Innovation in Manufacturing? You Bet.

   I think many Americans associate the world “entrepreneur” exclusively with information technology.  Ditto for the word “innovation,” at least as it applies to business. Neither opinion could be farther from the truth.

Over the next few months I’m going to be spotlighting companies that are demonstrating innovation in manufacturing – not only on the factory floor, but in product development, marketing, business models, and more. Today’s company is M4 Sciences. When it comes to innovation, this company is literally on the cutting edge.

M4 Science’s CEO, James Mann, provides an impressive example of what it means to innovate through intellectual property. In his late thirties he abandoned a comfortable job with a 6-figure salary, uprooted his family and went back to school (at Purdue University) to get a PhD. He did get a new job to bring in a little money, a research position at the university, but it was basically the kind of job a graduate student would take. In other words, in the board game of manufacturing careers, he took three giant steps backward.

His goal was not merely to get a new degree. He was specifically looking for technology he could commercialize. He found it in what’s called modulation-assisted machining (MAM). That’s where the cutting edge comes in. MAM is a means of oscillating a cutting tool or drill bit so that it doesn’t remain in constant contact with the work piece. Rather, it applies pressure and then backs off, very, very rapidly. In the case of drilling, MAM achieves “quite startling reductions in friction and energy consumption, even with the application of only minute (cc/min) quantities of fluid,” to quote the M4 Sciences web site.

Having identified a winning technology, Mann’s next step was to find a real-world application. In his opinion there are dozens, but his company has focused for the near term on drilling micron-scale holes with very high length-by-diameter ratios – higher than 10:1 – in hard-to-machine materials. It turns out there’s a big need for such holes in biomedical applications (bone screws, for example) and in fuel injection systems for high-performance engines.

In addition to identifying a winning technology, Mann also identified funding sources, beginning with a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, which was matched by the State of Indiana. He has subsequently obtained more funding from both public and private sources. Mann and his colleagues also generate revenue for the company through a consulting practice, although this will most likely be phased out over time. Mann expects customers for actual products as early as then end of 2008.

This story is a textbook case for understanding what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur:

        ? the guts to take a temporary financial hit and risk your career

        ? solid industry experience to identify opportunities

        ? intellectual property to create a high barrier to entry for competitors

        ? an all-start team to run the business

        ? a niche product to fulfill a specific market need

        ? a much broader  market opportunity over time

        ? a credible story to attract investors (basically the sum of all the previous points)

One warning: As Mann will attest, following a path like this involves a lot of sleepless nights.