Startups, empowered by UB programs and students, doing their part in coronavirus crisis

Someone wearing a protective glove holds a 3D printed face shield.

Credit: Dan Buckmaster

By Tracy Puckett

Release Date: April 10, 2020

“I don’t think we would even be in business right now” without UB TCIE and SPIR, a program that provides student engineering assistance to companies in need.
Brian Bischoff, founder and COO of Innosek, a UB-affiliated startup

BUFFALO, N.Y. – About two and a half years ago, startups Innosek and Tresca Design each signed a contract to receive University at Buffalo student engineering assistance at a subsidized rate. The investments would prove crucial in building each company’s ground floor, according to the founders.

Now, both are deemed essential companies and have shifted some energies toward the country’s scramble to produce and deliver personal protective equipment in the fight against COVID-19.

If not for the Strategic Partnership for Industrial Resurgence (SPIR) grant administered by UB’s Center for Industrial Effectiveness (TCIE), they might be playing a diminished role in supporting the effort – or none at all.

“I don’t think we would even be in business right now” without TCIE and SPIR, admits Brian Bischoff, co-founder and COO of Innosek, a Tonawanda-based company that specializes in rapid prototyping, low volume manufacturing, project management and product development.

Bischoff approached UB TCIE after hearing about SPIR, which is a program of the State University of New York that supports development of new technologies. He and his two co-founders were ready to add bodies to their operation, but inexperienced in payroll and recruitment.

The program provided help in supplying two undergraduates from the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, managed administratively by UB TCIE, who contributed technical knowledge. Their presence enabled Bischoff to focus on Innosek’s business side. The company has since grown to eight employees and continues to lean on UB students via SPIR.  

“The students, in general, have been top notch,” Bischoff says. In fact, one of the first student assistants who is still part of the team today is responsible for calibrating, repairing and maintaining the 3D printers. “Advancements and improvements they have made to the business are directly related to our growth.”

Approximately 80% of the company’s clientele – typically inventors or companies launching hardware products, and smaller manufacturers in need of jigs – is based in Western New York. The coronavirus epidemic has upended the company by stalling some work while creating other opportunities.

“We had to make a big pivot fast,” Bischoff explains, saying the pandemic’s impact on business is complicated.

Innosek is working on a contract job to make a couple thousand face shields with its 3D printers, and is the manufacturing partner involved in Rapid Medical Parts’ work to convert sleep apnea machines to emergency ventilators under a preliminary U.S. Defense Department contract.

The company also received a grant from FuzeHub, the New York Manufacturing Extension Partnership state center, to help scale up for the COVID-19 response and produce face shields for New York’s first responders at no cost.

Sourcing materials has been a struggle, but Innosek has managed to manufacture its first bunch and began donating them this week.

At engineering design and prototyping firm Tresca Design, owner Dan Buckmaster decided to divert some resources to the cause a few weeks ago after a conversation with Ben Swart, owner of local startup Blank Slate Enterprises. Buckmaster shuttered most of his prototyping services – about one quarter of the company’s business – after connecting with like-minded Buffalo companies to create 3D printable face shields.

Buckmaster worked to secure monetary and material donations from ACV Auctions, Niagara Specialty Metals and The Crosby Company. PostProcess Technologies is donating expertise in chemical engineering and legal services, courtesy of Process Development Engineer John Boorady. UB’s Baird Research Park – the home base of Tresca – donated administrative services for printing documentation and waiver forms.

Between Tresca, Blank Slate Enterprises and PostProcess Technologies, 12 additive manufacturing machines are in the midst of manufacturing 1,000 shields. The group seeks to procure enough supplies for another 1,000. All shields are being given away for free.

Batches have been sent to the Town of Amherst’s Emergency Services & Safety Department and several local fire departments, and have also been shipped at no cost to health care workers in a number of states, including Vermont and Florida.

“This is something I could do a little by myself, but because of the team I have at Tresca and the companies that we are working with, we’re able to make the quantity that we are,” says Buckmaster.

He correlates existence of the Tresca team – which now includes UB graduates and engineers Nick Phillips and Zack Carey – with UB TCIE’s help. Cost savings afforded by SPIR were vital to building his employment base.

“I wouldn’t have been able to make these full-time hires if I wasn’t able to get the assistance,” Buckmaster explains.

He began his company in July 2017, the summer after his junior year at UB. He lacked capital to offer employment opportunities. Even the prospect of independently funding interns was staggering and therefore unachievable. Grant funds lowered the cost enough to make the risk worthwhile.    

It paid off. Tresca now serves a wide range of customers, from startups to established companies, from Buffalo to Germany. Despite the health pandemic, the company has enough work to keep busy.  

“We’re running our printers around the clock, through the night, and my team is independently donating their time and efforts to this cause,” Buckmaster says, explaining time is spent after work hours to assemble, package and ship the shields. In between, he is finishing up his master’s degree in mechanical engineering from UB this spring.

He encourages anyone to help the cause in whatever way possible.

“The people we’re talking with say every little bit makes a difference, no matter how small it may seem,” he says. “Thank you to the people doing the real work. We may be staying up a little later to help, but we’re not the ones on the front lines.”

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