Virginia Company Helps Develop Firefighters’ Gloves

By DUNCAN ADAMS, The Roanoke Times | December 22, 2014

The brainy but self-effacing chief technical officer for NanoSonic emphasized that he is a chemist and not a marketing pro.

Yet Vince Baranauskas’ obvious enthusiasm for an advance in gloves for firefighters – a breakthrough touted by the U.S Department of Homeland Security, a partner with NanoSonic in the gloves’ development – seeps into his conversation.

“We’re offering everything and more (with these gloves),” Baranauskas said.

NanoSonic is a small, Giles County-based company focused on nanotechnology. It has worked in recent years with the Department of Homeland Security and Tennessee-based Shelby Specialty Gloves to develop for firefighters and first responders a “structure glove” that the collaborators say offers both remarkable protection and enhanced dexterity – qualities that have tended to be mutually exclusive in the design of gloves for firefighters.

Greg Price is director of Responder Technologies, a division within Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate.

“Firefighters have been using bulky leather structure gloves for many years,” Price has said. “Bulky gloves can make it difficult for firefighters to complete simple tasks without removing their gloves and compromising their safety.”

NanoSonic’s contributions to the gloves included fabric incorporating its HybridShield Thermal Arrays technology, a commercially available cousin of a fire/blast protection product developed initially for the U.S. Navy.

Tom Ragan, president of Shelby Specialty Gloves, said earlier this month that the company hopes to begin shipping some sizes of the new Flex-TuffHS structure glove in early 2015.

Shelby sells gloves for firefighters, industrial workers and the military. Its products are manufactured in the United States, a fact Ragan proudly accented.

Ragan said the Flex-TuffHS glove combines a Kevlar knit with NanoSonic’s HybridShield Thermal Arrays and other materials and design features to yield a glove that is heat- and water-resistant, able to withstand punctures and cuts that other firefighters’ gloves might not, easier to put on and take off and flexible enough to enhance dexterity.

“It’s a significant innovation,” Ragan said.

Meanwhile, NanoSonic, founded in 1998 in Blacksburg, feels buoyed enough by the success of HybridShield – as well as its more sophisticated parent HybridSil, Metal Rubber and other products developed through the years – to launch planning for a new 80,000-square-foot building focused on manufacturing.

“The future is bright,” said Jennifer Lalli, a chemist who is NanoSonic’s president.

And the company has won friends in Giles County, from which it leases its current 30,000-square-foot office and research and development building in the county’s Wheatland Eco Park. NanoSonic’s manufacturing plant, for which architectural plans are complete, would be adjacent to its current building.

Lalli said the company hopes to break ground in 2017 for the manufacturing facility.

In an email, Chris McKlarney, county administrator for Giles County, said the county’s relationship with NanoSonic could not be better. The company employs 24 people full time.

“Their scientists have gone into our classrooms and lectured our children, showing them how important and fun science and math can be,” McKlarney said.

He said NanoSonic has helped the county identify and apply for funding opportunities and is consistently supportive of community events.

“We are also very proud of their accomplishments and take great pride in recognizing that some of the greatest technological advancements in our nation happen in Giles County, Virginia,” McKlarney said.

A successful venture

NanoSonic works in the world of nanotechnology, which, by one definition, is “science, engineering and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers.”

A human hair is about 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers wide. Researchers at NanoSonic develop new products by manipulating molecules. A molecule is the smallest unit of a substance that retains that substance’s properties.

Rick Claus, an electrical engineer and a professor emeritus of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech, was one of three people who founded NanoSonic. Co-founder Linda Duncan retired as chief financial officer in 2011. The other founder, a graduate student, left the company during its relative infancy.

Claus said the private company does not disclose annual revenue figures but said NanoSonic has been in the black since its founding. A key funding source through the years has been federal grants from the Small Business Innovation Research program. The competitive program is designed to encourage small companies in the U.S. to engage in federal research and development that has the potential for commercialization.

Claus, who is now NanoSonic’s director of advanced development, said NanoSonic products developed for the U.S. Department of State have generated revenues as unclassified versions of these goods have developed commercial markets.

In other words, NanoSonic might develop one product designed for a classified use for the U.S. Navy and then sell a modified version on the open market.

NanoSonic recently launched an online store that offers for sale some of these commercial products that have evolved from classified cousins.

Lalli said such products now yield about 50 percent of NanoSonic’s revenues. She said the company anticipates this percentage will continue to increase in the years ahead, especially once manufacturing ramps up.

Ragan anticipates that Shelby Specialty Gloves will sell the Flex-TuffHS glove for about $140 a pair, a price that exceeds the company’s current pricing range for firefighters’ gloves – a range Ragan said has been between $65 and $120.

But he said the new glove’s high-tech features will offer increased durability on top of the other qualities cited by Homeland Security and others.

Homeland Security’s website reports that the glove “underwent multiple stages of research and testing to ensure the selected materials were durable enough to handle field conditions.”

Field testing of the new structure gloves yielded “glowing reviews,” according to Homeland Security. “Firefighters noted heat resistance, don and doff ability and overall comfort and flexibility as key improvements.”

The website for the Small Business Innovation Research program says it is intended to stimulate high-tech innovation in the U.S. and foster an entrepreneurial spirit – both of which seem to have occurred at NanoSonic since 1998.

By all appearances, Claus, Lalli, Baranauskas and others at NanoSonic enjoy their work and the company’s scenic environs off U.S. 460 in Giles County.

“Rick and Jennifer are wonderful people and you feel energized after getting to spend some time with them,” McKlarney said.

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