Empowered Innovators Launch Disruptive Startup with Novel Ceramics

Jan 26, 2024 | Available Tech, Recognition, Spark Fund

Randall Erb & JasonNortheastern’s Center for Research Innovation (CRI) is supporting two innovators whose work stands poised to radically heat things up by cooling things down: these entrepreneurs are Drs. Randall Erb and Jason Hoffman-Bice. 

Erb and Hoffman-Bice have discovered a game-changing material. According to Northeastern Global News, they have created “an all-ceramic that can be compression-molded into complex parts … [that] … could transform the design and construction of heat-emitting electronics, including cellphones and other radio components.”   

Their recent paper, “Thermoformable boron nitride based all-ceramics”, outlining the nature of their findings, appeared in the prestigious Advanced Materials journal.  

Hoffman-Bice, a recent PhD graduate of Northeastern wrote a dissertation examining the processing-structure-property relationships of phononic crystals, and together with Erb, Associate Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and head of the Directed Assembly of Particles & Suspensions (DAPS) Lab (and former advisor of Hoffman-Bice), launched a spinout company, Fourier, to commercialize this groundbreaking innovation in thermal management.  

The most “empowering” part of Erb’s career as a professor has been seeing his students excel. 

“My students outgrow me as an advisor and become my peer or even my boss. I now report to Jason as a scientific advisor. I have undertaken this journey with prior students as well and am always impressed how much I end up learning from my former students,” Erb notes.  

Together, they are pioneering a revolutionary technology known as “thermoformable ceramic matrix composites” (CMCs), which has the potential to redefine the way heat is dissipated in electronics, enhancing reliability and performance while reducing waste. Hoffman-Bice perceives this “invention changes the way we think about electronics.”  

Fourier officially launched in 2022 with the assistance of key business programs at CRI, namely Spark Fund and Ignite. The Spark Fund, which helps Northeastern researchers bridge the gap between promising lab results and commercially viable prototypes, provided two rounds of seed money totaling $100,000 that allowed them to test and prove the concept.  

Thinking back to 2022 when the first $50,000 Spark Fund award was received, Hoffman-Bice reflected, “the business side was a big learning curve,” illustrating how critical it was to tap into CRI’s support. After investing four years into a PhD program, Hoffman-Bice was “far too poor” to bootstrap a startup. “This predicament happens frequently with PhD candidates,” Hoffman-Bice observes, and “it is another reason why programs such as CRI’s Spark Fund act as a lifeline for Northeastern faculty and graduate student entrepreneurial teams.”  

“The Spark Fund provided us with non-dilutive capital that has allowed us to increase our technology readiness level. Increasing the readiness of early technologies sits in a gap between scientific developments that are supported by research grants and commercial implementation. This gap is known as the ‘valley of death’ over which capital from the Spark Fund has provided us with a necessary bridge to improve and de-risk our technology,” comments Erb. 

“Significant investment should go into these types of programs that help the Center for Research Innovation fulfill its mission of accelerating Northeastern technologies,” Hoffman-Bice declares, additionally noting that Fourier’s advisory board includes many CRI industry connections. 

The CRI offers several different programs for entrepreneurs and Hoffman-Bice was excited to have “been a part of them all from marketing to branding.” Ignite, CRI’s pivotal entrepreneurial service, offers vetted resources that empower Northeastern inventors to realize the commercial potential of their discoveries. These resources include professional branding support, investor connections, and hands-on mentoring from seasoned entrepreneurs.   

Hoffman-Bice credits Katie Hemphill, Director of Technology Ventures and Talent Network (who oversees Ignite), with running a creative and critical service that inspires innovators to pursue their dreams.  

Hemphill states, “It has been incredible to watch the DAPS Lab latest spinout, Fourier, evolve over the past several months. The inventors’ dedication to advancing both their tech and team readiness to achieve impact is evident in every interaction. We at the CRI have been happy to support Jason, Randy, and the Fourier team as they launch the company and seek partners to further accelerate their success.”  

Fourier is now raising seed investment and the company also has a pipeline of potential new customers. “Our current results support that we will make a large impact in thermal management devices for the electronic, EV vehicle, space, and telecommunications industries,” cites Erb. Clearly, the Fourier team is ready to “bring the heat (down).” 

Could you use $50,000 to support your research? CRI’s Spark Fund offers proof-of-concept gap fund awards to commercially valuable inventions from any field of research. Click here to learn more. 

Written by Joanna Smiley