[00:00:00] Scott Aughenbaugh: This is an MD5 podcast. My name is Scott Aughenbaugh and today I am sitting down with Tommy Luginbill, Director of the Entrepreneur and Innovation Institute at the College of Southern Maryland and Chairman of Grey Matter, to learn about his work, company, and tech transfer.
Tommy, I was wondering if you could give us a little background on who you are?
[00:19.04] Tommy Luginbill: So my name is Tommy Luginbill. I grew up in Rockville, Maryland, which is close by to D.C., it’s a suburb. After growing up, I went to the University of Delaware, got a degree in finance, and right when I got out of school I started a business. From there I ended up going back to the University of Maryland to get my MBA in a part-time program. Through that, I met my wife a little earlier on and she dated me all through grad school. Finally we just got married last year, now I live in Calvert County, Maryland in a town called Dunkirk. So that’s my basic background, but today I work for the College of Southern Maryland as the Director of Entrepreneur and Innovation Institute. I’m also a faculty member. And one of the reasons I’m here today is to talk about the company that I own called Grey Matter and that was the result of a project that I did while I was at The University of Maryland.
So my position today, I’ve been there about 10 months. It was a brand new institute that was brought by Dr. Gottfried, who was the President of the college—he's retiring actually in two months, he has been there about a decade—it was his vision to bring it. He was good friends with a guy named Ben Solomon who I had previously known through a program called Fed Tech which is actually what I did at the University of Maryland, and how I spun out my company that I just mentioned before. So they got to talking about this institute that they were starting and Ben had shared my experience with knowing him and also my experience with licensing technology from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, and Dr. Gottfried took an interest to some of the things that Ben Solomon was talking about and thought that I might be a good candidate for running this brand new institute.
[00:19.04] Scott Aughenbaugh: How does the College of Southern Maryland partner with innovators and the local DoD community?
[02:07.88] Tommy Luginbill: So, since starting, one of the things that I’ve had to do is go around the community—that would mean all of Southern Maryland, so we’ve got Charles County, Calvert County, and St. Mary’s—and figure out exactly what the community needs and maybe figure out what it is that they need that they don’t know about yet. So one of the things that’s interesting about Southern Maryland is that there has been a huge military presence for a very long time. There’s actually a base in all three counties. One of the bases is very small, not a lot of people know about it, but it is there in the back corner of Calvert County. So big base down the Pax* river in St. Mary’s—another large one is Indian Head in Charles. And Dr. Gottfried and the college had worked with them before, but they had not tapped the full potential of really bridging that partnership. So because of my background, Dr. Gottfried brought me in for a series of interviews and ultimately determined that it was a good fit for me to take that job and to figure out how do we innovate in the local community, how do we work with existing entrepreneurs, but also create new entrepreneurs that can actually drive the local economy towards doing more with defense, but also diversifying a bit. So ultimately, it has only been ten months, but what we’re doing today is making those partnerships a little stronger with the Navy and also some other installations, a lot of defense contractors, but getting into the nitty gritty with working with people like Ben—bringing a class to the college like the Fed Tech class that Ben brought to Maryland. Bringing classes like social entrepreneurship. So there’s the day-to-day, but also the grand vision of how do we make bigger partnerships with the local DoD Naval bases.
[03:50.29] Scott Aughenbaugh: Can you talk about your experience working with Fed Tech?
[03:52:81] Tommy Luginbill: Sure. So I did go through Fed Tech, I was one of the guinea pigs for Ben, and he’s been doing it for a while now. A lot of success stories there. Back in 2013, I was a grad student at Maryland and I had a background with starting businesses. I had a couple successes, a couple failures, because if anyone tells you they never failed as an entrepreneur, they’re lying. So I had seen ups and downs, and when I went back to school I started to hang around the Dingman Center. For those of you who don’t know, the Dingman Center is essentially an entrepreneurship center that the University of Maryland has. And they provide all sorts of resources. So one of the main resources I went back to school was to build my network. Yes there were some things I needed to learn, but most of what I wanted to do was broaden the people that I knew and get more connected to that University of Maryland alumni network. So I went to the Dingman Center I think like every Friday. I was just volunteering, I was listening, I was coming up with different ideas, and someone actually contacted me and said you should really talk to this guy Ben Solomon. He graduated last year and he had started this program where he matches grad students in the MBA program with research scientists in the federal laboratory space. You might be interested in being a part of this new program. Oh yeah, by the way, there’s three credits for it. And I think it’s like only nine weeks long—and it’s actually shorter than the semester—and I said, “This is exactly what I want.”
So I met Ben, was very interested in what he had to say. What was interesting was that he had this list of ten different technologies, and the reason I bring this up is because what he did was essentially put the list in front of us and said, “If you had to work on a project for the next weeks, on figuring out which one of these technologies has a chance of making it to market, and you actually come up with the commercialization plan, you actually come up with a business plan through this Biz Model Canvas idea (which I actually didn’t know about at the time) which one of them would you want to be paired with?” So I went through the list and what’s funny is I actually wanted to be paired with NASA because I love NASA. I’m actually wearing my NASA socks today. I’ve got Neil Armstrong—it’s Smithsonian Collection for those who don’t know, you can actually buy NASA socks—so I wanted to work for NASA so I sent Ben an email and said “Here’s my selection for the company that I want to work with, or excuse me, the technology I want to work with for this project.” And he wrote me back and he goes, “That’s great that you want to work with them, but I actually want you to work with the Naval Research Laboratory. And sometimes people know what’s good for you more than you do. A little bit of serendipitous, divine intervention, or maybe just Ben’s a little smarter than I gave him credit for, and he said that he wanted me to pair up with Dr. Brandy Johnson. And what she had invented was an anti-chemical warfare technology that was to be integrated with fabric. And she invented that back in 2006 actually, and she filed a couple of patents, and got the patents as a research scientist for the U.S. Navy, and originally it was going to be used in tents for the war in Iraq, and there was a lot of different efforts for them to take the technology that she invented, which was a sorbent—essentially a liquid like anything you would see in a water bottle—and you dip the fabric into the sorbent and then you heat it, and it actually changes the chemistry of the fabric to turn it into an anti-chemical fabric. So the idea was, ‘Okay, soldiers are sleeping in tents, they’re sleeping outside—this is when we thought Saddam Hussein had all these chemical stockpiles, he might have had those but obviously we didn’t find very many—and we said how are we going to protect our soldiers when they go to sleep?’ And so Dr. Johnson came up with this novel technology.
Now, fast forward a few years. These things do take a long time, especially in the R&D Process. There’s this whole idea of working up the TRL ladder. For those that don’t know, that’s the Technology Readiness Level, and it goes from 0 to 9, and Dr. Johnson got to about a level 3, which is great, but what happens is there’s this level called the valley of death. And that’s when the technology is promising and it’s been funded but there’s just kind of this fork in the road where they go “Okay are we going to table this technology or are we going to continue to move it forward?” And so Brandy found, or I guess Ben found Brandy in NRL, and said “Okay, would you be interested in putting this technology into this class?” And sure enough, Ben saw and met Brandy, got along with her very well, met me, got along with me I think, and he said, “No, no, no. You’re not going to work with NASA, you’re going to work with Brandy.” And so that was the beginning of the Fed Tech process for me.
[08:49.36] Scott Aughenbaugh: So, part of that Fed Tech process is learning about your potential customers. I was wondering if you could talk about your experience in interviewing and the discovery process for this technology?
[08:53.95] Tommy Luginbill: Okay, so the Fed Tech process was interesting for me because I guess I started this four or five years ago. And like I said I had some success, I had some failures. I probably thought I knew more than I did. Which is kind of like an entrepreneur’s dilemma—sometimes you’re too arrogant. I will admit I thought I was smarter than the process. And what Ben did is that he put me in the program and they beat over my head the idea of the scientific method, especially as it relates to quickly coming up with different ways of using a technology, going through the interview process, figuring out if there’s actually a demand for what you have. There’s tons of good ideas out there, but the question is does anybody want them? So when I started the Fed Tech process, it was, ‘Okay, go out and interview all of these people and figure out what they think this technology can actually be used for.’ Original idea was for tents, I started coming up with crazy ideas. I said, “Okay well maybe we can coat baby diapers because there’s chemicals that are involved with baby diapers.” “Maybe we can coat wine corks,” because there’s something called wine cork taint, which is when the chemicals in the wine – they actually mix with chemicals outside in the air, and it’ll ruin the wine. So I thought, okay well if we have this chemistry which can protect against chemicals from penetrating any surface, well why couldn’t we use it for wine corks? So I went through this process of coming up with all of these ideas and talking with all of these people, and ultimately what we found—at least what I found—was that the best application for this technology was to take the sorbent that Dr. Johnson had invented, coat military fatigues, also materials that anyone could wear on a day to day basis—your law enforcement, your first responders, your police officers and firefighters as well—and say, “Alright, coat their materials so that they are on a day-to-day basis protected from chemical attacks or chemical spills, they might not be an attack.” And the idea was if we can integrate the technology into existing clothing, they could be just as comfortable as they are on any given day, but also be in a hazardous situation and not have to worry about chemicals penetrating their skin, or excuse me penetrating their clothing to their skin. That’s what I found out through all of these interviews. So every week they’d hold me accountable and they’d be like, “Well how many people did you talk to?” If I didn’t talk to, I think it was like 12 and 15 a week, they would just harass me. I don’t mean that in a negative way. But what it boiled down to I said was I didn’t know everything, I wasn’t as smart as I thought, until they started saying, “Oh that’s a great idea, but no one’s going to buy it.” And so at the end of the process, what we came out with was a good presentation and the idea that this could be used for first responders and the military and what we had was a situation where we were talking and Ben said, “Good job,” I got a good grade in the class. And it was kind of like, ‘Okay, now what?’ And I don’t remember the exact quote, but I feel like Ben was like, “Well what do you mean now what?” And I said, “Well I took the class to start a business.” And he said, “Really?” And I said, “Yeah, that’s what I want to do.” And I think Ben had always intended on that happening, but I think doing it that first cohort was a bit of a surprise to not just him but to everybody. Well like this was so successful, well let’s do this. And the reason that it was successful was because of the process. Figuring out that the market was there—there was a good partnership between me and the scientist. I had support from friends and family. And I had support from the University of Maryland, which is what I was looking for. So from the end of the class we started the process of actually licensing the technology that Dr. Johnson had invented and forming a business. And that was the birth of Grey Matter.
[12:43.31] Scott Aughenbaugh: What’s happened with Grey Matter since 2013?
[12:46.04] Tommy Luginbill: A lot of things have happened. One of the things that we got very early that helped validate the whole process was a grant called the JTTI Grant – we got $75,000 from the Department of Homeland Security, with support from Tedco, which is a local organization that helps small companies grow, and they’re a local-based organization. And that money was used to take the money that I had used in the Fed Tech process and actually continue to grow the company and move it up that technology readiness ladder. So like I said when we started we were at a three, but what we needed to do was to take the technology and actually prove that it worked. It wasn’t that it wasn’t proven already, but it was proven by the inventor, and so what’s interesting is that inside the DoD, if someone invents something, clearly they’re very smart, and to get a patent you have to be very smart. But it isn’t enough for them to say that something works, they have to get it validated by a third party. So that money that we got from Homeland Security was used to take the technology, coat fabric, and send it to Edgewood Biological Center in Edgewood, Maryland, which is actually Army. So we had the tech start in the Navy, then we gave it to the Army. So what the Army did is they ran it through a series of tests and were tasked with going through a series of tests and coming back and saying whether it worked or not. So that was pretty stressful because it costs a lot of money and it took a very long time. And that’s just the nature of how these things go. I would say that Grey Matter is a research and development company – it has been for a while. Obviously we’re very close to getting to that end product, but getting from the lab to the market takes a long time, and so the money from Homeland Security was used to do that validation, and that took about 14 months. Ultimately they came back with a thumbs up.
[14:46.80] Scott Aughenbaugh: What is the current state for your organization?
[14:48.70] Tommy Luginbill: So quick update not quite as current. So current state of the business – it gets a little bit better. So as soon as we got those results we were able to apply for something called the Proof Challenge, and the Proof Challenge was put up by the chief partners up at NATICK and it was this novel idea where they said, okay, we’re looking for anyone who has technology rated to chem/bio, and do you have something that we can use in the next couple of years, where we can protect our military against chemical or biological attacks? Submit your design and tell us exactly what it is that you’re going to do. And we were fortunate enough to just get our results from Edgewood, and we submitted, and again it was the waiting game. And just this past January it was announced that we were actually the winners of the Proof Challenge, which came with more funding and the current state of the company. And so the current state of the company is that we’ve taken the sorbent that I mentioned – the sorbent that coats the fabric – and we have begun to scale the sorbent, so that instead of just saying, “Oh yeah, we know that this works on one T-shirt” we want to be able to make sure that we can make batches of this to work with thousands of T-shirts, thousands of pants - that we can actually roll this out for the larger scale forces.
[16:10.30] Scott Aughenbaugh: MD5 is in the process of putting together a Hackathon in Boston on smart materials in July of this year. For these budding entrepreneurs that are taking part in this challenge, what do you think about the process of working with smart materials and how does that extend to the process of tech transfer?
[16:25.04] Tommy Luginbill: Yeah so the biggest thing I have to say is that you have to be patient. It’s like any business, the founders are very eager and the scientists are probably even more eager because they’ve probably been working on it for more years than the founders have been involved. But when you’re going to go through the tech transfer process, especially when you’re going to license a novel technology, you really have to do your homework. You likely should go through a program like Fed Tech to figure out that the market’s there before you waste your time going down an alley that you can’t turn around from. But once you do decide to license the tech and start a business you have to really stay connected to the people inside the laboratories, and not just the laboratory that you’re licensing the tech from, the other laboratories, because there are always opportunities out there for funding, connections, and even people that will do work and help you pro-bono. So for me, the process has been relationships, started with the individual Ben that I just mentioned, and it’s blossomed from there.
I tell my students all the time down at the college that it’s great to go to school and get good grades. And I highly recommend continuing on with education at a higher level, but while you’re there, while you’re in school, and while you’re in business, just always be building your relationships because you never know what’s going to happen. Because one thing I didn’t mention is that that Proof Challenge that we just won – the reason that we knew about is very random. I had a good buddy from college that I was in an organization with and he is a diehard soccer fan. He follows soccer jersey companies on Twitter – for whatever reason a soccer jersey company tweeted about the Proof Challenge being run on the military. My buddy took a screenshot and said, “Hey this seems like something you might do.” And I looked at it and said, “If I win that I’m going to give you $1,000.” And sure enough we did. And that’s exactly what I did.
[18:21.30] Scott Aughenbaugh: Do you have any general advice for the next generation of entrepreneurs?
[18:24.64] Tommy Luginbill: For me and for the business, you know, one of the things is that you know, again, I’m all about relationships. And currently the President of the company is my father who I’ve done business with in the past. And something that we’re big on is being very loyal with people that we’ve worked with and being honest. And in the end of the day the advice I have for any entrepreneur is if you can sleep well at night knowing that the decisions and the things that you did in that day were for the better good of society, I think things will work out. There’s a lot of bad people out there, and it might seem like they’re getting ahead in the short run, but in the long run the good people really do come out on top, and the good technologies and the good businesses really do succeed. And that’s the one thing that I want to drive home and I try to tell my students that and I try to convey a message of hope. Recently I was at a women’s prison and I was actually on lockdown for 9 hours and I was speaking to the women about starting women. And all of these women have lost hope, and one of the ways for them to get reacquainted with society when they get out is to start their own business, because a lot of people won’t hire them. And what I want everyone to know, including ex-felons and including people who are really downtrodden is that there is always hope. You can always make a different. You don’t have to start your own business. You can be involved with someone’s business. Or you can make a difference with the business that you’re already working with. So please, if anything gets conveyed in this podcast, just know that there’s people out there that are willing to help you, and someone has always been in a situation that you’ve been in. And there’s likely an individual out there who wants to help you. There are always people who want to help.
[20:07.65] Scott Aughenbaugh: Thank you for listening to this podcast with Tommy Luginbill, Director of the Entrepreneur and Innovation Institute at the College of Southern Maryland and Chairman of Grey Matter. He is available personally on Twitter as @lordluginbill, his company @greymatterusa.
For more information on FedTech you can visit their website at www.fed-tech.org. To connect further with MD5, you can find us on Facebook and Twitter as well as md5.net.