“Hi my name is Jake Leachman, I’m a new faculty member at Washington State University and I want to solve your hydrogen storage problems.” It was the fall of 2010 and I was having my first phone call with a DOE hydrogen and fuel cells program manager.

The program manager responded: “Kid didn’t you hear? Secretary Chu (DOE Secretary and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu that is) tried to eliminate the entire hydrogen program last year. All the pros in hydrogen are looking for jobs now. You missed the boat.” Door slammed.

I hadn’t heard. I’d just come fresh out of a cave in Wisconsin (literally the lab I did my Ph.D. in had stalactites hanging from the ceiling and no windows). Thankfully, nobody on the WSU faculty had heard either, or at least it didn’t factor into their decision to hire me. I told them the news and the response was the same — “Be persistent. Get your NSF program manager on the phone.”

So I called the NSF program manager in my area, thermal and transport processes. The response, “I’m sorry but we don’t have anyone qualified to review proposals in the area of cryogenics. We can’t fund proposals in cryogenics.” Another door slammed.

I had one last ace up my sleeve. My advisor had basically primed me to get funding for fueling fusion energy machines from a different division of the Department of Energy. They had an Early Career Award opportunity in the area and I applied, knowing from several years of research with Oak Ridge National Lab that the topic was desperately needed. The reviews came back with the highest category rankings. No funding. So I visited the program managers during a trip to D.C. to see what gives. Their response, “We all had a conversation about your proposal. While your right that it’s needed, we decided that you’re not going to get funded. A new report from the National Academies basically said all our funding needs to go to a different area.” The final door slammed.

Every piece of advise I was given for winning funding as a new faculty member had the door slammed on it. Not based on the merit of the technology or what I was proposing, but to factors outside of my control. Funding is key to tenure and promotion in my discipline. Game over? Time for the exit strategy?

An Entrepreneurial Approach

I knew that my research was needed in Washington State. Boeing had recently flown a liquid hydrogen fueled drone called PhantomEye and was having some issues. But I couldn’t break through the bureaucracy to talk to the people I could help. I needed to do something to get attention. I’d come up with a little invention that could help and published a conference paper on it. Still wasn’t getting anywhere. That’s when Travis Woodland came to my office. I’d known Travis since we were both students in engineering back at the UIdaho. Travis was now an Intellectual Property development liaison/lawyer housed within the Voiland College of Engineering. Travis helped me to submit intellectual property paperwork on the little invention and put me in touch with the innovation folks at the college level. They were going to try something new — an invention fair with the Executive Leadership board of the college — the CEO type folks from Industry that care about our program and want to see us succeed.

The night before the invention fair with the Executive Leadership board I’d reached an impasse. My little invention was a dud. Sure it could work to help liquid hydrogen fueled drones, but there were currently none in the air. So I was faced with a decision — pitch what everyone thought I was going to, knowing that it was a dud, or double down on something different, bolder.

When the day came I went in front of the 40+ Executive Leadership Board members and gave my pitch to design, build, and test the first liquid hydrogen fueled drone at a university. We weren’t going to help Boeing with their drone, we were going to directly become the competition. I had the numbers on why liquid hydrogen drones were coming. I had a team of awesome undergraduates and grad students who wanted the challenge. But most importantly, I had so much enthusiasm and excitement in my pitch that it would be a failure of the board not to reward the effort in some way. They gave me $20k to do it. I’d asked for $60k. I wasn’t about to tell them no.

Taking Flight

My faculty mentors laughed. I was called ‘naive’. Many probably thought I’d crash and burn.

The fuel cell to run the plane cost $8k of the total… not much left so we made some calls and got a few supplies donated from industry. The core student team involved with the design — Chris Chaney, Eric Barrow, Patrick Gavin, Patrick Adam, Eli Shoemake, and Justin Bahrami were an absolute dream team with considerable experience building planes. We had meetings to put together the broader concept for how everything would work. Then my role was to get out of the team’s way and keep the university at bay.

About six months later we had the aircraft designed. The students named it Genii, after pondus hydrogenii, which is Latin for the potential of hydrogen. Here’s a highlight video showing several flights:

There were bumps — bruises — crashes. The entire project nearly fell out of the sky a couple of times. That would’ve been the end. WSU thought I was violating FAA rules with the project and sent emails to cease and desist. I eventually got the FAA to write a letter saying that they were aware of the activity and it was ok in their view provided I didn’t surpass specific bounds for hobbyist flights.

By then we’d demonstrated that we could do it. While the FAA wouldn’t allow us to fly on hydrogen as that would be considered ‘research’, we had all the pieces designed and operating independently. Moreover, the core of the student team was about to break up due to graduation/job requirements. Time for me to make a few phone calls, circulate some videos, and shift gears with the project.

The ‘Trojan Horse’ approach to working with the Pros

Although my earlier phone calls would go nowhere, my calls started to get traction now. I would get invitations to bring the student team to company headquarters and present to the top brass. The students would give their pitch and tell their story. I’d sit in the back handing out cards and explaining all the services my lab could perform. This experience made it clear that the companies wanted to hire the incredible students who made it happen, they were also now open to talking with me about engagement. I’ve since started describing this approach to working with companies as, “using the students as a Trojan Horse”. All of the doors would open and let us in, I’d tag along and get to meet people I never would’ve by myself.

During one of our visits to the Columbia Gorge I called up Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing that specializes in unmanned systems. I told them that I was outside their gates with a team of students who’d built a liquid hydrogen fueled drone and wanted to talk to them. They still turned us away. But the next week I got a call from their Chief Technology Officer who invited us back down to view a flight and present our work. We came back, gave our pitch, and was essentially told, “we want the entire approach”. We’d finally made it.

Climbing the funding ladder

With Insitu writing letters of support to transition the technology out of the university, we were able to secure funding from the Washington Joint Center for Aerospace Technology and Innovation (JCATI). JCATI awards grants every year with the intent to have faculty partner with Washington State industries on aerospace challenges. We ended up receiving three grants totaling approximately $300k from JCATI for this project. Each year we introduced a new innovation in the liquid hydrogen production, transfer, and storage process that resulted in intellectual property.

During our three years of JCATI funding Insitu was able to produce a liquid hydrogen fueled drone and I was allowed to show video of it flying at the annual JCATI Symposium. Insitu was an absolutely fantastic company to work with during these projects. But with the time set to transition another funding source to continue to develop the technology, and with federal funding agencies not realizing how far we advanced the technology, we were in no-mans land. I’d pitch where we were to program managers and their would be a long pause…. but still no connection.

Senator Patty Murray’s office decided to host an invitation only University Aerospace Innovation Summit on the Capital Hill in D.C. Insitu’s lead match-maker in D.C. accompanied me to the event and I got to see from a pro how those events really worked. I got to meet the Senator and thank her for hosting the event. This led to a follow up opportunity for a Department of Defense appropriation. The Army stepped up with an interest, and we are now a joint partner in a $7M Total ($1.8M to WSU over 2 years) contract with Insitu and Mississippi State University to field demonstrate the technology. The grant can be renewed based on merit for multiple phases.

Sustaining the Momentum via Entrepreneurship

After the early Genii days I knew that sustaining a continuity of personnel was absolutely essential to ensuring the momentum didn’t stall out. With Insitu needing more components made of WSU technology, it was becoming clear that a business would eventually need to be formed. All of my lab members are outstanding engineers with a skillset in high-demand. Keeping them around for phasing up the project wasn’t going to be easy. We needed to co-found a company. Travis was able to motivate three members of my lab (Dr. Patrick Adam, Dr. Ian Richardson, and Eli Shoemake) into starting a company they called Protium Innovations LLC.

WSU was not thrilled about co-founding a company with students who were still in various phases of working in the lab. Long-story short, one of the most frustrating phases of my career at WSU. Although it was the three of them that originally wanted me to co-found the company with them, WSU was unable to find a way that I could do so without a Conflict of Interest (COI). In principle, I could extort them through my position as their supervisor within the university. So I had to remove myself from the company.

Thankfully, there is an outstanding set of opportunities for starting up businesses in Washington State. Without grant funding specifically for the commercialization of WSU technology from the M.J. Murdoch Charitable Trust and the Washington Research Foundation, the Conflict of Interest (COI) board would’ve likely crushed our efforts. The Washington Research Foundation has a fellowship program designed to promote Post-doctoral students to commercialize the findings from their Ph.D research via small-business startups. Dr. Richardson was part of the inaugural cohort and received a $72k/year fellowship for a three year period. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford him. Patrick and Eli were able to win an NSF SBIR Phase I award to continue the work and contracted the service center of my lab to continue using the equipment.

When the big Army award came through, I needed people, fast. And you’re not going to find people with liquid hydrogen training un-employed these days. That’s why having the company in town was so pivotal. I was able to retain Dr. Adam and Dr. Richardson and hire Eli as an external consultant to work on the Army project. They know that the success of the Army project basically means they can immediately go into production with their business at project conclusion. If they had not gone the small business route, they would not have still been around, and I would’ve been stuck with a huge grant, a short timeline, and mostly untrained undergraduates.

Reaching Cruise Altitude with the HYPER lab

Now that the Army project is off and running, the HYPER lab has a critical mass of approximately 25 members (6 grad+) and are now likely the largest cryogenics lab in a US university. We’re working on additional major DOD funding to partner with other in-state OEMs to develop hydrogen vehicles. We were able to invest the Army funds into core capabilities, like our new outdoor liquid hydrogen testing area, and Cryogenic Accelerated Fatigue Tester (CRAFT) that are unique in the world in academia and the topic of frequent service center requests. In short, we’ve built the people pipeline, core facilities, and reputation to continue to lead the US in this role for the foreseeable future.

There are a few key take-aways from this story that I want to emphasize:

  1. Our Washington State constituents are the key to our biggest opportunities. Had I been successful getting a small federal grant early on, I likely wouldn’t have had to result in the ‘desperation’ tactics of using the student team to build the Genii drone. I would’ve likely gotten stuck on the same federal funding carousel and not developed the relationships with the Washington State companies that helped us get the big grants. In the end, working with the companies to do constituent relevant research is incredibly rewarding, in-line with our Land-Grant legacy, and feels like what I should’ve been trying to do all along.
  2. The people we train are our biggest assets. Whether for getting your foot-in-the-door with in-state constituents or maintaining a critical mass of experience necessary to quickly deliver on big projects. The people we develop are our ultimate products. People really seldom care about the papers or patents we produced, they always want to hear the story of where that original Genii team ended up.
  3. Realize the many opportunities provided by Entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship seems to be a dirty word on campus as people just associate it with capitalism or money making. In my case, it was a means to retaining the necessary people to transition technology out of the university. I don’t plan for that Protium group to give up or cash out anytime soon. In fact, I envision a future where they function much like SEL here in town, but with the HYPER lab in WSU doing continued basic research and services. Like I told Dan Nordquist, “I helped start the company because I don’t want to ever write a proposal with a 1 in 10 or less chance of success again.”
  4. WSU is working to get things right. I look back on all of the frustrations and road-blocks WSU put in front of me during this process. There were times when I was seriously concerned that I’d need a lawyer. This path to success was certainly not traditional. I have a feeling that Travis and Brian Kraft originally targeted me to start this process with because they knew I was from the area, had fairly thick skin, and could blaze a trail. Since then I’ve been very happy to see that WSU is developing better systems and processes to support this path. While I’ve been negative here in a few instances, there are many, many people who have helped the lab to succeed over the years (you all know who you are!). Thank you!

One final note — the HYPER lab’s story won’t work for everyone. To make into into the top 25 public research universities though, we need every approach to work better than before. We at least have new options now for taking on this challenge.