(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of seven articles spotlighting the start-ups that comprise Cohort 3 of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s “Innovation Crossroads” program.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
“When I was little, my grandfather would take me to his garage where we tried to build a device to speed up the radioactive decay of uranium,” Trevor McQueen said, “As a six-year old kid, I was completely enchanted and would always want to help out.”
Unbeknown to McQueen, his early exposure to critical thinking, science, and machining work by his engineer grandfather planted the seeds of what he would become in his young mind.
Today, his fascination with designing and building complex instruments has led McQueen to co-found a scientific hardware company, Neptune Fluid Flow Systems LLC, with a colleague of his from graduate school. Together, they design and sell what he describes as “small, little devices.” Their products, which can be found on the company’s webpage, include the PEEK 2 port surface connector for Micronit sheet nozzles, high pressure reservoirs, and very high temperature growth cells.
This past June, McQueen was one of the seven promising entrepreneurs chosen to participate in Cohort 3 of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) “Innovation Crossroads” (IC) program. It’s a two-year commitment, but one that he believes will produce significant opportunities for his company and himself.
Growing up in Idaho Falls, the Fellow in Cohort 3 of the IC program gained more than a passing knowledge of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) since the city is home to Idaho National Laboratory — the nation’s top nuclear lab. That awareness was further fueled while pursuing his doctorate degree in chemistry at Stanford University and working at DOE’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.
“While at Stanford, I made instruments for other students and some of the scientists,” McQueen says, “and I’ve become very skilled at it.”
After graduating with his doctorate, however, he decided to pursue his passion in teaching and took up an adjunct position at Foothill College in Los Altos, CA. While there, McQueen recalls running into a former co-worker at SLAC who requested his help to make a specific instrument. Naively thinking this would be a nice way to keep up with his engineering hobby, McQueen accepted the opportunity. Little did he know that this single request led to the birth of Neptune Fluid Flow Systems which was officially launched at the end of 2016.
“It was then that I learned I’m in business,” McQueen says with a laugh. Today, his company focuses on making those “small, little devices” and other scientific accessories to address a really big challenge in science – the reproducibility crisis.
A recent survey by Nature found that about 90 percent of respondents agreed there is a “slight” or “significant” reproducibility crisis in science, and between 65 and 70 percent said that selective reporting, fraud, and pressures to publish “always” or “often” contribute to irreproducible research.
“If you don’t know what and how you’ve done (something), it doesn’t matter what you’ve discovered,” McQueen says. “It is a useless discovery if you can’t get back to your findings. Consequently, you need to do it (your testing) in a fashion so you know where you are, namely, the properties of the samples you use in your study.”
To illustrate a common challenge that scientists face in working with simple systems such as water, he says that a sample of distilled water might register a pH of seven, but it could easily drop to six when exposed to air. This difference in pH can have a dramatic effect on the phenomenon you are trying to investigate.
“How you treat your sample changes your end result,” McQueen explains, adding that the pH of distilled water is just one example. “The list goes on and on.”
The goal of Neptune, as McQueen explains, “is to provide a way to standardize the manner in which samples, especially for those that are very delicate and fragile, are handled so the end results are reproducible and repeatable.”
During the two-year fellowship, Neptune will be developing an advanced thin-film cryogenic sample preparation device designed to substantially improve sample preparation for the transmission electron microscopy community. By coming to ORNL, DOE’s largest science and energy lab, McQueen will have access to a large and diverse base of scientists as he pursues the new instrument.
“Our mission at Neptune is to help others save the world, little by little,” McQueen says.