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MABE Alumnus Ryan Spencer Turns Dissertation Research Work Into Company

Ryan Spencer, who recently completed his PhD in mechanical engineering, has created a company to market his dissertation research on an optical inspection technique that can be used to characterize a wide range of materials to support clean manufacturing. 

UT Research Foundation patented the technology Spencer devised, and Spencer subsequently executed an options agreement with UTRF so his newly created company, ThermaMatrix Inc., can commercialize the technology.  

In August 2023, he was accepted into Innovation Crossroads, an ORNL business incubator that is funding his continuing research to perfect ThermaMatrix technology into a market-ready product.  

“ThermaMatrix will provide inspection solutions for manufacturers,” Spencer said. It employs multiple cameras that zoom in and out to monitor thermal expansion with microscale resolution, and the data is processed using novel algorithms. 

Spencer, who was a graduate research assistant at the Fibers & Composites Manufacturing Facility (FCMF) at UT, sees the technology being useful in the composites industry where fiber direction is a critical measurement to understand the strength, as well as thermal and electrical properties of the composite component. It also has applications for new material R & D, as well as aerospace, additive manufacturing, and semiconductor research and manufacturing. 

Spencer said commonly used X-ray technology can be timely, costly, and often calls for expert interpretation. Few limited nondestructive techniques are available.   

“We saw there was a technical gap,” he said, explaining that ThermaMatrix technology is quicker, more cost-effective, nondestructive, and easy to embed in existing systems.  

Spencer said ThermaMatrix’s initial assessment can offer 10 times the inspection coverage at one-tenth of the cost. More detailed X-ray technology can then be strategically deployed for further characterization. This two-stage approach optimizes the characterization process and allows flexibility for manufacturers.  Ryan Spencer and Uday Vaidya at commencement.

“I’m very lucky to pick up my PhD topic and carry it on,” he said. “But we’ve only scratched the surface. There’s a lot we need to do to commercialize this.” 

Spencer, who grew up near Chicago, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He met Ahmen Hassen, who leads the Composites Innovation Group in ORNL’s Manufacturing Science Division, at a conference several years ago. Through Hassen, Spencer got to know MABE Professor and Governor’s Chair in Advanced Composites Manufacturing Uday Vaidya, who served as his academic advisor through his PhD. 

While Spencer was working on his PhD, Hassen and Vaidya suggested his research might have legs. 

“They said, I think we have some Intellectual Property here. We think this is novel.“ 

After Spencer filed an invention disclosure, UTRF encouraged him to participate in the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Mid-South Hub program to gain experience in customer discovery. Subsequently, UTRF awarded Spencer and Vaidya a Maturation Grant to validate the commercial potential of the technology via industry feedback and to file patent applications. 

Because the technology was developed during Spencer’s PhD program with funding through UT, the patent process was overseen and funded by UTRF.  

While Spencer is the inventor of the technology, UT owns the patent. UT has licensed the technology to ThermaMatrix. 

During the first few months of Innovations Crossroads, Spencer completed the 12-week Spark Cleantech Accelerator (CTA), an intensive business training program. 

“For me, as a researcher, I’ve been in the lab for a decade. I knew nothing about business,” he said. 

Now Spencer is fully involved in Innovation Crossroads, which he said is “like a post-doc with entrepreneurial spin.” The program’s two-year stipend allows him to work full-time on perfecting ThermaMatrix’s heating and optical methods and further develop algorithms. 

“We’re heading into next-generation prototypes so we can perform demonstrations,” he said. 

With an eye on the future, Spencer said he’s looking for governmental funding options, including Small Business Administration grants, to get established.  

“Right now, the vision is to stay here, grow the company, and hire locally,” he said. “The entrepreneurial eco-system in East Tennessee is amazing.”