue their entrepreneurial passions.

So, what is the focus of ThermaMatrix? It is built around a novel optical technique that has been developed to characterize a wide range of materials.

“It is an inspection tool to support quality control for manufacturers,” Spencer explains. “By simply heating a localized area of a material and monitoring the corresponding thermal expansion with microscale resolution, we are able to measure intrinsic material properties and perform defect detection.”

He describes the primary customers for ThermaMatrix’s product as those developing new materials in an R&D environment and for those who require an inline inspection technique. That would include companies and researchers in the aerospace, composites, and semiconductor sectors.

“Our approach is about one-twentieth of the cost of Xray technology,” Spencer adds.

During the two years that he will be part of “Innovation Crossroads,” he says that there are still some fundamentals related to the technology that need to be explored, and he’s anxious to tap into expertise at ORNL.

“We want to get a streamlined system,” Spencer adds, noting that a key goal would be a Gen 2 prototype before the two years end. After “Innovation Crossroads,” he’ll focus of a next generation model that will hopefully be ready for commercial use.

During his six years in Knoxville, Spencer, who grew-up in a small community outside Chicago, says he has become really appreciate of the ecosystem that includes UTK, ORNL and the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation as well as the local entrepreneurs themselves.

As he prepared for the launch of ThermaMatrix, he also participated in the spring edition of UTK’s “I-Corps Mid-South Hub” multi-session event focused on the all-important customer discovery process.

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