Intelligent Composites from UW-Milwaukee placed first in the advanced manufacturing category at the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest for their new aluminum composite material that is stronger, stiffer and lighter than traditional alloys.
“Aluminum has been replacing heavy iron and steel in all industries in the last 75 years,” Intelligent Composites chief marketing officer Christ Jordan said at the competition. “We have come up with a way to make a composite material that is very similar to aluminum but is better in almost every way.”
When applied to an internal combustion engine, the composite material allows it to run more efficiently with less energy loss due to friction.
“If you can reduce surface friction by one percent throughout the entire nation, it doesn’t sound like a lot but when you extrapolate that, you would save more than one billion liters of fuel annually worldwide,” Intelligent Composites engineer Simon Beno said.
Jordan said the company’s original intent was to sell their specialty-made parts to car manufacturers because of their ability to cut down on fuel consumption and energy loss, but had to come up with a new plan after hitting a few roadblocks.
“We’d like to be in every car and truck, every commercial vehicle,” Jordan said. “What we found is there is a lot of federal regulations that prevent a new company from getting into that marketplace so found the power sports market. What that is ATVs, snowmobiles and personal watercraft.”
Instead of fighting the strict regulations and long test trials in the automotive market, Intelligent Composites decided to circumvent them altogether and find a market that would be willing to try their product: racers and risk-takers.
“About ten percent of all people who own [power sport vehicles] are concerned with going faster,” Jordan said. “They want to go faster than their friends or in their races because it brings them more money or more prestige. What we found from these risk-takers is that they are willing to try a product from a new company without proven test results.”
Jordan attributes Lean Startup training his team underwent while participating in CTC’s Ideadvance program for this decision.
“Reality turns out to be a little different than what you think when you start a business,” Jordan said. “A common error for a new business is that they do not do customer discovery and look at things analytically. I felt that the Lean Startup business plan gave us tools not just for this project, but any situation where you are trying to sell something.”
The team followed the Lean Startup practice of contacting customers directly and asking about their needs, problems, and wishes. This is when the team realized the opportunities available in the power sports market.
“We didn’t find out about the niche market of racers and racing enthusiasts until we performed discovery interviews,” Jordan said. “We went into different power sports dealerships and machine shops and talked to owners, workers and users, which helped us identify that market.”
Moving forward, Intelligent Composites plans to spend time conducting further tests of their material in order to have hard test data to present to potential clients. Companies including Oshkosh Truck, Bombardier Inc. and Mercury Marine have already expressed interest in implementing Intelligent Composite’s technology into their engines and compressors.