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Through Volpe SBIR, Pipelines Are Healthier and a Small Business Grows

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Without traffic cones or construction crews snarling traffic, it’s easy to forget the vast network of pipelines, spanning hundreds of thousands of miles across the country, that transport the oil that heats our homes and the gasoline that fuels our cars.

In the past, the only way to tell that a pipeline was in trouble was by looking at it for clues. Only visible stresses or major deformations provided hints to potential fractures or warping—and by the time they were visible, they had already caused serious damage.

With Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding from the Volpe Center, Houston-based Generation 2 Materials Technology, LLC (G2MT), produced an industry first—a preventative measure.

The company’s nondestructive pipeline stress analysis sensor can determine the through-thickness residual stresses of materials that are built to withstand pressure, thus revealing pipeline stressors before they are visible.

Volpe administers the Department of Transportation’s SBIR program to help entrepreneurs develop new and innovative solutions to complex transportation challenges. Through this program, in 2011 the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) awarded G2MT Phase I funding of $150,000, which allowed the development of a proof of concept. In 2012, G2MT received an SBIR Phase II award of $1 million, granting the production of a sensor that was ready for both field deployment and commercialization.

The award helped G2MT grow its staff by 500 percent. Founder Angelique Lasseigne was able to hire new help as her company grew from 2 to 12 employees—and she’s about to hire more.

“Having the SBIR program behind us makes the major [companies] realize that we’re real, we’re serious, and we’re here to play,” said Lasseigne. “That made them give more to us: more samples and access. You can’t make these sensors if you don’t have access to the real thing.”

The breadth of G2MT’s influence has quickly grown to the point where the sensors can be used almost anywhere in the field. The sensors now have a role in the nuclear, aviation and maritime industries, as well as in gauging the structural integrity of transportation infrastructure such as bridges.

Working with SBIR has helped Lasseigne remain the owner of G2MT, as it is unrequired that she sell her intellectual property or share the company with an investor. She also owns and operates a second company, conducting failure analyses to help pay G2MT’s overhead.

“The SBIR program is going to be the future of giving opportunity to future generations,” Lasseigne said. “We need the opportunity to keep our intellectual property and the opportunity to lead our companies, because you never know who will be the next Apple.”

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