Having accurate data measured from frigid Antarctica to the broiling tropics is crucial to studying climate change. There's a small business in Lincoln that's provided most of the tools over the years used by scientists around the world to measure exchanges of greenhouse gases between the earth and our atmosphere, and furthering our understanding of the process and impact on our world.
A program coordinated by the SBA is helping this company develop a new sensor technology that could meet demand for high-accuracy atmospheric gas concentration measurements.
The goal is for this new device: require less power to run and offer more precise data collection of carbon dioxide concentration in remote places.
Oh, and one more thing: make it cost a fraction of current laser-based models in use around the world.
'High-Tech, High-Touch' craftsmanship
The company tackling this project, LI-COR Biosciences, started with Bill Biggs, an engineer working to develop specialized instrumentation to help agricultural research scientists. More than 40 years later, the company Biggs still serves as CEO of a firm that's grown to more than 300 employees from their campus along northeast Lincoln's busy Superior Street to offices in Germany and the U.K. You won't find robots whirring about and there are no assembly lines here. They call it "high-tech, high-touch" craftsmanship, where they assemble circuit boards and complex wiring--by hand.
The company's instruments and software are used in more than a hundred countries in studies ranging from plant biology to cancer research and drug discovery; the company's automated DNA sequencers were used to help map a chromosome for the Human Genome Project.
But it's this new tech development that not only has the company excited but also got the backing of a Small Business Innovation Research grant. Through three phases of product development, SBIR mitigates some of the risk and expense of conducting serious research and development often beyond the means of many small businesses while providing an incentive to profit from their invention.
SBIR funds drove innovation in climate change research
One of 11 federal agencies that depend on SBIR to solve some of the federal government's thorniest technology problems, the Department of the Energy asked industry leaders in environmental research to find a lower cost means of monitoring carbon dioxide at the local, regional and global levels to advance understanding of the processes influencing climate change.
Understanding the growing concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane in our atmosphere requires accurate knowledge of concentrations and rates of exchange, or fluxes, between the atmosphere and their sources, such as landfills, plants and the oceans.
"That caused us to scratch our heads and think about how to solve this problem," said Dayle McDermitt, vice-president for research and development for the company's environmental products group.
Up to now, scientists have used LI-COR instruments to measure those fluxes at different scales down to leaf-level photosynthesis all the way up to large-scale ecosystem exchanges.
Back in 1998 the company snagged a $75,000 SBIR grant to develop a new open-path carbon dioxide analyzer for measuring fluxes with a return on investment that McDermitt says, with a complete absence of hyperbole, "changed the world."
By 1986, LI-COR had developed a closed-path carbon dioxide analyzer as the heart of a new instrument it introduced for measuring photosynthesis in plant leaves. Four years later, the company released a stand-alone version of the analyzer that could measure both carbon dioxide and water vapor simultaneously at high speed with precision and accuracy.
This was just what scientists needed to measure exchanges of carbon dioxide between ecosystems and the atmosphere.
But there was a hitch. To supply air to the closed-path analyzer, it had to be drawn from the top of a tower through a long tube--and that needed big pumps and lots of power from the grid. Want to measure the atmosphere in a far-flung location? Better find a really long extension cord. It was difficult or impossible for scientists to gain a complete picture of carbon balance of ecosystems in remote areas.
'Much of what we now know' comes from LI-COR instruments
So scientists needed something that could run on cheap and abundant power, gather data in all directions without power-consuming sampling tubes that would complicate measurements.
LI-COR turned to SBIR funds to help develop an open-path technology to fit the bill.
With the help of that grant, they came up with an open-path system which required no sampling tubes or pumps to consume power or complicate measurements, and best of all, could run off the sun's rays.
"A lot of people were using our closed-path system," McDermitt said, "but when we made an open-path system available, for the first time a low power instrument powered by solar was available."
Since then, the LI-COR open path instrument has become a standard used worldwide. Overall, McDermitt estimates that more than 80 percent of the measurements examining carbon balance of agricultural and natural ecosystems have been made using LI-COR instruments.
"Much of what we now know about how climate change might influence ecosystems comes from data provided by these instruments," McDermitt added. "It's made all this scientific work possible."
Then there's this: taking the device to the marketplace has also generated a significant amount of revenue for the company to date; it's nearly impossible to measure the further returns from product design and development germinated from that technological development.
The SBIR nudge also helped change the direction of the company, leading it down a research and development path that "brought us into this new arena, to be able to see technology we didn’t anticipate," McDermitt explained.
Company using $1.3 million in SBIR funds for R&D
Fifteen years later, having conquered one problem, LI-COR was ready to tackle the next one. And this time, they got a much bigger SBIR grant--a total of $1.3 million for the first two phases of research and development.
The small firm, McDermitt said, has used SBIR funding to help offset its high research and development costs. As CEO, Biggs invests a significant amount of the company's profits back into the firm rather than looking to loans or seeking investors to finance its new projects.
"We live in an extraordinarily competitive environment. Our R&D budget is way above many similar companies," McDermitt said.
Since 1996, LI-COR has earned seven SBIR grants on four projects for its environmental science work; since 2000, the company overall has been selected for 15 awards.
In the environmental field, the company’s SBIR participation has led to commercial products from two of three projects, with its fourth is still in process. One of these was recognized by the editors of R&D Magazine as “one of the most technologically significant products introduced in 2010.”
LI-COR says they're selective which proposals they pursue. "It really has to be consistent with our strategic direction. We don’t go after the money just to go after the money, unless the product they're looking for is consistent with our roadmap. Unless it is likely to result in a commercial product, we won’t apply."
The company will tell you they're part of the larger scientific community; for example, they've developed advanced software for protein analysis--and give it away to university students and anyone else interested in doing this work--for free.
"We want to facilitate the discovery process, we want to show we value their research," Doc Chaves, LI-COR director of corporate communications explained. "If they know what we can do as a company, we hope later they’ll turn back to us to acquire the tools they'll need to further their studies."
As increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere inexorably changes the earth's climate, demands for more precise measurements will increase along with it. Thanks to the help from the SBIR program, LI-COR hopes to remain the industry leader providing the tools for scientists to collect that data and better understand our environment.