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SQUARE ONE: Quantum leaps for a small town lab
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Imagine a Jackson where Charlie Hagen, 26, can find work in his area of expertise. Twenty years ago, no, just 10 years ago, Hagen and his mechanical engineering degree from University of Vermont would be SOL. The Jackson Hole native and local high school grad could use his sheepskin to mop up the bar he was tending.
That was before the nonprofit community development organization Imagine Jackson helped secure an $810,000 Business Ready Community grant in 2006 from the Wyoming Business Council that breathed new life into Square One Systems Design, allowing them to move out of an employee’s garage and into their current space in the South Park Service Center.
The grant landed Imagine Jackson’s executive director Mark Obringer, who sat on the town council at the time, in hot water and got Square One’s founder Bob Viola sued. Pete Jorgensen, Peter Moyer and Armond Acri were just a few or those critical of government involvement with private enterprise. In the end, Moyer dropped his lawsuit and WBC’s Roger Bower calls it one of the program’s greatest success stories.
“To start at the beginning, we go back to spring of 2000,” Bower remembers. “I began coming to Jackson on occasion and when I did I would make it a habit to ask waitstaff and the like about their education. It was shocking to me how highly educated most were. I asked my friend, Andrew Berman, how he got skilled employees. He said, ‘I post a three-by-five card at Pearl Street Bagels, and I’ve got a dozen dual-degree Masters applicants in a day.’”
Worlds collided, and Bower ran into Viola, who was working with protein crystal harvesting genius Bernard Rupp in his garage. They desperately needed a lab. Then came Obringer and Steve Duerr from the Chamber of Commerce and before long it was obvious to Bower that Square One was an ideal candidate for state funding.
Bower has continued to cultivate a close relationship with Viola and Square One. The WBC helps small businesses get their crack at $2 billion in R&D grant money, handed out annually by 11 of the largest federal agencies. By Bower’s estimation, Viola’s tech company has received some six or seven million dollars from the Small Business Innovative Research (SLIB) program.
“Square One is a poster child for this program,” Bower says. “They have these bright local kids there – like Jace [Walsh] and Charlie – that are able to use their brains in the field they were trained in. That’s the real success. Not that Bob’s making money or scientific breakthroughs, but that Jackson Hole can hang on to its own local intellectual capital. That’s exciting.”
Viola knew all along that Jackson Hole was the only place he wanted to base his company. It was a valley full of unique brainiacs ripe for the picking. “There are a lot of very, very talented individuals in this valley,” he says. “And the kinds of people that live in this valley are by default risk-takers for the most part. They are unconventional thinkers. They are self-reliant. These are qualities we are looking for at Square One. We have a lot of intellectual firepower here, and it’s always nice for graduates to be able to stay in their hometown and work in their field.”
Hagen sums up the adventurous nature of Jackson Hole thinkers employed at Square One: “We are always looking for things that are inside our skill set and outside our comfort zone.”
Behind the curtain
Square One is a state-of-the-art laboratory and manufacturing facility. Inside the walls of a rather nondescript building, some astounding technological advancements have taken place in the name of science. Don’t be too intimidated. Walk in and, like at most Jackson offices, bored dogs with helicopter tails will instantly greet you.
The business side of the building looks much like any other office space. On any given day you will probably find a couple of staffers gazing intently into computer screens. Nothing to see here, really.
On the other side of the building – a warehouse-looking space called the lab – diseases are cured and lives are saved. In one corner, there’s an energy-tunable X-Ray Split and Delay Device (XRSD) built for the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC) to manipulate the time structure of hard x-ray pulses. Huh?
In another corner is a next-generation microspine gripper robot designed and built for NASA to travel to and land on asteroids. Say what? And don’t miss the pride of the fleet – a high-precision dexterous manipulator created for the Department of Defense. It utilizes inverse kinematics and Square One’s patented six degree-of-motion positioning system to allow the end user full “point-and-get” behavior. Feel a migraine coming on?
Basically, what Square One eggheads do every day is harness kinematics – a branch of classical mechanics that pertains to the movement of objects within space. The end result is often a robot-looking automated arm that picks something up and places it somewhere else. The geometry of motion looks fluid to the untrained eye but it’s founded on enough blackboard math equations to wear Einstein’s chalk down to the nubbins.
Taken for granted: How it works
What Square One has been able to achieve would not be possible without the assistance of the WBC.
“The State of Wyoming has been a very good partner to us in building this business,” Viola says. The WBC helps small businesses in Wyoming compete for grants that would likely be out of reach for most instate companies, especially hi-tech firms. The Kauffman Foundation ranked Wyoming dead last regarding its potential to support knowledge-based, entrepreneurial and innovation-oriented economies.
To date, Square One has secured several grants from government agencies like NASA, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy. The grants require a specific set of deliverables, often with a detailed budget outline. These objectives are then tiered into performance-based phases of funding. Demonstrate your idea conceptually, you get Phase One funding (maybe $150,000 for a feasibility study). Phase Two is build-out where companies are awarded as much as $3 million.
A unique feature of most of the grants is the ability for think tanks like Square One to retain proprietary interest in their innovations for potential patents and possible commercial applications down the road. Square One already has stumbled upon a few side-benefits of creating new technology for the federal government.
Under funding from the Department of Energy, Square One developed a tri-sphere positioning system, which helped maneuver bulky electromagnets and mirrors into exact alignment. The government was mildly pleased but it was engineers at Samsung who really flipped for it. They bought the technology to guide lasers in building semiconductors at their new Korean manufacturing plant.
“We didn’t envision or anticipate how that technology would be used,” Viola admits, “but that order is probably the single biggest achievement that we’ve had to date.”
Square One often partners with next-door neighbor Drew Gillingwater. The highly skilled machinist from California set up shop about the same time Square One got going. Gillingwater has fabricated many of Square One’s sophisticated concepts. Viola sees Gillingwater as his ace-in-the-hole.
“In a traditional relationship we would provide design drafts to a machinist but now with computers and the complexity of what we are doing it helps to have a fabricator who speaks our language,” Viola says. “On one of the very first projects we called him in on – to create this sample carrier – it turned out Oakridge [Square One’s client] was very interested in what Drew built and bypassed us to hire him. That’s OK. That’s great for him. He deserves it.”
Financial success seems right around the corner for Square One, and that suits Viola just fine.
“Obviously we don’t want to keep doing R&D just for R&D’s sake,” Viola says. “I mean, that’s a desirable thing, to add to the technology base of the world but there is a motivation to sell something in the end. That’s the goal, and we have made real progress toward that goal. The problem is that it’s been a slower process than I anticipated. There are lots of face-to-face meetings with investors trying to make them feel comfortable with a small company from Wyoming.”
Square One’s claim to fame so far has been their research and design in the six degrees-of-freedom (6DoF) area. Square One has perfected a system whereby an object can be manipulated with a high degree of supervised autonomy to move in virtually an unlimited manner within three-dimensional space – forward/backward, up/down, left/right, combined with rotation about three perpendicular axes, often termed pitch, yaw and roll.
Viola had the concept years ago when he worked as an engineer for SLAC. His first iteration at Square One was pretty close, he says, and was finally perfected after seven years of tweaking. Mounds of algorithms and computer code lie at the heart of the software that can position objects ranging from nanotech size to high payload, 6,000-pound magnets with incredible precision.
So why does a big outfit like the Department of Defense contract out to little companies like Square One?
“They certainly have their own resources and some very talented people but they are also susceptible to things like groupthink and entropy,” Viola explains. “Sometimes they enjoy getting a fresh perspective from a smaller, creative, liberated company that is free to take greater risks. We are indemnified against financial failure. Investors won’t be upset if we can’t deliver. That allows us the freedom to be aggressive and ambitious.”
CURRENT PROJECTS: Nuts and bolts and excited isotopes
Simply glancing at a list of what Square One has been able to accomplish in its 11-year history is impressive. Now consider that much of what Square One dreams up and builds has to be able to perform flawlessly in zero gravity at absolute zero (minus 460 degrees Fahrenheit).
“The Department of Energy or NASA, for example, run a lot of their experiments inside a vacuum chamber,” Viola says. “So what we design for them has to operate in a high-vacuum condition mostly because these streams of charged particles used to conduct the experiment would interact with air if done in an ambient environment. We need to design for outer space because, well, you can’t have particles dissociating themselves and creating unwanted gas inside the vacuum.”
Cryogenic environments provide even more of a challenge. Square One’s crystal harvester (see below), for instance, is designed to work while submerged in liquid nitrogen (minus 325F).
Explosive ordinance disposal robot
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Utilizing Square One’s High Precision Dexterous Manipulator technology, the U.S. Military has received a prototype for what could be the world’s most advanced automated bomb disposal unit.
Viola says, “The need for explosive ordinance disposal robots is incredibly acute right now. You don’t want to put people in the proximity of explosives. Remote-controlled devices are becoming more and more popular.”
Square One has delivered a robot capable of not only travelling to an IED and viewing exactly what it’s made of, but an operator can now disarm the bomb remotely with one click of a mouse. It’s an automated intelligence the Army calls “point-and-get” technology designed to remove the cognitive burden of bomb disposal personnel who might be struggling to maintain “situational awareness” – military speak for trying not to get shot.
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Square One’s robotics go miniature with their work for the National Institute for Health. Protein crystal harvesting is a process of breaking down and studying the molecular structure of cells, a process that provides medical scientists with valuable insight on how to attack a particular disease, for instance. Drug manufacturers are at the forefront of the technology that gets very expensive the bigger the protein crystal. So particle accelerators are being used to get smaller and smaller crystals. So small that manual manipulation is just about impossible.
But what if robot pinchers could be taught to pick up a protein crystal the size of, say, 10 microns and place it in a vessel of liquid nitrogen for storage within 200 nanometers of accuracy? Today, it’s a reality and it’s sitting in Square One’s lab right next to the outer space robot.
NASA wants to be able to land robots on asteroids. They envision collecting samples from flying chunks of rock and ice and maybe even blowing them apart if they were threatening collision with earth. There’s only one problem.
“The problem with landing robots on asteroids is asteroids are very small compared to a planet,” Viola explains. “As a consequence, their gravitational fields are very weak. To operate in that environment the robots have to actively grip the surface and hold on or they might fly off. They needed a robot foot that could actively grip irregular rocky surfaces.”
The solution was a bio-mimicry adaptation of a gecko’s foot. NASA is intrigued but the project is stalled and still awaiting funding for the next phase.
Partnering with SLAC, Square One is currently fine-tuning an x-ray split and delay device. Viola says the system is complicated but the gist is this.
“A machine – a free-electron laser – fires pulses of x-rays at a target. When one of these pulses hits the target particle it scatters the light and that is picked up by an array of detectors behind it providing information about the particle. It’s very powerful for understanding the structure of matter. But what if the target particle is constantly changing? A chemical reaction might be taking place, for instance. The pulses of x-rays coming from a direct laser are not coming fast enough to capture the change. Imagine a strobe light that only illuminates a dancer in a herky-jerky way. We are creating a split x-ray, redirecting one beam through a chain of Laue and Bragg reflectors. This creates an offset in time between the two pulses of about four nanoseconds so you now have double the images.”