Newark, Del. — An entrepreneurial team based at the University of Delaware (UD) is working to commercialize a system that could make infrastructure such as bridges and pipelines safer. The team, called Smartenius, consists of Hao Liu (Entrepreneurial Lead), Hongbo Dai (Team Member), Erik Thostenson (Faculty Advisor) and William Johnson (Business Mentor).
Almost 40 percent of America’s bridges are 50 years or older, and 188 million daily trips happen on structurally deficient bridges, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Sometimes emergency bridge repairs can avert a crisis in the nick of time, such as the fixes to Delaware’s I-495 bridge in 2014 after engineers found cracks in its concrete and deformations in its steel piles. However, those fast repairs can be costly — in this case, $45 million for three months.
The Smartenius team has developed a system to monitor the structural health of bridges using three major components: carbon nanotube-based sensors that can be placed in or on bridges, plus data acquisition hardware and data analysis software.
“We can attach or embed these low-cost and high-accuracy sensors to structures to detect the damage or deformation of the structures,” said Hao Liu, entrepreneurial lead of Smartenius. He is completing his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering with a focus on composites and advanced materials at UD. Changes to the tiny nanotubes can signify a problem with the structure they are attached to.
“If any damage is occurring, the data acquisition system will transmit the change detected by sensors and the analysis software will quantify it,” said Hongbo Dai, who is Liu’s teammate and a postdoctoral researcher working on multifunctional composites. He is a recent UD graduate with a doctorate in civil engineering with a concentration in structural engineering and was co-advised by Thostenson and Thomas Schumacher.
So far, the technology has been tested in labs, but the team is negotiating to test it in the field later this year. They are also seeking funds to help with research and development, prototyping, and other aspects of commercialization.
Liu came to Delaware in 2012 to study mechanical engineering and focus research on composite materials at UD’s internationally recognized Center for Composite Materials (CCM). Under the mentorship of his advisor Erik Thostenson, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and affiliated faculty of materials science and engineering, Liu began studying advanced composite materials.
“When I came here, I didn’t have any ideas regarding startups,” Liu said. “I just wanted to finish my Ph.D. and go get a job as an engineer or research scientist.”
That all changed when Liu attended a series of Startup 101 seminars organized by Yushan Yan, the College of Engineering’s associate dean for research and entrepreneurship. Liu had a hunch that the technology he was working on might be marketable to companies or government agencies that build and maintain infrastructure.
“This team is going places,” said Yan. “They are quickly gaining attention on the national stage because their invention has great potential to make road travel safer.”
Thostenson, the technical advisor for the team, has supported Liu and Dai in their entrepreneurial efforts as they pursued their doctorates under his advisement.
“The interdisciplinary environment of CCM has greatly facilitated their growth as researchers and entrepreneurs. CCM is a unique environment in terms of both facilities and personnel,” said Thostenson. “A number of my students have been involved with Horn Entrepreneurship and the NSF I-Corps programs and that has provided additional mentorship in entrepreneurship and commercialization of research. As an engineer, I am excited to see innovations from our labs transformed to future applications.”
Jack Gillespie, the director of CCM, said, “For 40 years, CCM has fostered entrepreneurship and innovation with our alumni, small businesses, new startups and through our industrial consortium by helping engineers and scientists turn their discoveries into reality. Over that time, composite materials have changed the game in many industries, and their use in structural health monitoring holds a lot of promise.”
Through Horn Entrepreneurship, UD’s creative engine for entrepreneurship education and advancement, Liu participated in the National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps Sites Program, a program that nurtures burgeoning startups. Then, at the encouragement of Dan Freeman, the director of Horn Entrepreneurship, and Vince DiFelice, manager of venture support, Liu applied for the national version of the program and was selected as a national I-Corps team lead, which gave him the opportunity to participate in a seven-week entrepreneurial boot camp in the Los Angeles cohort in the fall of 2016.
“We had to finish more than 100 interviews within seven weeks during the national I-Corps team program. It was really tough, especially at the beginning,” Liu said.
In 2016, Liu won first prize in the 11th Chunhui Cup National Innovation and Entrepreneurship Competition for Chinese students studying overseas. In 2017, the team received a grant from VentureWell’s E-Team program. This past March, with the help and encouragement of Christina Pellicane, director of commercialization programs at Horn Entrepreneurship, Liu was selected for the Post-Doctoral Innovation Fellowship with the UD’s Blue Hen Proof of Concept Program. He will continue working on entrepreneurship as a post-doctoral associate at UD. Through these supports, Liu has interviewed more than 450 prospective customers from all over the world to gain insight on their needs, and opportunities keep coming. Liu also represented the team in the finals of the Rice Business Plan Competition at Rice University from April 5 to 7, 2018.
Will Johnson, the business mentor for Smartenius and business development specialist in UD’s Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships, has helped the team with technology transfer, patent applications, and negotiations with investors. He has more than 30 years of experience in private industry and regularly interacts with innovators. He sees something special in Liu and Dai.
“What makes them different is their desire, their drive to commercialize,” said Johnson. “Lots of people have ideas, but not everyone takes the steps to make them happen. Not everyone has the fortitude to keep pushing forward.”
Liu’s advice for anyone with a new business idea? “Just try it,” he said.