By Christine Graf
Free Form Fibers, a Saratoga Spring high-tech company in the Grande Industrial Park, completed raising a $2.5 million in November that will be used to further its development.
Free Form Fibers utilizes advanced technology to create high-performance ceramic fibers that are used to make durable parts for the aviation and nuclear industries. The fibers are approximately 1/4 the diameter of a human hair.
The majority of the $2.5 million that was raised will be used to build the three production tools necessary to produce ceramic fibers. The tools should be up and running by the end of March. Without them, the company can only provide lab-sized samples to potential customers for evaluation.
The company anticipates that their fibers will be used in the LEAP commercial aircraft engine, an engine developed through a partnership between GE Aviation and Safran Aircraft Engines. LEAP engines operate with a 15 percent improvement in fuel consumption and CO2 when compared to other engines.
“The LEAP engine has about 5 or 6 percent by weight of ceramic matrix composite (CMC). CMCs allow engines to run at higher temp and thus at higher efficiency. They are also lighter weight than the metals they are replacing,” said CEO Dr. Shay Harrison, who joined the company in 2012. “CMCs require fibers as part of the product. What we are offering as commercial products are materials that go into these types of composites that will replace metals in very high temperature applications or very chemically aggressive applications.”
The company was founded in 2006 by three material scientists, Dr. Joe Pegna, Dr. Kirk Williams, and Dr. Ramkiran Goduguchinta. It has grown to 10 employees and recently hired a controller and a director of sales and business development. They hope to hire a manufacturing technician in 2021.
“We call ourselves the grandfather of startups,” said Harrison. “What we have been doing is a lot of R&D development over the past 10-plus years. We’re now in the transition phase of moving to commercialization. We’re building some production tools, and we’ve added some staff members to move to generating revenue with customer sales.”
“By the end of first quarter 2021, I’m hoping we will have our three production tools up and running and be able to provide pounds and kilograms of material for sale as opposed to grams of material for evaluation,” said Harrison. “Our target is to have our first purchase orders in the second half of 2021.”
Because Free Form Fibers relies heavily on the aviation industry, the COVID-19 pandemic has had major implications for the company. As a result, they have had to recalibrate their sales plan.
“The unknown in next 12 to 18 months is that we are very dialed into jet engine market,” said Harrison. “GE, Rolls Royce and Pratt & Whitney have laid off tens of thousands of workers due to COVID. There are other areas we are working on it terms of our products and markets, but we spent 10 years getting to know everyone in the aircraft engine community. COVID has forced us not only look at other markets but adjust our time scale for that.”
Before fundraising campaign, 60 to 65 percent of the company’s funding was obtained through Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programs. These offer funding to small businesses that engage in federal research and development with the potential for commercialization
“The materials we work on are of high interest of the federal government in particular the Department of Defense for jet engine applications and other areas including nuclear power generation,” said Harrison. “We’ve received money from the NSF (National Science Foundation), NASA, the Department of Energy, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and some Department of Defense sources. We’ve been very fortunate to be able to leverage grant funding programs.
“That’s allowed us to survive for as long as we have because it is of serious interest to some very important high-tech programs. We have been at this for over a decade. We’re trying to go as fast as we can. The opportunities are there.”
By Christine Graf