Top 5 founders bullish on Oak Ridge and carbon fiber

Jeff McCay and his partners, Dennis Roach and Jim Horton, are bullish on Oak Ridge and even more bullish on low cost carbon fiber.

The founders of Top 5 spend a good deal of their time in a rented office in the Halcyon Commercialization Center in the Oak Ridge Science and Technology Park (ORSTP) adjacent to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

McCay, who calls Athens, TN home, and Roach and Horton, who are based in Chattanooga, founded Top 5 in 2006, two years after selling Modern Industries, a Tier 2 automotive supplier. .

McCay and Roach have collaborated for 12 years. “Dennis is the visionary,” McCay said, noting that it was Roach who advocated two and one-half years ago to become “involved in Oak Ridge.”

In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, McCay described Top 5 as a “private equity group” and identified the companies in which Top 5 holds a majority interest.

  • Scenic Industries is a Chattanooga-based specialty machining and tool company.
  • Maxwell Industries is an Athens-based company focused on custom fuel tank and hydraulic reservoir tanks.
  • NuWave is another Chattanooga-based company that was acquired last year and renamed as part of a strategy to eventually build high-end bicycles and components from low cost carbon fiber.
  • Composite Applications Group (CAG), an Oak Ridge-based engineering and developmental company focused on composites.

Founding a company and locating it in the ORSTP was a very logical decision for the Top 5 leadership team.

“We are a nonconventional user of carbon fiber and what the lab is doing in (this area) is critical to our strategy,” McCay said. “I feel like where our fit is with ORNL is to help the lab realize its goals to commercialize technologies.”

McCay added that Top 5 bought the firm that is now known as NuWave with the hope of being able to launch new bicycle components and even a full composites-based bicycle based on ORNL technology.

Top 5’s CAG has worked with ORNL researchers on a proposal that is pending a decision in Washington. “It tied us in with some larger players,” McCay said. “The credibility that involvement with the lab gives us is tremendous.”

Top 5 has brought seven or eight large companies to its office in the Halcyon Commercialization Center in the past year. “Most have not been to ORNL before,” McCay said. He describes the company’s relationship with ORNL as a “true partnership.”

Those who know McCay would agree with his assessment that “I’m happy but not satisfied” with how fast his progress has been.

In his view, the existing carbon fiber industry “is an isolated market” comparable to the steel versus aluminum market of 50 years ago. “Customers are already willing to pay at the established price point,” he said, citing aerospace, specialty automobiles, military applications and high-end bicycles.

Non-conventional users like CAG “see that weight actually has a dollar value,” McCay said, noting that ORNL’s research to develop low cost carbon fiber will open-up new, more mass market uses.

“If you can take 500 pounds out of a tanker, for example, you can transport 500 more pounds of material,” he said. “The growth potential is endless” if ORNL’s research can reach the desirable price point.

“This industry is truly at its starting point,” McCay added.

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