Innovation on Display — TechConnect World Innovation Conference and Expo Spring 2022

Aug 9, 2022

By Samuel Caccamo and Gavin Carter

If there were a definition of Nirvana for technical innovation and innovation business development, then everything we heard, observed and experienced at the TechConnect World Innovation Conference and Expo would fit that description. For three days, from June 13-15, more than 250 exhibitors, 1,000 technology prospectors and 2,000 innovators came together with one purpose: to contribute to the largest technology matchmaking event of the year between the U.S. government and small businesses from around the world.

There was something for nearly everyone in 11 technological fields, as well as an amazing Expo and Innovation Showcase to keep even the hungriest business developers fully engaged. Those of us working in the innovation field were participating in a “live candy store” of innovation challenges, solutions and potential paths forward. Each day was spent engaging with some of the brightest engineers, innovators and enthusiasts in a setting of technological innovation.

TechConnect: Connecting Research, Accelerating Innovation

This year marked the 25th anniversary of the TechConnect World Innovation Conference and Expo, which was established to connect applied research and developing innovations from universities, labs, and startups with industry end-users and those scouting for technological breakthroughs. Today, it consists of a family of conferences and expos held around the year, with World Innovation Conference and Expo each spring and SBIR/STTR Innovation Conferences in the spring and fall.

Keynote: The Issue with Chinese Innovation

To kick off this year’s event, Cerion Nanomaterials’ CEO Landon Mertz spoke on “How Do We Compete Going Forward?” – a question that is pertinent to any industry. In the ecosystem of advanced materials, like so many others, there’s an ongoing war for supremacy. While the U.S. struggles to spur innovation and keep it stateside, other countries are pursuing political and economic measures that would undermine a global free market, Mertz said. While Russia and some European nations have gamed the global economy to carve out their respective footholds, no country raises as much concern as China. In the nanomaterials sector alone, China has pledged more than $1.6 billion annually in non-dilutive funding (not including tax breaks and employee incentives) to build and incubate competitive businesses – a figure that has already surpassed current American investment. This process of picking winners and losers ultimately starves U.S. innovators and small businesses out of existence, Mertz said. This market monopoly can be seen in the separation and refinement of rare earth metals, in which China creates a “black hole” effect with a global reach on technology as outlets for innovations become limited. Hope for a free market and American intellectual property now rests on first-mover advantages for technologies that emerge stateside and the ability of U.S. lawmakers to ease the burden on American small businesses in critical sectors, Mertz said.

See Landon Mertz’s TechConnect 2021 keynote presentation (which is similar to what he delivered at the conference) here.  For more on China’s rare earth monopoly, check out these resources from James Kennedy at ThREE consulting.

Scope of the Conference & Expo

Using the conference app or guide booklet, one could hop from room to room at regular intervals, catching all the showcases, demonstrations, and pitches one wished to see. Attendees could also focus on a particular program track, which would enable them to remain in the same cluster of rooms for a given day, interfacing with what would become a family of innovators. So, digging right in, here’s what we discovered …

Advanced Materials

Helicoid™: A nano-scale architecture inspired by the mantis shrimp’s exoskeleton that can be applied to most materials in existence, bolstering their structural properties. In carbon fiber reinforced polymer, it could increase maximum load bearing by 92%, delay  catastrophic failure by 74% and energy dissipation by 97%.

Aluminum-Cerium Alloys: A cutting-edge alloy combination developed by Eck Industries and several partner universities that utilizes cerium, an overproduced and low-demand rare earth metal; the result is an alloy as strong as aluminum-titanium alloys, even before heat treatment, with lower production costs.

Fluidic Circuits: Using leaflike arrangements, researchers at the University of Nottingham UK have developed fluidic circuits with exceptional cooling properties. The team’s aim is to use them on hypersonic vehicles to cool areas susceptible to high heat.

Advanced Manufacturing

Craitor: A 3-D printer built for the expeditionary environment and rugged demands of the U.S. Marine Corps that is capable of printing high-temperature polymers from the back of a moving vehicle as it bounces through unforgiving terrain, such as the Mojave Desert.

Multiplexed 3-D Printing: Researchers at Rutgers and the University of Louisville have devised time-saving mechanisms and tool paths for Large Scale Additive Manufacturing (LFAM) with simple modes of scaling and unhindered performance in the event of a printer head failure.

Carbon Scaffold: Researchers at the University of Delaware had devised a novel method for depositing recycled carbon fibers into complex structures using polymers and 3-D printers. When the part is thermoset, the carbon (graphene) structure is left behind, without shrinkage and remaining strong.

Energy Innovation

ThREE Consulting: James Kennedy, an internationally acclaimed expert on thorium nuclear energy systems, delivered a presentation on the challenges for rare earth production in the United States. He outlined the economic, national security, and geopolitical ramifications of China’s monopoly on rare earth separation and refinement. One overlooked consequence of this monopoly is the vacuum effect China has on IP – almost all innovations in rare earth production by Western nations end up in China in less than five years because stateside end users are practically nonexistent. From his experience as a congressional lobbyist and advisor, he believes that internal tax credits and other federal provisions for domestic metallic conversion are crucial to keeping rare earth production out of China. 

Argonne National Laboratories: In a brief on the rare earth metals supply chain, Argonne repeated that while open pits and mineral sands in the United States have great potential, outsourcing separation and reduction to Estonia, Malaysia, and China remains an issue. However, many stateside facilities are under construction and will be operational soon.

Sustainability Innovation

Sulfidation for Magnet Recycling: MIT researchers and the Allanore Research Group have constructed a packed bed reactor capable of extracting desired rare earth metals from recycled magnets. The reactor utilizes a proprietary sulfidation process that is both scalable and efficient by industry standards. 

Advanced Infrastructure Integrity Modeling: Researchers at the National Energy Technology Laboratory have developed modeling software to evaluate the structural integrity of offshore energy harvesting infrastructure, to include oil rigs and wind turbines. Such a technology could be adapted to monitor railroads, runways, ships, aircraft and more. 

Biotech & Medical

New for 2022, TechConnect introduced its Medical Innovation Challenge, held in conjunction with the conference and expo. The challenge consisted of 30 finalists presenting their innovations to a panel of judges from the NIH, AFWERX, SOCCOM, the Veterans Administration and others for a shot at $50,000 in non-dilutive prize money. Additionally, representatives from three leading medical technology consortia were on site with over $20 billion in contracting authority.

Electronics & Microsystems

Sensobright: Touting their patent on one of the five human senses, Dr. Utku Buyukashin explained that his tactile sensor has surpassed the human body’s nerve ending density by orders of magnitude, thereby allowing robots to feel the shape and texture of objects as small as 0.1 grams — it even works without contact between the sensor and the object!

AI Innovation

Materials Informatics at 3M: In a company so large, having the ability to produce a new product to the same specifications around the globe is critical. At 3M, machine learning is being used in conjunction with laboratory experimentation and molecular simulation to expedite development and ensure replicable results. 

Accelerated Discovery and Inverse Design of Materials Systems: Researchers at the University of Buffalo have tested a novel approach to material design, using finite data sets and machine learning to replace property mapping that would normally require quantum computing. As an example of the importance of their work, the researchers were able to formulate an amorphous polymer with a specified index of refraction greater than 1.7, much higher than one can achieve with carbon-based materials. They were able to synthesize a compound architecture with an index of refraction of 1.8 using a physics-infused network and 100,000 data points run on one computer core for 10 hours – much faster than 1.5 million data points run on 16 cores for three years (the alternative). 

Best in Show

LuftCar: A featured technology from TechConnect’s Aerospace and Defense Innovation Spotlight, LuftCar is a hydrogen-powered modular autonomous air and road electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) system. The company is licensing the hydrogen fuel cell powertrain technology from NASA and has filed three patents of its own, all to revolutionize regional air mobility. There are defense applications, too, including the ability to launch a vehicle from an aircraft carrier, fly to a land base and then drive around — all without leaving your seat.

OVD KINEGRAM: Founded in 1892 in Fuerth, Germany, KURZ developed the world’s first vacuum-metalized hot stamping foil, revolutionizing the banknote security enterprise. KINEGRAM, a subsidiary of KURZ, specializes in diffractive optically variable image devices (DOVIDs) to protect government documents and banknotes in over 100 countries, as well as the electronic security features in passports and ID cards.

Rostra Therapeutics: CEO and co-founder David Findlay pitched his company’s novel platform of molecules, Strathclyde Minor Groove Binders (S-MGBs). S-MGBs work by disrupting the DNA processing ability of the targeted pathogen, curbing its growth and eventually killing it. Rostra has demonstrated advanced antifungal, antibacterial and anti-parasite capabilities with its S-MGBs and have promising theoretical support for their use in oncology. This exciting work targets diseases that account for approximately 15 million deaths per year in an ethical, efficient and easy-to-implement manner.

Dawnbreaker: A great example of a company providing small-business services, including licensee analysis, market validation, marketing materials through their dedicated design department, commercialization planning and manufacturing assessments. Dawnbreaker even offers licensing negotiation preparation so that small businesses can tangle with prime system integrators – AKA “Bigs” – and come away confident in the deal they struck. The company’s success is evident, and, as noted on its website, beginning in 1990, companies that have worked with Dawnbreaker through a government-sponsored program have received in excess of $3 billion in Phase III funding. Taking it a step further, we engaged Dr. Jenny Servo’s leadership team at Dawnbreaker, and the conversation highlighted the endless opportunities that conferences like Tech Connect provide in terms of networking.  There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction to know the players and their place  in the ecosystem.  It was also daunting in that teams like Dawnbreaker make one realize how many exceptional technical innovation companies are playing in this space.

Innovation & Business

The SBIR/STTR track was quite possibly the conference’s crown jewel. Split up over two days, the conference within a conference afforded small businesses a chance to hear from 17 federal agencies that deal in SBIR/STTR contracts. Each day consisted of an afternoon meet-and-greet with the agency representatives (IN3’s team took particular advantage of the U.S. Navy and DARPA tables). The mornings were filled with informative workshops and panels — everything from getting started in SBIR/STTR and conducting a Phase I project, to advice from proposal evaluaters, to agency deep dives, to making the transition from Phase II to Phase III and so much more. 

One helpful session was the Commercialization Assistance Programs and Resources panel headed by Erick Page-Littleford, a technology policy analyst from the Small Business Administration Office of Investment and Innovation. In the session, representatives from NASA, NIH and the Navy emphasized their respective agency’s commitment to developing technologies with commercialization potential up to and including finding commercialization investors. This is huge coming from NASA, whose unique mission might make commercialization an impossibility, or at least an afterthought. After all, NASA generally fields a technology just to buy a handful of units. But NASA and agencies like it are working to change that, with offerings such as the Civilian Commercialization Readiness Pilot Program (CCRPP), which provides funds not just to mature SBIR/STTR technologies, but also to accelerate their near-term transition to infusion or commercialization. As it pertains to IN3’s partnerships with NSWC Crane, the Navy’s SBIR/STTR Transition Program (STP), which cultivated more than $916 million in Phase III awards in FY21, exists alongside a portfolio of SBIR/STTR assistance initiatives (Dawn Tech, Navy Launch) to make sure that maturing technologies are not tripped up as they pass through the Valley of Death. If you want to hear more about SBIR/STTR work, be sure to check out our TABA article here.

Expo Floor

In the case of TechConnect World Innovation Expo 2022, the expo floor was a treasure trove of technical innovations to explore, featuring critical technologies in advanced materials, advanced manufacturing, energy, rare earth, sustainability, electronics, AI, aerospace and more. If technology showcases are the touch, smell, sight and sounds of TechConnect, then the World Innovation Expo was its heart. These public showcases enable organizations to establish future partnerships, ferret out upcoming opportunities and meet with innovation leaders. All this makes the Tech Connect series of conferences a must-attend for applied research institutes like IN3 and small, high-tech businesses looking to gain a place of utility and notoriety in the defense industrial base. 

In addition to speaking with the best in show companies about their next moves, we had a chance to sit down with several key players to get their perspective on the importance of TechConnect’s World Innovation Expo. One of the vendors we spent a significant portion of our time with was Luna Labs, a Virginia-based small business developing technology for the aerospace, energy, automotive, health science, first responder, telecommunications and defense industries. We had the opportunity to touch base with Dr. Josh Smith, a materials research scientist with Luna Labs. When asked about leveraging the TechConnect World Innovation Expo for small businesses, Josh had this to say: 

“Over the eight-plus years that Luna Labs has attended TechConnect’s World Innovation Conference and Expo, the networking opportunities have proven to be the most valuable. Given the sophisticated technological needs for defense issues, it is important to congregate and collaborate with academia, manufacturers, prime integrators, technology transfer facilitators, and even our competition in order to solve complex problems. This year’s focus was on meeting new people, assessing needs and spreading the word about our capabilities. Next year, we hope to build upon relationships for innovation and product development.” 

Dr. Josh Smith

In addition to the multitude of companies showcasing their innovations, the expo floor was teeming with consulting firms plugging their value-added approach to business development. In talking with Foresight Science and Technology, TechOpp Consulting and Dawnbreaker there seemed to be a consensus that, regardless of competition or market share, the act of evangelizing the tools and resources necessary to accelerate innovation at events like these far outweighs corporate interest.

As a follow up to his showcase presentation, we had a chance to chat with Craitor CEO Eric Shnell. We quickly discovered that the California-based 3-D printer designer has close ties with taulman3D, an advanced 3-D printing materials manufacturer based just 20 miles from IN3’s WestGate facility in Southern Indiana. IN3 doesn’t just know of taulman3D, we also house some of their materials testing – materials that were being used on Craitor printers. Our meeting with Craitor opened doors to new opportunities for collaboration, made possible by the TechConnect Expo networking venue.

We spent a substantial amount of time networking with the various agency SBIR/STTR representatives from NASA/MDA Redstone, DARPA and NAVSEA SIBR STTR that were located at the heart and center of the expo floor. Each individual office was excited to hear about IN3’s focus on SIBR/STTR opportunities, particularly our education initiatives to raise small business awareness and participation — particularly with Indiana based high-tech companies — which has gained momentum in calendar year 2022.

Impact & Recommendations

IN3’s participation in this year’s TechConnect Conference and Expo was a giant leap in the right direction. We  were able to attend over 50 technical showcase sessions and engage in one-on-one conversation with representatives from more than 35 companies. IN3 is looking forward to participating in upcoming TechConnect events, which will help inform our technical innovation path moving forward.

About the Authors:

Samuel Caccamo serves as Director of Defense Innovation for IN3 and has over 22 years of active military duty and 14 years of U.S. Department of Defense contracting experience. He has been a force for innovation, developing and leading events like the HackIN hardware/firmware reverse engineering cybersecurity hackathons of 2019-2021. He currently leads IN3’s Tech Tuesday event series, designed to promote the advancement of technological innovation through collaboration and integration among government, academia and industry. 

Hailing from Southern Indiana, Gavin Carter is a recent graduate of Purdue University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. As a newcomer to the world of defense acquisitions, interning with IN3 gave him world-class opportunities to learn from the best in the field across several federal agencies. Now, he is taking these lessons and connections with him into the U.S. Air Force, hoping to one day return and contribute to Indiana’s growing defense ecosystem.