Dot Metrics Technologies, a Charlotte-based technology company, in conjunction with the Charlotte Research Institute at UNC Charlotte, has developed a new cutting-edge technology product that can purify water in a compact system using mercury-free ultraviolet LEDs.
The system, trademarked UV-Pearl, can be easily transported and rapidly switched on and off with negligible warm-up time, which could provide advantages for the pharmaceutical and health care industries, and may also have applications for military and consumer use.
“The UV-Pearl is a good example of how a small company like Dot Metrics can use its size and expertise to develop a product utilizing emerging UV-LED technology,” says Rosanna Stokes, president and CEO. “Working with our partner, Aquionics, we were able to produce the world’s first water disinfection system that uses UV-C LED technology.”
From the Wellspring
Rosanna and her husband, UNC Charlotte electrical engineering professor Ed Stokes, co-founded the company in 2003. The couple, both formerly research scientists at GE Global Research in Albany, wanted to return to Charlotte—their hometown—and start a technology company to pursue innovation opportunities.
Rosanna brings research skills, along with new product, global and business development experience to Dot Metrics. Her background includes identifying new product development opportunities and creating strategic partnerships, along with manufacturing and introducing successful new products to the market.
Ed brings his experience from the university and business worlds, resulting in numerous real-world opportunities at the company for his engineering students, both undergraduate and graduate.
Together, the Stokes formed a company savvy enough to produce exciting new innovations and agile enough to pivot through the pits and challenges of new product development. The ability to work in a small research lab and innovate with competent partners, without bureaucratic tedium, has attracted numerous young researchers, including current Dot Metrics director of research Jennifer Pagan, and research leader Paolo Batoni.
Both Pagan and Batoni, former graduate students at UNC Charlotte, were pursued by larger companies but chose to stay with Dot Metrics.
“Companies like Intel, GE and Motorola were making me offers, but I turned them down,” says Batoni. “They asked, ‘What’s wrong? Aren’t we offering you enough money?’ But I wanted to stay in Charlotte and be at a small company.
“We engineers are natural-born control freaks, so it’s nice to be able to work on your own product and have control over it,” he affirms.
“It’s a tough business model for a small technology company like Dot Metrics,” says Rosanna. “The lack of available venture capital money makes the company strategically focus on its partners and ways to use partner channels, such as sales and marketing, to help put its product in the marketplace.”
“We can develop the technology but we have to look for synergy with our partners to make our company’s products successful,” she explains.
The Charlotte Research Institute (CRI) at UNC Charlotte is Dot Metric’s partner for facilities and infrastructure, while Aquionics is its executive partner for sales and marketing of the UV-Pearl. The company is continuing to search for additional executive partners for different products, she says.
“There is about a 10x multiplier advantage in being able to work with CRI,” says Rosanna.
“We’re just a small company, but we’re housed in Grigg Hall, a big, beautiful building. We can use the various conference rooms when we need more space to host guests and we have access to other office amenities. And, we’re right across the hall from Ed, so it’s easy for us to interact with him,” she says with a nod.
“One challenge to the company,” says Ed, “is operating on real time while the rest of the university operates on ‘campus time.’”
“The University operates in terms of months and semesters, while Dot Metrics looks at weeks and hours because that’s how you run a business,” he explains.
Dot Metrics is one of 16 companies located at CRI, according to Gail Keene, financial and administrative operations manager of the CRI Millennial Campus at UNC Charlotte.
Pagan says the company has worked with the CRI team to write grants together, including Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants that provide money to both university and private, innovator partners. Some research money awarded to Dot Metrics also flows back to UNC Charlotte. That money, totaling between $300,000 and $400,000 over the years, is used to help pay for office and lab rentals and graduate student stipends.
“That’s important,” says Pagan, “because the company is a small business and runs lean so funding is always tight.” SBIR grants initially funded R&D at Dot Metrics and are likely to be continuing funding sources, she says.
Another advantage of Dot Metrics being located at the CRI is the access to technology and equipment.
“We can use equipment for our research and development that would otherwise be very expensive for us to buy or lease,” Pagan points out. “It would cost us about $1 million to own the kind of equipment that we need to do our research.”
Private companies like Dot Metrics are encouraged to lease or rent time on advanced technology equipment in the UNC Charlotte Optics User Facilities, says Ed, noting that much of this equipment was purchased using a 2001 congressional earmark intended to encourage regional economic development in optoelectronics through UNC Charlotte and the CRI. Dot Metrics is an example of this development.
Source of Talent
Students are a big factor contributing toward the success of Dot Metrics’ operations.
“We are able to hire exceptional students,” says Batoni. “It’s a win-win situation—it’s convenient for students and it’s great for us to have students interested in research who can work in our labs.
“We rely heavily on guidance from the research and tech people at UNC Charlotte. They augment our ability,” he says. “We can tap into many brains at the University and regularly work with professors to help us solve problems that may be outside our area of expertise.”
Their student interns, says Batoni, leave and go on to pursue Ph.D.s at top research universities or work for top companies like Siemens.
At one point, CRI stepped in to help when a University lab partner of Dot Metrics was having some equipment issues. Batoni says a piece of University equipment necessary to complete some testing—an autoclave—was damaged.
“We tried for a few months to work with the University lab and get the repairs done. It was slow and frustrating,” says Batoni. “Finally, I reached out to Gail Keene, our CRI contact, and told her that the University’s damaged equipment was hurting our customers. She went right to work and got the repair done in one week!”
Keene offers the business an interface to the University that is invaluable to a small company, says Batoni.
“She gives us administrative and marketing help,” he says, “even things like supplying a notary public when we need one. She also helps us solve problems or conflicts with other entities on campus.”
“The University provides research support facilities, equipment and intellectual power,” says Keene. She names other services provided to clients including mail services, parking sticker purchases, data connectivity, local phone service, and networking opportunities, that offer invaluable support to small business partners.
“University-driven research development, outreach and partnership are the foundations to making UNC Charlotte the state’s urban research university,” affirms Keene. “These partnerships both strengthen the University’s campus research platform and drive innovation and economic and job development in the Charlotte region.”
Driven to Innovate
Key to any small business is funding and Rosanna acknowledges that Dot Metrics was fortunate receive funding from SBIR grants to begin operations and their continued funding has helped support the first 10 years of its operations.
“A Phase 1 SBIR grant is usually around $100,000 and a Phase II grant is usually around $500,000 to $750,000. We have received a few Phase I grants and a few Phase II grants,” she says.
The grant program, part of the Small Business Innovation Development Act begun in 1982, encourages high-tech innovation and entrepreneurial spirit to meet specific research and development needs. Dot Metrics, says Pagan, applied for grants that encouraged innovation in the LED field.
“It’s a very competitive process—there’s about a 10 percent win rate for grants in Phase I and a 30 percent win rate for Phase II grants,” explains Pagan.
“We were optimistic that we could focus on one competency—LEDs—and integrate them into a system,” says Rosanna.
The company recently launched its first commercial product, the trademarked UV-Pearl, in association with partner Aquionics, a UV water treatment company. Pagan says its patent is pending and it is “branded for water or other fluids disinfection.” The UV-Pearl is the world’s first water disinfection system to use UV-C LED technology.
“We’ve designed a chemical-free way of effectively disinfecting water, and it’s much safer,” says Pagan. “The system uses solid state light emitting diodes that work like LED light bulbs to emit wavelengths that kill inactive bacteria, viruses and cysts that can make you sick.”
The portable system uses UV LED lamps, which emit waves of light in the deep UV spectral (UV-C) range to destroy microorganisms, explains Rosanna. Another advantage is the portability of the UV-Pearl, allowing it to be configured to meet different needs, including integration into water generators and loops, and medical sterilization.
“By designing the system so it can be rapidly turned on and off without warm-up time, you can realize some energy savings,” adds Batoni. “The UV-Pearl is not sensitive to the temperature of water, making it convenient to use in different environments.”
“When the water is flowing, turn it on; when it’s not, shut it off,” continues Batoni. “The UV-Pearl can work on line voltage power (it can be plugged in) or on batteries, and we are working to allow the system to utilize solar-powered batteries.”
Rosanna sees several application uses for the system, and expects with continued R&D, production costs will decrease, spurring even more consumer applications such as use for emergency water treatment in catastrophe settings such as Hurricane Sandy, or providing humanitarian relief efforts to people who need food and water.
A second product of Dot Metrics is Tetra, a UVA LED array that offers a versatile narrow band transfer source based on the application needed. It includes a variety of configurations, based on how many units are added, and can be used in lab applications. Tetra was launched just a few months after the UV-Pearl, last August.
“We’re looking for some partners to help us bring it to the market,” Batoni says. “We’re working on the sales strategy.”
The company’s future is bright, says Rosanna. “At this point we need to get our products out in the market and make some sales.
“With the combination of an excellent technical staff and our combined business experience, we will drive toward commercial success. It’s all about focus.”