Honing the Edge

Evolutionary ideas shape technological revolutions

  • Article by: THOMAS LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2011 - 4:58 PM

Sometimes the most innovative technology already exists. It just means using it in a different way.

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Veeco general manager Jeffrey Hohn worked with a machine that tests parts of a CIGS deposition system, which is used to create efficient solar panels. The panels are costly to make, but Veeco developed a way to heat larger amounts of CIGS, which can lower a manufacturer’s costs by boosting production.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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The idea of American innovation conjures up images of the plucky inventor, toiling away in a makeshift lab in the basement for endless hours until one day--Eureka! -- by accident or design, a product that ultimately revolutionizes an industry and changes the world forever. ¶ Think Earl Bakken developing a battery-powered pacemaker in his garage. Or Art Fry needing some of 3M's reusable pressure-sensitive adhesive (Post-it note) to mark pages in his hymn book. ¶ But in reality, innovation is rarely that dramatic or accidental. More often than not, innovation simply consists of finding new uses for existing technologies, experts say.

Consider Global Positioning Systems (GPS) or the Internet, two innovations designed for military use but now commonly associated with finding directions to a local restaurant or downloading music to an iPod.

"There are very few game-changing, revolutionary ideas," said Scott Testa, a management consultant who also teaches marketing at St. Joseph University in Philadelphia. "Most ideas are improvements on things that already exist."

Companies would be wise to scour their intellectual property inventories for some new ideas, Testa says. For one thing, breakthrough innovation is expensive, especially in a recession when corporations can no longer afford to endlessly fund research and development.

"The good companies will look at their portfolio of patents and try to find other uses for them," Testa said.

And sometimes economic hardship can present that very opportunity. Take Veeco Instruments Inc., with major operations in White Bear Lake, and Cool Clean Technologies Inc. of Eagan. Both companies are using their core technology to exploit demand for green energy, an industry that President Obama says can stimulate the America economy.

Veeco, which normally makes equipment to create semiconductor chips and lasers, received a much-needed sales boost from its foray into high-tech solar panels. Cool Clean specializes in environmentally f riendly dry-cleaning machines but decided to put a sizable bet on second-generation biofuels.

• • •

Veeco desperately needs a hit.

Demand for its chip- and laser-making equipment dried up as recession-wracked companies slash or delay capital spending. Since August 2008, Veeco, based in Plainview, NY., has seen its shares drop about 50 percent to Friday's close of $9.46.

The solutions to Veeco's woes may lie in its White Bear Lake operations. Working with a Swedish university, the company adapted its technology to produce next-generation thin film solar panels coated with copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS). Such CIGS panels can convert more sunlight into energy, but they are expensive to make.

Veeco developed a way to heat larger amounts of CIGS, which changes into a mist that can be sprayed onto glass panels. Such technology allows solar panel manufacturers to lower costs by boosting production.

"We were proactively seeking high-growth markets that leverage our core competencies," said Jeffrey Hohn, vice president and general manager of the White Bear Lake unit. "You are playing with a set of technology that you already know."

Solar panels are now Veeco's fastest-growing business: Sales in 2008 grew 43 percent to $165.8 million, the one bright spot in an otherwise gloomy year for the company. Veeco boosted its local workforce by 22 percent last year and plans to add another five jobs in 2009.

"This is absolutely one of the keys to the company," Hohn said. "Green energy will allow us to grow in the future."

• • •

In 2007, Jon Wikstrom got a call he did not expect.

The voice on the phone belonged to Arlin Gyberg, a chemistry professor at Augsburg College. Gyberg had just read a news story about Cool Clean and wondered if Wikstrom, the company's CEO, was interested in helping the school produce next-generation, cleaner biofuels.

It would seem like an odd question. After all, Cool Clean's primary business was making dry-cleaning machines that used recycled carbon dioxide (CO²) instead of toxic chemicals to clean clothes.

But Gyberg thought Cool Clean's carbon dioxide technology could unlock the "holy grail" in biofuel production -- using algae to power cars and trucks.

Gyberg and student Brian Krohn helped develop a process to convert renewable feedstocks like algae into biofuel without using much water and producing little waste. Ever Cat Fuels, a start-up founded by Augsburg alumnus Clayton McNeff, is constructing a $5 million plant in Isanti, Minn., that will use this technology.

However, companies today are using petroleum-based chemicals to extract oils from algae. Cool Clean's phase shift liquid CO² extraction technology could remove the oil without relying on fossil fuels and damaging the environment. This technique also theoretically allows people to convert the leftover algae into high-end animal feed.

"We've got a very strong technology base," Wikstrom said. "Once we pulled all of that IP [intellectual property] together, we asked ourselves 'where are there markets that we can commercialize on a big scale?' It's an evolutionary process rather than revolutionary. The problem with revolutionary technology is that the market acceptance period usually takes a long time. It always takes longer than you think. If you think it's five years, it will be 10."

Cool Clean is partnering with SarTec Corp. and Augsburg to eventually outfit the Anoka plant with the CO² technology.

"Biofuels wasn't totally out of our world," Wikstrom said. "We just hadn't gone into it yet."

Thomas Lee • 612-673-7744

  • about this series

  • A continuing series on innovation in Minnesota.
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