He gave an example of an innovation that stemmed from his idea. One day he got a telephone call asking about thin film. He then wrote a NASA SBIR, which got funded and allowed for demonstration of an application to computer memory. Although it didn’t work, he made thin film. After this step, he created his first Web page. The Web page created contacts. This was followed by SBIRs from both NSF and DARPA. One contact from a person from New York University was about a medical application. After meeting, the NYU person licensed Johnson’s technology and set up a new business, giving Johnson stock in the company. The company was formed as Smart Therapeutics. It developed a product that was sold to Boston Scientific, which provided TiNi Alloy with money. The point is that SBIR funded highly innovative thin film technology that required a second firm to complete the commercialization, indirectly further funding TiNi Alloy through the second company’s sales. None of this was planned. “No one knows where the next good thing will come from.” In fact, Johnson thinks that the best projects didn’t have a business plan.
He gave a second interesting example. Shortly after he started TiNi, someone asked: Can the technology be used to make explosive bolts? After putting down the telephone, while walking down the stairs he got an idea: a device that breaks the bolt but not explosively. He made a prototype in a couple of weeks that proved the concept. Then he sought funding from SBIR but failed to get support. A Navy person saw the technology as a means to separate in space and funded it. The technology (the FRANGIBOLT) was used for the Clementine Space Mission. TiNi Aerospace was launched to commercialize the product and has paid royalties back to TiNi Alloy Company.
Johnson attended only one conference by MDA that was intended to provide commercialization advice and assistance. The effect on TiNi was minimal because there was no follow-up. He believes that people like himself need mentoring: help from people with experience taking things to market. One example involves working with larger companies. Sherwin-Williams, GM, and Gillette were all interested in Johnson’s technology. He wrote proposals but nothing happened. How does a small firm make these connections?
He has also talked with VC. But the VC consider his technology too diverse. So he hasn’t gotten VC funds. Does he need a partner to take the next step? TiNi Alloy Company and TiNi Aerospace are planning a spin-off to make a consumer product, and will invite VC investment.