Rob DiNardo and Greg Post, co-founders of Fairport, N.Y.- based SensGard LLC, were ready to take their hearing protection business to the next level, marketing the ZEM hearing protection device to a global audience. Financial and manufacturing barriers existed until a meeting with Ben Harp, chief operating officer for Polymer Conversions, Inc., opened the way, pairing the ZEM product with a funding program through the University at Buffalo’s Center for Advanced Biomedical and Bioengineering Technology (UB CAT). SensGard has now moved to a new level of production and is prepared to meet the expectations of a more demanding client base.

From Concept to Production
While investigating business prospects, DiNardo and Post, friends and coworkers since 1990, received an alumni magazine from Syracuse University with an article about technology transfer. “University researchers and professors come up with patentable ideas or products,” explained Post, “but then they’re at a fork in the road. They either have to take that patent and start a business or put the idea on a shelf. Universities recognized the problem and started technology transfer departments to help the professors find homes for the technology.” With backgrounds in business development and marketing, Post and DiNardo might not invent a product that would become the basis of a business, but in this situation, the technical expertise was already in place.

At a conference in upstate New York for universities with technology transfer departments, DiNardo and Post took the first step toward their new company. “We had a great conversation with the technology transfer director from Syracuse University,” said Post. “He sent us to a database on the school’s website, with a listing of available opportunities.”

Discounting some products as unlikely due to financial or regulatory complications, DiNardo and Post were intrigued by a new technology in hearing protection that allowed harmful sounds to be reduced while maximizing the ability to understand speech in a noisy environment. A professor had developed a working prototype, but the device had not yet moved into production.

Seeing the opportunity, DiNardo and Post worked for six months to research the industry, potential competitors, and the current market need. “The more we looked into it,” Post explained, “the more we realized there had been no new innovations in forty or fifty years.” The new business partners licensed the technology in March of 2004 and made the first SensGard ZEM hearing protection device sale in July of 2005. Four years later, they were ready for the next step.

New York State Collaboration
In the Fall of 2008, Harp and DiNardo attended a vendor meeting where they had been asked to present their companies’ qualifications to a potential customer. After the event, Harp began a conversation about the SensGard product, its current production facility, and where the company was in the business cycle. “I learned they were in production with another vendor with development tools,” Harp said. “Their business plan was aggressive, however, and they were getting close to thinking about the next iteration of tooling. I introduced them to Polymer and our capabilities.”

Polymer Conversions, Orchard Park, N.Y., is an injection molder, specializing in the engineering and production of thermoplastic products for electronic, medical, and industrial markets. “We visited Polymer’s facility and realized what a good manufacturer they were in terms of production capabilities and quality,” DiNardo explained. “We knew that if SensGard was going to start doing business with Fortune 500 companies, we needed to step up and meet more stringent quality requirements. Polymer was a good fit for us.”

Polymer provided an estimate for the tooling required to move SensGard ahead. “It was difficult for us to commit to that cost,” said DiNardo. “We didn’t have the volume yet to justify the expense, but we needed their capabilities to bring on larger customers. Ben had a connection with a potential funding source and he presented us as a New York State company with an interesting product.”

Harp had worked with Marnie LaVigne, the director of business development for UB CAT, on previous projects. UB CAT is a program of UB’s New York State Foundation for Science, Technology, and Innovation, housed at the Center of Excellence. “UB CAT has matching funds available for innovative NYSdriven products that are designed here, developed here, and manufactured here,” stated Harp. “I talked to Marnie about this young company that was not totally prepared to go to production tooling, and introduced the possibility of a subsidy so that SensGard could invest in new tools.”

UB CAT encourages university-industry collaboration, with an emphasis on helping New York State-based businesses gain a technological advantage over their competition. Along with funding, UB CAT also provides R&D resources, business development assistance, and workforce development programming. Funding is available through a grant process that evaluates the potential economic impact for the state, the project’s technical merit, and the availability of matching funds from the requesting company, among other criteria. DiNardo and Post submitted a proposal to UB CAT and, under the guidance of Donald Henderson, Ph.D., UB professor in the Department of Communicative Disorders and Sciences, the UB CAT program was able to support the development project.

Beyond Development Tooling
DiNardo and Post committed to the new tooling in May of 2009 and Polymer’s engineering team stepped in. “The tooling used for initial production of the ZEM device was development tooling, made of softer steels and less durable than what is needed for high-volume manufacturing,” Harp stated. “Polymer built high-volume-capable tooling and in the process, used our engineering resources to fine-tune aspects of the product design.”

One such modification was made to the ZEM headband. The original headband consisted of four separate pieces, two of which needed to be joined through ultrasonic welding. By applying Polymer’s design capabilities, the headband was reduced to two pieces, eliminating the necessity for welding, simplifying assembly, and improving production efficiency.

Polymer Conversions has invested in both manufacturing technologies and its employees in order to provide its customers with an edge. The facility has both Class 100,000 (ISO class 8) and Class 10,000 (ISO class 7) clean room molding capabilities, a fully staffed two-shift tool room, and secondary operations which include decorating, assembly, custom automation, and packaging capabilities. The company’s employees are focused on improving designs and processes, while helping customers to become more knowledgeable about the molding and manufacturing process. The result is high-quality parts that meet or exceed the customer’s requirements.

Polymer produced 100 samples of the hearing protection device in November of 2009, with the first production run completed in early February of 2010. SensGard has since ordered another 6,000 units. “Polymer enables us to go to first tier companies to pitch the ZEM,” said DiNardo. “These companies are not going to buy our product unless they first visit the production plant and verify the quality standards are in place. Polymer allows us to be a viable player in any area because of its quantity capabilities, quality standards, and production models.”

To the Next Level
DiNardo and Post are cognizant that the partnership with Polymer Conversions and the matching funds provided by UB CAT have moved SensGard and the ZEM hearing protection device onto a new playing field. “When you start a business, you start at zero,” Post said. “We had money to get us off the ground, we had revenue, and we were operating at break even. But to get to the next level, we needed additional resources.” Polymer stepped into that breach, providing high-volume manufacturing capabilities, engineering expertise, and stringent quality standards that exceeded SensGard’s previous capacity. “Now we can pitch this product to anybody in the world without worrying about meeting objections,” stated DiNardo. “We feel comfortable with Polymer.”

By Dianna Brodine