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October 01, 2014 | Tom Ballard

Rick Spears still driven by his entrepreneurial inquisitiveness

TruDesignBy Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

When we first met local businessman Rick Spears nearly three years ago, it seemed that our favorite discussion topics were carbon fiber and the work of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in that technology.

We described him in an April 2012 article as “an entrepreneur’s entrepreneur – pursuing ideas and technologies with a combination of passion, knowledge and business savvy.”

Nothing has changed over the ensuing years as evidenced by our recent conversation where we covered everything from molds made out of carbon fiber to knee braces designed to aid cerebral palsy patients and fuel made from recycled Styrofoam.

“There are a lot of exciting things happening,” Spears told us as he provided updates on three of his companies – TruDesign, Malibu Collision, and StyroPower. Each reflects its founder’s inquisitiveness and drive as well as insights Spears has gained in taking new technologies to market.

He describes the best approach for vetting and refining his ideas as a three-step process.

“You make one prototype for whatever price it takes,” Spears says. “Next, you make it more economical. Third, you make it so it can be manufactured more easily.”

Over the past several years, the entrepreneur has become more familiar with the capabilities of ORNL and the ways even owners of small businesses can work with its world-leading researchers.

“TruDesign has a CRADA (Cooperative Research and Development Agreement) with the lab to use 3D printing to make molds out of carbon fiber,” Spears proudly noted. The project was launched in May to assess the feasibility of using a material other than metal or aluminum to drive down cost and reduce the six- to eight-month lead-time to secure a new mold.

“There’s a lot of materials science involved so we brought aboard Robert Springfield, a Ph.D. who is one of the leading authorities in composites,” Spears says. The team is printing molds and collecting data.

He hopes the initial CRADA leads to further collaboration with ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) where the initial work is being done. MDF is an acknowledged world research center in 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing. One of its CRADAs involves Local Motors and the printing of car to be unveiled at the International Manufacturing Technology Show, set for September 8-13.

Spears has been involved for years in the automotive sector – repairing vehicles as well as customizing and restoring them. As such, it is only natural that Ford Motor Company’s decision to build the next generation F-150 truck with aluminum attracted his attention.

“It’s normal for the automotive industry to throw it against the wall and see what sticks,” Spears says in reference to the increasing use of materials like carbon fiber and aluminum. After all, achieving the 2025 CAFÉ standards (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) will require greater use of lighter weight materials.

Spears sees a strategic opportunity for both TruDesign and Malibu Collision in this dynamically changing landscape. He calls it a lifecycle approach – providing the raw material, repairing the vehicles, and recycling the car at the end of its useful life. There are significant challenges that repair shops like Malibu must overcome in terms of both carbon fiber and aluminum.

Speaking of recycling, Spears is into it in a big way with StyroPower, his start-up focused on recycling and reusing Styrofoam. The company is addressing a growing concern about disposal of the material. John Miller was brought onboard as President. He has executive experience with start-ups, green space, and growing operations.

“Over 100 cities have banned the use of Styrofoam unless there is an onsite method to recycle,” he says. The start-up takes both contaminated materials, like food plates, and non-contaminated items, like packing materials, and converts them from Styrofoam’s 1.9 lbs/ft3 density into 40 lbs/ft3 bricks, a process that makes transport economical.

“Between 1,400 and 1,500 plates make a brick,” Spears says, adding that he is working with a partner to convert the recycled bricks into gasoline, kerosene, oil, diesel fuel, propane, and airline fuel.

Another project involves making lightweight knee braces from carbon fiber to help patients with cerebral palsy avoid their knees knocking as they walk. Spears has developed his fourth prototype and sees applications in other areas like neck and elbow braces.

As he has pursued his entrepreneurial journey, Spears is quick to praise Tech 20/20, the Regional Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (RAMP) and ORNL for “great support.”

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