By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
It has probably been eight years since we first met Rick Spears, a Texas native who grew-up in Florida and worked in 32 states before moving to Knoxville in 1990.
Those who understand the nature of entrepreneurs would agree that persistence, tenacity, passion, a level of patience when warranted, and a willingness to pivot, if necessary, are key success factors. They are clearly the characteristics that have allowed the low-key Spears to succeed in a high-tech sector.
Late last year, his hard work paid-off in a big way when Tru-Design LLC, one of his companies, was lead on one prestigious “R&D 100 Award” and was a collaborator on a second award. That’s pretty impressive company for a small Knoxville business in what is referred to as the “Academy Awards” for R&D-focused enterprises.
Having observed Spears journey, initially up close during my time at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), we wanted to get his thoughts about the experience, lessons learned, and future undertakings.
“I’ve been very patient throughout the process,” he says in describing his pursuit of opportunities and partnerships in carbon fiber and composites. Spears’ interest, at least in part, initially came from another of his companies that was involved in repairing high-end and customized automobiles. Some of those vehicles had composite components that required specialized knowledge and equipment.
Spears was part of a fledgling group of small business executives in the 2010-11 timeframe who met regularly at the old Technology 2020 to better understand ORNL’s work in low-cost carbon fiber and composites and discuss how that research could lead to a strong local business cluster.
Today, Tru-Design is working in some way with six different parts of ORNL, Spears says. Those interactions obviously include two of the lab’s showcase facilities – the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility and Manufacturing Demonstration Facility – but they also touch the MaxLab, Critical Materials Institute, and National Transportation Research Center.
“We work with someone at the lab every day,” Spears explains. Many of those current relationships stem from Tru-Design’s involvement several years ago with ORNL researchers on the famous 3D-printed Shelby Cobra.
“We decided we had to come-up with a coating,” Spears says of that work and the importance of having a more polished look. “Now, we have developed five different coatings. Two are patent pending, and we will file on the others. In the long run, I can see us selling a lot of coatings.”
That is only one of several areas where Tru-Design’s future lies. All of the areas Spears is exploring are driven by discussions with current or prospective customers as well as the vision that he has for the company.
“We are planning to open a service bureau,” he says, citing Additive Engineering Solutions in Akron as his only competitor. The facility might have something special beyond a commercial focus.
“We’re getting requests from clients for a secured facility,” Spears says, obviously somewhat circumspect about those asking for such a place. “We exploring both opportunities (commercial and secured) located in the same building.”
Workforce development is another component of the service bureau concept.
“Clients want to send us their employees to train on equipment,” Spears says. “We’re going to our client base and asking them to tell us what equipment we need to have to train their employees.”
Up to now, Tru-Design has focused on composites and plastics, but a military need is causing Spears to explore expanding to metal coatings.
“I never imagined being in R&D,” he says. Yet, as a good entrepreneur, Spears has seized on opportunities and the results speak for themselves.
“After the ‘R&D 100’ awards were announced, I got 283 messages the next day,” Tru-Design’s leader says. “I’ve enjoyed the journey. We might not have taken all of the right paths, but who does.”