Grey Matter a finalist in military Proof Challenge
A Dunkirk technology firm was selected as a finalist last week in a defense industry challenge to develop a new warfighter suit to ward off chemical and biological attacks.
Grey Matter, founded by Tommy Luginbill, is working on commercializing a chemical coating that transforms any fabric into a bulwark against chemical and biological agents commonly used in warfare. Luginbill said it’s now been successfully tested against chlorine, VX (nerve agent) and mustard gas, three of the most commonly used gases in war.
The first part of the next phase of development is to prove the coating will scale up from laboratory testing to full-sized clothing and suits that would be worn by soldiers or emergency first responders such as EMTs, Luginbill said. The second part is to develop a plan to either license fabric and clothing manufacturers to use the material or to manufacturer the chemical and sell into the textile trade, he said.
The Proof Challenge, a competition run by the military’s Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense, called on students, engineers and entrepreneurs to design a “chembio” suit for soldiers in the field. Grey Matter is one of three finalists and has received $55,000 to carry on to the next phases of development — which Luginbill said should be starting next week — and Luginbill received an extra $5,000 for elevating the awareness of the competition.
“Them giving us the funds to do this was the key to get this done,” Luginbill said in a telephone interview this week. “All the pieces have really come together.”
“We were excited to use the Proof Challenge to reach out to the general public, beyond our military resources and experts, to source ideas and solutions for innovation,” the military’s LeRoy Garey, the Proof Challenge product manager, said in a news release. “The thinking, attention to detail and fresh ideas were astounding, exceeding what we expected. This type of public collaboration is something we look forward to tapping into in the future — joining forces with the Americans we serve to help protect this country and our warfighters.”
Luginbill started the company in 2014 while he was at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business. As part of the FedTech class, he was paired with the Naval Research Laborator y to develop commercial — and mili- tary — products from the military’s declassified research and development projects, or a process commonly referred to as “technology transfer.”
The chemical coating that Luginbill lit upon was developed and patented by Brandy Johnson, a Naval Research Lab scientist, in 2006, Luginbill said.
“She had invented it for the troops over in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “Originally, it was going to be used for the material in tents.” The idea was to make tents able to withstand a chem- ical attack and protect their occupants.
Working with others at the lab, he moved in the direction of “personal protection equipment” and something that could go beyond military use.
His father, Steve Luginbill, began running Grey Matter as president after Tommy moved to Southern Maryland and took a job as the first director of the College of Southern Maryland’s Entrepreneur and Innovation Institute in La Plata. His dad runs day-to-day operations and Tommy now helps out where he can, though it is incorporated at his home in Dunkirk.
Tommy said before the competition and the Army testing of the product, which concluded last fall, he was working exclusively toward licensing the product to other manufacturers and hadn’t thought much about setting up shop and manufacturing the coating. The proliferation of various economic development and tax incentive programs around the state and here in Southern Maryland has gotten him rethinking that approach.
“We are evaluating manufacturing the coating. We’re looking at actually making it in Southern Maryland,” Luginbill said. “We’re strongly considering manufacturing the materials down here.”
Early on, Grey Matter received funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security through the state’s TEDCO program for developing the prototype coating and swatches of treated cloth. TEDCO is a legislative initiative created by the legislature in 1998 to facilitate the transfer and commercialization of technology from the state’s universities and federal labs into the marketplace.
In his role as director of the CSM institute, Luginbill has gotten a new class going just like the one he took — FedTech — at the University of Mar yland. The new CSM class, Tech Transfer Education, will pair student entrepreneurs up with scientists and engineers at Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Indian Head and at Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) Patuxent River in hopes of spurring further technology transfers from government research to product development and commercialization.
“It’s like a roller coaster: some days you don’t know if this is going to work and then things like [the Proof Challenge] happen and you keep going,” Luginbill said. “It’s been a crazy, crazy three years.”
Some of Grey Matter’s prototype swatches of uniform fabric treated with a coating resistant to chemical and biological weapons.