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An Assessment of the SBIR Program at the Department of Energy
Patience and a focus on specific core capabilities have resulted in consistent success and steady growth. “We go after things that we (believe in or) are interested in and try and make living at it rather than look for that great huge opportunity and go after that,” Hardeman notes. The focus has resulted in a Phase I success rate of 50 percent—more than double the program-wide average. The sales and contracting work that have accrued to the company from its PetraSim software developed with the DoE Phase I and Phase II awards admittedly do not qualify it as “a huge phase III with venture capital,” in Hardeman’s words. Yet the more $195,000 of sales and $100,000 of contract work that Thunderhead have earned on PetaSim have been enough to seed it as one of the relatively rare viable small technology companies operating in its environment. With the company having earned 45 percent of its lifetime revenues in the last 24 months, its growth clearly has not slowed. The company has three full-time employees and three part-time, with an increased focus on marketing. Student employees at Thunderhead are often eager to stay with company after their graduation.
To maintain continued growth the company’s founder made the difficult decision in September 2005 to transition operational control to Hardeman. “I have made my decision—I am going to go back to K-State,” Swenson states. “I am going to be phasing out from daily operations at Thunderhead. I will still be an owner and a board member. But it costs a lot to pay me or match my salary at K-State. We have a limited amount in the company and when I look at it, it would be better for me to back off. I think this is a better way to make it go.”
Because of the support provided by the SBIR program, Thunderhead Engineering has developed software that is meeting market opportunities. Both commercial products, PetraSim for simulation of flow in porous media and PyroSim for modeling of fires in buildings, were built around software developed at national laboratories, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. This represents a leveraging of previous federal R&D investments to provide service a much broader set of beneficiaries than would otherwise be possible.
Thunderhead Engineering is now on track to be self-supporting through sales. Sales of PyroSim are steadily increasing and the new emergency egress software will integrate with the existing product. There is every reason to believe that Thunderhead Engineering will continue to grow, thanks to the initial SBIR support.