Civionics Wins Cash, Aims to Help Manufacturers Increase Profits

A University of Michigan spinoff startup was the big winner at the 15th Annual Collaboration for Entrepreneurship (ACE) event held in Ann Arbor, MI. Ten startups pitched as part of the ACE Challenge, and Civionics walked away with the $5,000 grand prize thanks to its embedded wireless-sensor technology.

“We’re not the typical startup,” says Civionics chief technology officer Andrew Zimmerman. “We’ve been around for six years reinventing ourselves, but it feels like we’re back at the startup stage.”

Civionics was founded in 2009 to bring to market wireless sensor systems it calls “constellation nodes” that use low-energy wireless technology to collect and analyze data from traditionally hard-to-monitor structures like long-span bridges, naval vessels, and wind turbines. Zimmerman says Civionics incorporates best practices from structural engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, wireless networking, and information theory to provide data its customers can use in a simple dashboard.

Civionics initially thought its technology could be used to monitor civil infrastructure—hence the company’s name—but, Zimmerman says, that idea didn’t pan out. “We were always looking for the market for our technology,” he explains. “That market is not structural health, unfortunately.”

Instead, Civionics hit on using its sensors to track the efficiency and condition of manufacturing equipment. “I’m surprised it took us so long to figure it out with so much manufacturing in Michigan,” Zimmerman admits, adding that all of the manufacturers using Civionics technology so far are based in-state. “We’ve already gotten lots of traction.”

It took a trip to a stamping plant in Warren, MI, to crystallize the idea of just how Civionics could apply its technology to a major problem in manufacturing. Traditionally, when the line in a manufacturing plant stops working, it costs $600 or more per minute in lost revenue. The current practice, Zimmerman says, is to wait for the line to fail and then order replacement parts, which can end up costing millions of dollars in lost productivity.

“Our technology looks for anomalies and failures within the system,” Zimmerman says. “Then it alerts the plant manager, and the manufacturer knows something is wrong before it turns into a catastrophic problem.”

Though the three-person Civionics team has bootstrapped everything to date, Zimmerman says the company is beginning to consider raising outside capital to help it meet new manufacturing opportunities. In the past, Civionics has received Michigan Economic Development Corporation and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants.

Civionics is also part of Automation Alley’s 7Cs program, which helps early-stage startups get to market within two years by connecting participants with their first customers. (The “7Cs” stands for concept, context, community, clarity, customers, capital, and commercialization.)

“Automation Alley takes Michigan-based startups and matches them with established players in manufacturing,” Zimmerman says. “We’re hoping to leverage that network as we grow.”

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