01 Apr 2021

Dr Gordon Nameni on crossing the chasm from R&D into the commercial markets

August Brown’s founder on fostering innovation, a semiconductor corridor in the US’ Midwest, technology translation and poetry slams

By Anne Gallagher

Image courtesy of August Brown

As founder and partner of tech-focused Milwaukee consulting firm August Brown, Dr Gordon Nameni helps companies take their technologies and products across the R&D/commercial gap, create new products from emerging technologies, explore AI and automation possibilities and scout supply chain opportunities. He founded the company in 2011 after completing a Fulbright Fellowship in South Africa and then a National Science Foundation Corporate post-doctorate at AO Smith Corporation.

Why did you found August Brown? 

I am a technology evangelist, a technology translator and I am passionate about increasing the amount of technology that crosses the chasm from research and development into the commercial markets. When we can get new technologies into the hands of people, it can really change lives. Let me give you an example. In the United States, the government wants to save the coal industry and keep coal miners employed and yet environmentally, we don’t want to burn coal. So what can we do here? We have a client that mixed coal with a polymer resin to create a coal composite ceramic that doesn’t burn. August Brown worked with the client to produce a roof shingle product from the technology. The roof shingle concept was not intuitive but the application of coal in roof shingles has opened the door to many more opportunities for coal as a valued-added product in the building materials industry. The US Department of Energy is now providing $122m in funding to establish coal innovation centres throughout the US. It’s estimated that roof shingles could use 10 tons of coal for the average house, which could total 23,000 metric tons in the next decade. This means that residential and commercial buildings could one day receive CO2 mitigation credits that could ultimately make an impact on the national carbon footprint. The patent is still pending on the coal-based roof shingle and other applications that we have developed and qualified. That is just one example of how we can support American innovation.   

What do you mean when you say you are a technology translator? 

Technology translation is about matching scientific or industrial requirements to capability from elsewhere, creating new applications in new revenue-generating spaces. The coal-based ceramic roof shingle is an example of technology translation. 'Technology translators' often work to identify opportunities for innovation in the marketplace and connect them with emerging technologies in academic and research laboratories. Our national laboratories in this country are extraordinary and we can work more creatively to integrate their resources. Argonne National Lab started a venture capital fund that supports technology development around the energy sector for start-up and early-stage companies. This is a great way to support nascent technology development. 

Along those lines, how do we foster technology innovation? 

We work on developing technology and innovation in our own backyards. Where I work and live – the greater Milwaukee area – the state of Wisconsin provided $3bn in tax credits for a company to build the next generation liquid crystal display manufacturing plant in the area. Everything was put in place including a real estate park and then the company backed out. The Milwaukee region has the second highest density of manufacturing companies in the US. As the US government continues to strengthen the manufacturing capacity of the supply chains in areas of national security priority such as the medical and semiconductor industry, the MMC Triangle region (Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago) will be a top destination for these two industries. We are now working on a large study that will analyse the feasibility of repurposing the assets in the MMC Triangle in support of a semiconductor manufacturing plant in the same development site that has already been prepared near the Milwaukee area. This region is a natural fit for the semiconductor industry because of the talent pool, manufacturing base and access to freshwater resources, which will ultimately contribute to lower chip manufacturing costs. If the resources in the region can be organised around the effort, we can make this happen and build a thriving semiconductor industry in the Midwest.   

You mentioned you did a Fulbright Fellowship in South Africa. Did it play a role in what you’re doing now? 

Yes, I worked on the development of new materials and devices for water purification at the community level. Through that experience, I became passionate about converting technologies into solutions that can make an impact in daily lives. In my post-doc at AO Smith, I had the opportunity to begin to place the technologies that I was developing into commercial formats. That’s the reason I ultimately opted to pursue a career as a management consultant because I saw that I actually had greater leverage in converting technologies into real products that could affect lives.

I’ve read that in your free time, you like to do poetry slams. Would you ad lib a poetry slam right now on technology? 

Yes, of course. Tell me not in solemn numbers, life is nothing but algorithms and widgets for the soul. For the soul is dead that slumbers and things are not what they seem. So give me your algorithms, give me your lessons and I will show you how to convert that into life-changing missions. 

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