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Kappa Alum Part of Happy Valley’s Tech BoomFor Brother Jeremy Frank ’97, it’s all about not getting carried away. The president and co-founder of KCF Technologies in State College, Pa., knows that the success of a business is dependent on the ability of the leadership team to stay focused … on finding customers. From there, it will all just fall into place.

“My dad had an unconventional job,” he says. “He is a lawyer and an engineer, but he started a company specializing in forensic accident investigations. He became a subject matter expert … that was his niche. So he had a very stable and profitable business. I grew up watching this. He had formerly worked at Grove Crane, and it was a big risk for him to start his own company. I worked for him during high school and early college, and from that point on, he has been a valuable mentor to me.”

Another mentor for Jeremy was Penn State Professor of Accounting Robert “Bear” Koehler ’58. An advisor to undergraduates at the Kappa Chapter, Bear helped several Phi Sigs find direction and focus as they navigated towards adult life and a professional career.  “Bear Koehler was an amazing character. He was just so involved … in everything. And even though we lost him in 2007, his advice has been quite valuable to me in life and in business. And there are others I can add to that list: Gary Koopmann is a given. And all of the people at Ben Franklin Technology Partners, including former Director of Business Development Roger Dagen.”

In 2001, Jeremy graduated from Penn State with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. While completing his doctorate, he worked under the tutelage of Dr. Gary Koopmann, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering and the founder of Penn State’s Center for Acoustics and Vibration (CAV).

“I traveled to Asia with Gary to teach a class in mechanical vibrations and machine reliability. When we returned, Gary suggested that we think about commercializing our expertise. It just seemed like the natural step. Along with Dr. Weicheng Chen — a major contributor to the success of the CAV — we put in a little money to get the business started. While Gary continued at Penn State, I set up our office and started to bid on consulting contracts.”

And, thus, in the fall of 2001, KCF Technologies was born.  “The consulting contracts enabled the business to get off the ground, and started our process of solving challenging industrial problems within our field of expertise: mechanical vibrations and noise. But it was pure consulting. It’s not scalable or repeatable.” With a goal to expand the capability more quickly, the company set out to win R&D contracts to solve technological challenges of the Department of Energy and DoD. After a series of failures, they celebrated their first contract win in 2002.

“It was hard work in the early stages. We would win Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) R&D contracts supporting the Navy, Army and Department of Energy, which basically resulted in a 6-month bake-off against 3-5 other companies. Finally in 2004 we had a Phase II win … $500,000.”

Since that win in 2004, KCF has had an extremely strong track record of winning follow-on Phase 2 or 3 contracts, and nearly all of KCF’s Phase 2 projects have advanced into Phase 3 funding or commercial product sales.

In an attempt to work their way out of a transactional business model, the KCF team returned to their original strategic mission … to develop technologies with market application and launch commercially viable products. Their first one hit the market in 2008. A product developed through a Navy Small Business Technology Transfer project, the Smart Tether™ was originally designed “to create a tether-based underwater positioning system for a variety of underwater applications including positioning vehicles in mine countermeasure applications.” Once integrated with VideoRay underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and robots, commercialization of the Smart Tether™ project was funded by Ben Franklin Technology Partners at Penn State’s Innovation Park. In 2011, KCF celebrated the sale of its 100th Smart Tether™ system.

“We received a lot of press with the Smart Tether™,” Jeremy explains. “But it still wasn’t a large market. The need is growing, but the growth of the market is slow.”

So, in 2011, KCF embarked on its second major transformation … a return to its founding focus on vibration technology and design.

As quoted on the KCF website, “reactive maintenance processes inherently lead to unplanned downtime and lost production, inefficiencies that cost the U.S. economy as much as $2.5 trillion per year (as estimated by the Department of Energy Industrial Technologies Program).” In response to this opportunity, KCF developed Smart Diagnostics®, to “Give Machines a VoiceTM”.

SmartDiagnostics® is a predictive maintenance system of wireless sensors designed to extend the life and heighten the performance of industrial pumps, motors and other commercial equipment. Since the launch of Smart Diagnostics®, KCF has seen the application reach into a sequence of industries including oil and gas, power generation, pulp and paper, HVAC/R and food/beverage.

And while it is anticipated that the worlds of AC compressors, heat pumps, tractor-trailer tires and Sikorsky helicopter rotors could all benefit from wireless vibration monitoring systems, there is one market application that might surprise some … prosthetic limbs. 

“We are highly motivated to help injured soldiers get back to active lives,” Jeremy says. “There is a higher rate of amputees returning from our most recent conflicts. Starting in 2010, KCF received several million dollars in funding to develop a series of technical capabilities to improve the lives of injured warfighters. We are working with Penn State Professor of Kinesiology Steve Piazza on this project.”

And the cycle continues … the cycle of finding profitable applications for technologies that “make the things you work with smarter.” Since the conception of KCF, Jeremy has seen the company double in size five times in the last 10 years. Today, the State College company employs 20 full-time employees and another 10 students and part time.

Jeremy and his wife, Amy, live in State College along with their four children ranging in age from four to 10. “We definitely have a constant flurry of activity. Jobs and careers can be difficult. But it helps me to know that I have a family that is incredibly supportive of what I do.”