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Scientists help entrepreneurs make business dreams come true

Bill Watts knows a thing or two about data-center computers. One is that they're dangerous to move. "A server cabinet is 8 feet tall with 3,500 pounds of equipment," he said. "If it starts to tip over, there's no way you can stop it."

Watts, an Intel Corp. veteran who at one time was in charge of all the chip-maker's data centers, designed a swivel lift that could safely move large cabinets, a common requirement. "The servers are replaced every 18 months in places like Google and Microsoft. It was something in my industry that needed a solution," he said. "I decided I could do this."

But he needed help. He couldn't find all the parts for the lift and its starter-type motor could interfere with sensitive electronics stored in the cabinets. Watts reached out to the New Mexico Small Business Assistance (NMSBA) program and was teamed with Sandia National Laboratories mechanical engineer Jeff Dabling, who worked with colleagues to redesign the lift's power system including the motor, clutch, electronic brake and controller. "They came up with the answers to all my questions," Watts said.

Sandia's assistance allowed Watts to cut costs by 20 percent and keep production in Albuquerque. His customers now include Microsoft Corp. and Facebook, which have bought dozens of the lifts.

Tech transfer program helps hundreds of businesses

Watts' company, Data Center Transitions Inc. of Albuquerque, was among 354 small businesses in 29 counties that participated during 2013 in NMSBA, a public-private partnership among Sandia, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the state of New Mexico that connects small business owners with scientists and engineers who provide technical assistance.

NMSBA provided $4.6 million worth of assistance to New Mexico small businesses last year. The program also contracts with the New Mexico Manufacturing Extension Partnership, University of New Mexico Management of Technology program at the Anderson School of Management, Arrowhead Center at New Mexico State University and the New Mexico Tech Department of Management.

Ten projects that achieved outstanding innovations through the program in 2013 were honored at NMSBA's annual Innovation Celebration Awards luncheon recently. Data Center Transitions received the Honorable Speaker Ben Luján Award for Small Business Excellence as the company with the most economic impact.

"NMSBA has been bringing small businesses together with scientists and engineers from Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories for 14 years. We are grateful to the principal investigators who work with New Mexico's small businesses," said Jackie Kerby Moore, manager of Sandia's Technology and Economic Development department. "Together they are implementing innovative ideas and stimulating our state's economy."

Collaboration produces success stories

Watts founded his company in 2009 after a 30-year career in construction and data-center management. "I wanted to keep working but wasn't sure I wanted to get another job," he said. Watts designed and built server cabinets and enclosures to control air flow, and began work on the server lift, called the MASS Lift.

"Sandia was critical to the success of this," he said. "I had exhausted my capabilities. I'm not an engineer. I told them what I needed and how it should work. They did exactly what I requested, giving me the best product at the lowest price. It was incredible. And I made friendships that will go on forever. Sandia gave me something invaluable."

Another NMSBA success story involved a skin-fold caliper. Business owner Jeff Collins of Welltec of Albuquerque brought together five companies seeking help on Skyndex, a caliper that measures body fat percentage.

The companies needed help with the caliper's ergonomics and increased its measurement range. Engineer Clint Hobart and his team of robotics experts at Sandia did analysis, modeling and mechanical testing. Sandia's product redesign ideas opened new markets and could lead to $3 million in increased revenue, Collins said.

Here are some other projects recognized at the Innovation Celebration:

  • Tom Anderson of Customizabooks LLC wanted to sell his digital children's book apps outside defined channels and markets. He worked with University of New Mexico professor Steve Walsh and a team of students to develop a commercialization strategy and new customer base. The students also helped with advanced graphics and animations in Anderson's mobile apps. The collaboration helped him attract funding.
  • Jeri Remley, founder of Enchanted Woodworks LLC, was making and selling educational wood puzzle kits for children but needed help with packaging. She worked with Griselda Martinez of the Arrowhead Center at New Mexico State University on package redesign and product development. Newly packaged samples at a regional trade show led to a 30 percent boost in sales. Remley has hired two new contractors and plans to open a retail store.
  • The SportXast smartphone app allows fans to capture, watch and share highlights of local sporting events. In an effort to automate player tagging in the highlights, SportXast's Molly Cernicek worked with Steven Brumby of Los Alamos National Laboratory to identify computer vision algorithms that could be integrated within the app. The company recently hired a computer vision developer to integrate features identified by Brumby.
  • Solaro Energy Inc. invents, designs and produces solar-powered lighting and attic ventilation systems. Owner Dennis Grubb worked with Andrea Holling of the New Mexico Manufacturing Extension Partnership on production workflow. She trained Solaro employees in Lean Manufacturing techniques and worked with staff to streamline production. Solaro's product cycle decreased from 40 to 22 minutes and production increased from 1,000 to 1,500 units a month.
  • Three-dimensional metal printing involves making the product, then verifying it meets specifications. Mark Cola of Sigma Labs Inc. wanted to combine the two steps into one to ensure quality during 3-D printing. He worked with Frank Reinow and Jun Zheng of New Mexico Tech, who investigated imaging techniques that use high-resolution digital cameras for precision measurements. The company used the recommendations in its research and development efforts to commercialize the product.


The New Mexico Legislature created NMSBA in 2000 to bring national laboratory technology and expertise to small businesses in New Mexico, promoting economic development with an emphasis on rural areas. Since its inception, the program has provided 2,195 small businesses in all 33 New Mexico counties with more than $39 million worth of research hours and materials. The program has helped create and retain 3,510 New Mexico jobs at an average annual salary of $38,735, increase small companies' revenues by $172.5 million and decrease their operating costs by $79 million. These companies have invested $56.4 million in other New Mexico goods and services and received $59.6 million in new funding and financing.

"I worked with two Ph.D.s on the MASS Lift. Where can somebody like me get that kind of help?" said Watts. "It's beyond belief that something like that is available to businesses here in New Mexico."

Provided by Sandia National Laboratories