A company that developed sensors and software used to test materials and components in the aerospace, defense and energy industries has moved its headquarters from Idaho to Buffalo, bringing 10 jobs to this area with the potential for many more, officials said Friday.
Sentient Science Corp. has maintained its research and development facility in Idaho Falls but late last year opened an office in the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs Executive Development Center, the former Butler mansion on Delaware Avenue’s “Millionaire’s Row.”
The move, which will be recognized at a news conference next month, was made after local business groups and elected officials worked to connect Sentient Science with computer scientists and engineers at UB.
“Everything came together, and we said, ‘This is where we want to start our company – the commercial side of the company,’ ” said Wesley Thomas, who handles business development for Sentient. His father, Ward, is president, CEO and chairman.
Sentient in 2000 began developing its testing technology, marketed under the DigitalClone brand, to take the place of the manual testing of materials and components used in the manufacture of everything from helicopters, bridges and medical devices to wind turbines.
The items are tested with simulators and sensors to determine how the materials used in their manufacture will behave under various scenarios, how they stand up to the stresses of use, their structural integrity and how long it will take before they have to be replaced.
Physically performing these tests requires considerable time and expense, Wesley Thomas said.
Sentient’s sensors and software can perform these tests in the virtual realm, saving time and money and “enabling industry to make a better product,” said Paul Pfeiffer, director of investor and public relations for Buffalo Niagara Enterprise.
“The science that they have, the business problems they solve, the uniqueness of what they do is pretty cool,” Pfeiffer added.
Sentient’s modeling and simulation software decodes basic, structural information about materials used in manufacturing in the same way that scientists are decoding the human genome at the level of DNA, according to the company.
Sentient first proved the viability of its technology to NASA officials in 2010, the same year Ward Thomas bought the company, reproducing testing data that took the federal agency decades and millions of dollars to generate.
Company scientists are working with other government agencies, such as testing at what point components in the Army’s Blackhawk and Apache helicopters will crack from fatigue.
The company now is looking to win Fortune 500 firms as clients for its technology.
“Now that we’ve proven it, we’re quickly commercializing it,” Wesley Thomas said.
One reason Sentient was drawn to this area was because the company wanted to test its technology in the renewable energy sector, including in the wind turbines that have sprouted up here and around the East Coast.
Ward Thomas reached out to Moog Inc.’s then chief executive officer, Robert T. Brady, who connected Thomas with Buffalo Niagara Enterprise in fall 2011.
Sentient also was interested in partnering with researchers at UB’s new Center of Excellence in Materials Informatics and its Center for Computational Research.
Administrators at UB and the BNE began working to bring Sentient to Buffalo.
“The University at Buffalo played a critical role in this,” the Pfeiffer said.
Pfeiffer said the search for a home for Sentient here was “challenging” at times, but he said the former Butler mansion made sense because of the company’s ties to UB and its desire for a “signature” location.
The building, constructed by the family that founded The Buffalo News, was later used by the Delaware North Cos.
Renamed the Jacobs Executive Development Center by UB, it housed the university’s fundraising arm and its Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership.
When the Office of Development moved to the South Campus, and the CEL moved to the UB Downtown Gateway building, space opened up. The university was able to offer it to Sentient.
The company moved in late last year and has 10 employees there now, with 15 to 20 employees remaining in Idaho, Wesley Thomas said.
In paperwork filed with Empire State Development, Sentient said its local presence could grow to as many as 86 employees, Pfeiffer said.
“This is where we’re planning to grow,” Wesley Thomas said.
Thomas praised the assistance the company has received from the offices of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and other state and federal agencies.
“For over a year we have been saying that materials science could be one of the keys to unlocking our economic development future in Western New York.
Sentient’s choice to move to Buffalo demonstrates what we have known all along – that if we invest in cutting edge research, companies and jobs will follow,” Schumer said in an email.
Sentient has received $23 million in federal and state R&D grants.
That includes $1 million from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to develop and put in place a system to test gear boxes in wind turbines.
The company’s sensors were installed in a demonstration project at Steel Winds in Buffalo about a month ago, said Kate T. Muller, a spokeswoman for the authority.
Sentient plans to seek more such grants in partnership with UB.
“It’s still in its early phases,” said Marnie LaVigne, associate vice president of economic development for UB.
Sentient plans to host government, business and university officials at a news conference June 13 at its offices in the Jacobs Executive Development Center to publicize its move to Buffalo and thank the agencies that have helped them.