Published September 16, 2014
Scott Vader and his son, Zachary, traveled to the New York World Maker Faire in September 2013 to show off their direct-to-metal 3D printer. Except there was one problem: they didn’t have a fully functioning Vader Systems prototype on hand to demonstrate that making low-cost, complex metal parts and products is achievable through additive manufacturing.
“There were quite a few high-level professionals and experts who said, ‘You’re trying to do what? Magnetohydrodynamics?” said the elder Vader, recalling the reaction to a complicated and little-known liquid metal jet printing technology more commonly known as MHD. “There’s no way that two guys in their basement could do that.”
For all the naysayers, the East Amherst residents have accumulated interest from about 130 manufacturers across the country, with 15 percent involved in serious talks. Their invention has caught the eye of energy, defense, transportation, medical and sporting goods industries, and even German, Chinese and Japanese companies. Closer to home, they were selected to be part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tax incentive program START-UP NY.
How have they gotten to this point? Start-up guidance, largely provided by the University at Buffalo (UB), has a starring role in their entrepreneurship story. In fact, the father-son duo considers those who have helped along the way to be part of the team.
The roots for UB’s role were planted before the Vaders dabbled in 3D printing, when Scott first became acquainted with UB TCIE as Unicell’s vice president of American operations. UB TCIE, the industry outreach arm of the School of Engineering, provided Lean methodology training to Unicell.
By that time, Zachary was immersed in an entrepreneurial venture supported by his father, the “chief engineer.” The younger Vader studied mechanical engineering at UB for one year before deciding to explore his natural aptitude for generating ideas. Encountering a snag with his micro-gas turbine generator is what prompted an initial phone call to UB TCIE.
Developing the compressor for the generator – which 21-year-old Zachary described as a “big power plant that we scaled down into a really tiny package” – was proving to be a challenge. Unable to identify a manufacturer to fulfill their 3D metal printing needs, they turned to UB TCIE for guidance and learned that UB Engineering does not possess the capabilities, either.
“We were kind of stuck as far as getting the technology made, and not being able to access the tools that were necessary to manufacture it,” Zachary said. “We started thinking we shouldn’t be trying to make a really sophisticated gas turbine. We should be trying to make a 3D printer. And we thought there’s got to be tons of stories like us, and it would probably be a good business idea.”
Vader Systems was born.
Zachary’s thought process led him to the notion of creating a 3D object with an inkjet printer. Molten metal would be fed through to produce droplet upon compounding droplet. To distinguish themselves in a quickly developing marketplace, Scott’s experience as a manufacturing executive told him that it is necessary to build a high-speed, scalable printer that requires low-cost hardware and input materials.
Their target audience is any manufacturer requiring the addition of intricate internal structures to a product. It might be used, for example, by a golf club maker designing a complex head that is lighter and stronger, yet enables longer drives.
The father-son team estimates they explored 200 iterations of ideas, from completely new ones to variations. They grappled with the nuances of metals – their corrosive nature and the extreme heat needed to melt them, among others – before deciding on their printhead design.
“We ended up inventing a very high-tech MHD printhead,” Scott said, referencing a technology invented in the 1950s that aided the first power plants in transporting metals, but has been used sparingly since. “Our invention is the novel configuration of the coils and MHD technology that creates the droplets through the printhead.”
A basic prototype for the entire structure was built by September 2013, yet lacked the ability to create a part, or even shoot a single droplet. That’s when UB TCIE’s phone rang again.
“Rather than roaming around in a wide-open field, someone who’s more familiar with these principles could say, ‘Here’s where you need to start going’,” Scott said.
UB TCIE coordinated a meeting that introduced Vader Systems to other UB units, including the Office of Science, Technology Transfer, and Economic Outreach (STOR) and Shared Instrumentation Laboratories. Conversations determined that UB TCIE would develop a proposal for addressing the immediate needs: solving technical problems, which would open the door to acquiring the first customers.
Dr. Edward Furlani – a professor in UB’s departments of Chemical and Biological Engineering, as well as Electrical Engineering – and two graduate engineering assistants are modeling and optimizing the dynamics of the droplet’s flight and how they coalesce. Furlani is also serving as a technical advisor by helping to determine long-term development plans.
The Vaders accessed this expertise with a Strategic Partnership for Industrial Resurgence (SPIR) grant, a State University of New York program that subsidizes technical assistance for industry projects. It is administered regionally by UB TCIE.
Scott credits the relationship with UB TCIE for making connections with other UB entities and leveraging “a lot of great things.” They were steered toward applying for an entrepreneurship grant from National Grid and received it with the help of the New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences (CBLS). They were directed to UB’s Office of Economic Development to discuss the START-UP NY program, which would lead to Vader Systems being named this summer as one of the first 16 approved START-UP NY companies sponsored by UB. The statewide program allows universities to designate vacant space or land as Tax-Free Areas (TFA) where new and expanding businesses can operate for 10 years without paying New York State business, corporate, income, sales or property taxes, or franchise fees.
The Vaders were approved to relocate their business from their home basement to a TFA in the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus Innovation Center. Plans include hiring 15 new employees during their first 5 years, including a manufacturing manager, machinists, assemblers, electrical and mechanical engineers, and office personnel.
The START-UP NY designation is already reaping benefits. An endorsement by UB and the governor is producing free advertising and “gives us the credibility that we think is justified, but usually takes longer to earn,” Scott said.
Launch NY, the non-profit venture development organization serving the 27 counties of upstate New York, is also mentoring the Vaders and providing them with connections.
Scott and Zachary say the region has been supportive of their entrepreneurial endeavors. The Toronto natives originally considered more “fertile grounds,” such as Boston or Houston, but have been impressed by the can-do spirit and friendly business community.
“In general, this is a wonderful place. You have access to a large supply of talent from UB and the other schools in the region, and a great core of getting stuff done,” Scott said. “Manufacturing expertise in this region has a long, long history of innovation. That’s evident as an outsider. It’s just built into the DNA of the culture here.”
Reflecting on involvement in the start-up community, he added, “There’s tremendous potential here. These are exciting times in Buffalo. So we’re in the right place.”