Defense deal propels T/J Tech
■ Scrappiness, scientific know-how create a winning combination for company.
By MARY MORGAN
NEWS STAFF REPORTER
Bargains built the lab at T/J Technologies, a high tech start-up on Ann Arbor's south side - desks at $20 a pop, chairs for $10 each, a used copy machine, things other companies didn't want and sold on the cheap.
Scrappiness like that helped T/J grow from a three-person venture in 1994 to a research and development lab that’s 17-strong today. It develops materials and designs devices for energy storage and conversion: fuel cells, lithium-ion batteries and ultracapacitors.
T/J also researches chemical sensors and ultrahard materials, and provides consulting services in these areas.
The firm got off the ground in the early 1990s, when Levi, Maria Thompson and Michael Wixom decided to form a business around ideas Wixom and Levi Thompson - a chemical engineering professor at the University of Michigan - wanted to commercialize.
Maria Thompson, the firm's president, kept her job at IBM until 1994, when she took an extended maternity leave. She also devoted as much time as she could - working on weekends and while the baby was sleeping - to build the business. If they couldn’t make a go of during her leave, she’d go back to IBM.
T/J started getting more government research contracts and finding more promising technology - the business was a go. Government R&D grants, along with a few private investors, continue to be T/J’s primary funding sources.
“I think the company’s got a lot of promise,” says George Levy, a T/J Technologies board member and president of Ann Arbor-based Advanced Modular Power Systems Inc., another high-tech firm.
Intrigued by T/J’s ‘‘nifty” technology, Levy helped the firm raise money and form a business plan. He also was impressed that Technology Management and Funding of Princeton, N.J. - a company that helps businesses commercialize their technology - had already invested in T/J. The Ann Arbor firm was TMF’s first investment in Michigan.
One strength lies in having both Levi Thompson and Michael Wixom, vice president of research and development, on board, Levy said. They’re two skilled scientists who have a keen perception of the markets, he added.
That expertise caught the eye of Lockheed Martin, one of the country’s largest defense contractors. An executive for the Lockheed Martin Electronics & Missiles division in Orlando, Fla., saw T/J’s technology on display at a trade show. He was impressed by T/J’s depth of technical expertise and research on ultracapacitors, said Lee Mirth.
Mirth oversees a Lockheed Martin project that's using T/J’s ultracapacitors - a highly efficient, lightweight power supply. T/J is working with Lockheed Martin through the Mentor Protege program, a U.S. Defense Department initiative to develop small businesses.
The program encourages large contractors to work with minority-owned companies like T/J, giving them guidance on business practices, marketing and technology.
“We feel they can be developed into good suppliers for us and other defense contractors,” Mirth said. While Lockheed Martin plans to use T/J’s ultracapacitors for its small munitions and missiles, the technology has industry applications, too, Mirth said. Ultracapacitors can be used in a wide range of products, from portable power tools to cellular phones.
T/J will supply Lockheed Martin with $650,000 worth of ultracapacitors over the next 18 months. Beyond raw dollars, the relationship with Lockheed Martin is “definitely going to open doors,” Maria Thompson says.
The firm is interviewing for a business development manager to bring in even more commercial deals, Thompson said. They also need someone with expertise in packaging, prototyping and building up a manufacturing operation.
T/J needs to fill out its management ranks, especially in marketing, Levy said. And the company must take more risks, he maintained, spending money to develop their technology even faster. “Time is the worst enemy when you’re a technology company,” he said.
From left, Mike Wixom, Maria Thompson, and Levi Thompson work in the lab at T/J Technologies in Ann Arbor. The company has a contract with Lockheed Martin.
■ What it does: This research and development firm develops materials and designs devices for energy storage and conversion: lithium-ion batteries, fuel cells and ultracapacitors, a highly efficient, lightweight power supply. T/J also researches chemical sensors and ultrahard materials and provides consulting services in these areas.
■ Key players: Co-founders Maria Thompson, the firm’s president, and Levi Thompson, chief scientist and CEO. Levi Thompson also is an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan. Michael Wixom, T/J’s third co-founder, is the firm’s vice president of research and development. Leslie Alexander is director of operations.
■ What’s new?: T/J is working with Lockheed Martin’s Electronics & Missile Division of Orlando, Fla., under the U.S. Defense Department's "Mentor Protege” program. T/J wilt supply Lockheed with $650,000 worth of ultracapacitors over the next year. Lockheed will give T/J advice about marketing, business practices and technology. T/J also won an award Thursday from Ann Arbor’s New Enterprise Forum.
You may reach Mary Morgan by phone at 994-6861, or send your comments to her by e-mail: email@example.com.
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