Month: February 2017

UConn Grad Students Working To Improve Bridge Monitoring

NextGen Infrastructure has recently been highlighted in the Hartford Business Journal, see the article here.

 

LexiKevin2017-4 - Scaled

A new company, created by a pair of UConn graduate students, is developing an innovative technique using sensors to monitor the performance of bridges. The Department of Transportation monitors key aspects of a bridge’s health to make sure they remain safe.

Civil engineering graduate students Kevin McMullen and Alexandra Hain are improving on the current methods for bridge monitoring, which are expensive and time consuming. McMullen’s company, NexGen Infrastructure, is developing force sensing pads which can be built into structural bridge bearings to perform the monitoring. NexGen Infrastructure received a Third Bridge Grant for financial support to develop a prototype and fine tune their product. McMullen said that the company’s force sensing pads can provide key data faster than current methods.

“One benefit is that you can determine if a bridge is overstressed, if the weight is higher than it was designed for,” McMullen said.

By inserting NexGen’s sensors into the bridge infrastructure, McMullen and Hain are able to measure how well a bridge is performing over the lifetime of the sensors. This can include ensuring that a new bridge functions as intended, measuring how a bridge’s performance changes over time, and even weighing trucks that go over the bridge, which could make weigh stations unnecessary.

LexiKevin2017-3 - ScaledThe sensors can be inserted during new construction or when a bridge is being repaired. Many of the bridges in the United States have reached or exceeded their expected life cycle. According to Hain, “Repairs are often done to these bridges to extend their life span. A perfect time to insert these pads is when the bearing is being replaced.”

NexGen Infrastructure grew out of an Experiential Tech Entrepreneurship Course that McMullen and Hain took, which encourages and develops the necessary skills for engineering grad students to become entrepreneurs and create startups. McMullen, along with Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Arash Zaghi, had done a research project with Enflo Corporation, which manufacturers Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a Teflon-like material used in bridge bearing pads. The sensor pads were created to improve the marketability of Enflo’s PTFE bearing pads.

During the entrepreneurship course, McMullen worked with Hain to develop the bridge pads. Zaghi, their faculty advisor, acts as the director of research development for the company.

Students who take the course are qualified to pitch for the Third Bridge Grant, a program that provides financial support for UConn startups from engineering graduate students. The Third Bridge Grant is a member of the UConn Entrepreneurship and Innovation Consortium.

McMullen is using the funding to work with industry partners to make the sensor pads as effective as possible. UConn Engineering Professor of Practice Hadi Bozorgmanesh teaches the entrepreneurship class, and he partnered with Connecticut Innovations to establish the Third Bridge Grants. He said that these programs are part of a concerted effort to turn engineers into entrepreneurs.

“We’re trying to get science and engineering students to convert their inventions into innovations that result in new products and services. We want them to understand the business world, and to think strategically with business goals in mind,” said Bozorgmanesh.

While working to develop NexGen into a viable company, Hain decided that she wanted to branch off and develop a separate company. Advanced Column Solutions develops durable, resilient and cost-effective alternatives to conventional bridge columns. A Third Bridge Grant has been awarded to the company which Hain will use to advance the development and marketability of the innovative column system.

Psst — I’ve Got A Secret

Many new small business start-ups are under the misapprehension that their idea, concept, approach – the thing that gets them up in the morning and keeps them motivated to make a change in the world – must be protected by a patent, a trademark, a copyright, or some combination of the above, as a threshold to moving forward.  There is no doubt that exploring these issues early on is a good idea on the road to starting a business.  For example, you would want to know if your improved mousetrap is already being developed by somebody else.  However, there is another alternative that can, in some instances, provide a level of protection to the start-up without the necessity of incurring legal fees.  In May of 2016, President Obama signed into law the Defense of Trade Secrets Act (DTSA).  A trade secret is confidential, commercially valuable information that provides its owner with a competitive advantage.  Prior to enactment of the DTSA, theft of trade secret claims could only be brought in state courts, and results from state to state could be inconsistent and unpredictable.  Now, federal courts may be available to protect these valuable intellectual property assets.

Typically, a small business owner may want to consider using trade secret protection for information that leaves no public “footprint” – for example, a manufacturing process that cannot be reverse engineered.  In such circumstances, maintaining the process as a trade secret may be preferable to patent protection – a patent reveals all aspects of the process to the public and is only available for a limited period of time.  Trade secrets, on the other hand, provide no public information and in theory can extend in perpetuity.

So be sure to consider the best way to protect your secrets.  In our next article we will consider how to protect your trade secrets – there are of course rules about that!

Linda Gebauer

Director, UConn IP Law Clinic