Talking to Suresh Dhaniyala founder of Potsdam Sensors and Commercialization Competition 2017 Winner

Listen to FuzeHubs’ Steve Melito and Suresh Dhaniyala of Potsdam Sensors, a past winner for the Commercialization Competiton talk about Suresh’s experience and the competition and what he gained from the competition.


Steve Melito: Welcome to New York Manufacturing Now, powered by FuzeHub. I’m your host, Steve Melito. Today, we have a winner of last year’s FuzeHub commercialization competition, Suresh Dhaniyala of Potsdam Senors. Suresh, welcome to the program.

Suresh Dhaniyala: Thank you, Steve.

Steve Melito: Suresh, we’re going to talk a lot about your adventures with Potsdam Sensors the company. But first, what would you like to tell us about yourself?

Suresh Dhaniyala: My position in Potsdam Sensors, I’m the president, CTO, janitor, accountant, everything right now. It’s a small company, which means I’m doing a lot of different roles there. But the other hat I wear is I’m the Bayard D. Clarkson Distinguished Professor of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering at Clarkson University. This work here with Potsdam Sensors came out of Clarkson, and so I’m continuously switching my hats between the two jobs.

Steve Melito: Very good. And di you go to Clarkson as a student?

Suresh Dhaniyala: No. I did not. Actually, through my undergraduate years, I was in India. And for my master’s in mechanical engineering, I went to the University of Delaware. My PhD was from the University of Minnesota. And then I did some postdoctoral work at Cal Tech in Pasadena, California, prior to joining Clarkson as a assistant professor in 2002. But what Clarkson has is a history of doing very high end research in air pollution. Clarkson has a history with developing technologies for sensing particles in air or aerosol particles. Clarkson is a leader nationally, probably internationally. That means the institute, the university has actually put in a lot of effort in developing both the hardware, the equipment to support this kind of research, and the software or the people resources in terms of having a lot of faculty, having develop a pipeline for students, all meant that I can come in and actually do high quality work very quickly.

Steve Melito: Let’s talk about Potsdam Sensors some more. How did you come up with the idea behind it? And how did you get started?

Suresh Dhaniyala: Yeah. About 15 years back, I was starting off as an assistant professor in Clarkson University, and we were looking at what new technologies can we developing? One of the things I realized was coming up in a lot of the research I was doing was that I needed small inexpensive sensors. I wanted to be able to make measurements by putting a lot of these sensors all simultaneously and getting a lot of data to make sense of what’s happening. And that required these sensors to be inexpensive. We were looking to put these sensors in locations that there was tight space wise, was maybe difficult to access. We wanted these to be small. And so it was in the back of the mind that we needed to develop these sensors because they were not available in the market and so we started off small with research grants from NYSERDA, federal agencies, that slowly had us develop these technologies in our lab. We started developing these technologies where we were understanding one aspect of the technology at a time. Then about five, six years back, I started getting calls from people saying, ” Hey, I know you’re working on this, and you published papers on this. Do you have a few of these sensors we can deploy for our measurements?” That’s when I realized that the need goes beyond what we had in our lab. There was actually a need for others for the same kinds of things that we were doing. And got us thinking that this needed to be manufactured. The sensor needed to be built, needed to be ready for others to use, not just for us to cobble together something in the lab and we looked initially at partnering with established companies to build these sensors. There are companies out there that build aerosol instruments. What we realized is that what we were trying to do was quite different from what others were doing at the time. We were interested in building these sensors to be small, cheap, but highly capable, have the data be streamed to the Internet, have people be able to run these without maintenance for long durations and so on. We were looking to push this into more like a consumer technology rather than a research grade instrument, and the existing companies weren’t ready to do that.

Steve Melito: Then you entered a market space that wasn’t completely empty. There were existing technologies, but you had a better technology.

Suresh Dhaniyala: That’s correct. There were existing technologies. I would say about five or six years back, the existing technologies were research grade instruments, expensive instruments that did great measurements. And that didn’t quite fit the bill of what we were trying to do and a lot of others were trying to do in terms of scientific studies and so on. We were all trying to do these studies that required these sensors that were not available. But then, about five, six years back, there was just a sudden explosion of new technologies that came up. And these sensors could also detect airborne particles like we are doing. All of these sensors use exact same technology. They use light to illuminate these particles and then detect a signal that’s the light scattered by the particles and all of these sensors have problem that they are incapable of seeing particles smaller than about 500 nanometers or 300 nanometers. And we were interested in particles that are coming out of the tailpipe of your car, airborne virus particles. And all of these are smaller than 300 nanometers. These would all be invisible to existing technologies and so we entered this space that was, I would say, literally unoccupied in terms of the capabilities of these sensors to detect small particles, very small particles, below 300 nanometers with low cost, small handheld unit.

Steve Melito: Did you have to develop the technology to detect these small particles from scratch? Or were there existing technologies you could leverage?

Suresh Dhaniyala: Scientifically, we were building upon ideas that were already established with big research grade instruments. The technology that we had to invent to allow us to build these low cost units concerned the scientific background that forms the basis of a technology has been established over the years and has been used in research grade instruments. What we have done is we’ve taken those ideas, and we’ve been able to revisit the design of the instruments such that we can make these smaller and cheaper, and I would say in some ways also better and that’s sort of been our main contribution, is not necessarily to invent a brand new way of making the measurement, but to be able to take these scientifically established ideas and use better mathematics a little bit, better design, better engineering, and then put this all in a better package.

Steve Melito: That’s on the technical side. How about on the business side? Which business challenges did you have to overcome? For example, was it hard to get people interested in talking to you? Was it hard to determine that there was a market for the product? Was it hard to find suppliers that could help you?

Suresh Dhaniyala: Our business challenges were multifold. Our first business challenge was to find the right customer. We had to find a customer that would be interested in our product at volumes that made sense for us to put in this effort to build this new business. Coming from a research academic background, I was aware of the interest in the research community for our sensors. What I realized as I spent more time on the business side of things, that the need from the research community is, while it’s present and significant, it is not necessarily of the magnitude that would allow us to sustain a startup business here. We spent considerable amount of time trying to find out where else we can go for a business for our sensors. And that has been, I would say, a significant effort on our part. Quite fruitful, too. We’ve found other businesses where our sensors would fit in nicely and add value to what they were doing. There were other markets where we had not necessarily imagined before as a market for our product that we have discovered as being something that would be ideal for us to get into. It’s also meant we’ve had to sort of redesign our sensor to fit this market. Yes. Finding the right customer fit was our biggest challenge.

Steve Melito: New York state, as you know, provides significant funding for manufacturers and startups. Besides FuzeHub, have you worked with other New York state funded resources?

Suresh Dhaniyala: We’ve actually worked with and are working with several New York state funded resources. Obviously, FuzeHub has been great support for us, and I want to thank FuzeHub again for their support that’s allowed us to do what we’re doing right now. Additionally, we have received funding from Nexus New York, which is a NYSERDA funded agency. And they’ve given us a lot of support and that’s allowed us to develop our business and identify appropriate customers and pivot a little bit technology wise.
We’re also working with New York State Pollution Prevention Institute. They are enabling us to work with research labs to independently test our sensor and evaluate it against other existing units out there, with the idea that once we have the study done, this will be material that’ll allow us to go market our product effectively. While these are the primary companies, we have received other federal grants that allowed us to continue working with the university. And through the university, we expect to be able to continue working with state agencies that can fund this kind of work.

Steve Melito: As I mentioned at the very top of the podcast last fall, FuzeHub held its first ever commercialization competition, and Potsdam Sensors was a winner. What’s been the biggest benefit of winning the FuzeHub Commercialization Competition?

Suresh Dhaniyala: Coming from an academic background, I think there’s always a bit of a doubt as to, how well can we bring up this startup? And is this a research project that has a start and end date? And what the FuzeHub competition has given me is confidence that the ideas that we have, that the business plan that we have come up with, the customers that we’ve identified, all of those are legitimate, are valid. The validity that we’ve had through the competition, having people look at what we’re doing, the validity that we have gained has been the biggest benefit of going through this competition. Additionally, the money has been great. I think getting a $ 50,000 grant has allowed us to continue with an employee who we might have lost if we didn’t have the money, and that was critical. And not having a break in our operation means tremendous progress in a short duration that would not have been possible if we had not gotten this money. It’s also allowed us to actually make connections with manufacturing companies that might have been a little more difficult to have made otherwise. I say this because in going through the competition, and even before we won the competition, in just talking to people who were there, I made several contacts that might have taken me several months of trying to find out who they were. Having an opportunity to meet them all at one time meant it sort of short circuited the whole process of discovering what’s available in the state and with winning the competition, it has allowed me to talk to these companies with a greater sense of purpose, because now they know we have the money and that we can afford some of these services that these companies are providing us to get quickly form this prototype to a product. And I think that has been one of the great benefits of what we have gotten out of this competition.

Steve Melito: We talk to a lot of startups at FuzeHub, and they contact us oftentimes looking to be connected to a contract manufacturer, but the reality is many contract manufacturers aren’t exactly looking for startups. It takes a special contract manufacturer to want to engage a startup. Have you worked with any companies that are notable?

Suresh Dhaniyala: We have been talking to several companies about contract manufacturing. We are, I would say, in a state where we are finishing our technology. We’re doing a lot of prototyping, and the prototyping has involved us working with prototyping companies quite a bit, whether it’s PCB manufacturing or CNC work or some plastic molding work. But we have worked with a consultant company to identify contract manufacturing companies that we might want to go reach out to as we go from our current fabrication of 10 units to manufacturing 100 units to 1, 000 units and so on. It’s also allowed us to sort of estimate, what sort of cost per unit are we expecting for our current design as we get to these companies who we can contract for manufacturing? And additionally, we’ve also started talking to electronics component companies that are also based in New York who can help us as we get to manufacturing our sensor from a electronics perspective.

Steve Melito: Sure.

Suresh Dhaniyala: We’re talking to people from a overall sensor manufacturing perspective, but we’re also trying to optimize the sensor cost by talking to the big redistributors, I would say.

Steve Melito: And so certainly, FuzeHub wouldn’t ask you to mention any names, but I think one of the key points for people listening is that because you won the commercialization competition, it sounds like it opened some doors for you. At least it gave you some credibility. Is that correct?

Suresh Dhaniyala: I think it gave us a lot of credibility, and I would say it’s the FuzeHub competition that actually directly led to big companies reaching out to us about possibly helping us with contract manufacturing. It led to some of these agencies I mentioned before, state agencies that we are now working with that have actually helped us push our commercialization effort quite a bit. It’s helped us connect with them, and some of them have reached out because of the publicity we got through the competition. It definitely helped us with credibility, helped us with publicity, and helped us, I think, internally, understanding that what we have for an idea is actually a winning one.

Steve Melito: This year, again, FuzeHub is going to do a commercialization competition. It will be in the fall. The details will be coming pretty soon.
I’m wondering if you could share some advice for companies that are thinking about participating in this year’s event. What advice would you give to them about the pitch, about talking to the folks that are there that can really help them get to a go or no- go point?

Suresh Dhaniyala: I think that just the process of preparing for the pitch, you will gain a lot. I think even before we knew we won, we felt like we had gained quite a bit.
And that was because the competition forces you, I would say, to speed up the process of preparing the pitch that you’ll have to make at some point to investors or to some funding agency. And I think what the competition does is sort of sets a deadline, sets a time limit for you to do this, get this pitch going.

Steve Melito: You can’t not do it. You can’t delay.

Suresh Dhaniyala: You-

Steve Melito: You have to take the time.

Suresh Dhaniyala: Exactly. And-

Steve Melito: Sure.

Suresh Dhaniyala: What the competition does is it puts a deadline on it. You’ve got this deadline. You’re going to start working on it. But what the competition also does is there are advisors that FuzeHub provides to help you prepare a pitch. And I found that working with these advisors was, again, very, very helpful. Dan was my coach, and he was extremely helpful in making sure that I had a good pitch to present. But in coming up with this presentation, it actually raised a few questions about, who would my potential customer be? What sort of market size? It forces us to clean up loose ends that you might have if you didn’t have to present to somebody. And having to present to somebody, it allowed me to get this material ready now. I’ve used that material several times as I’ve talked to other folks. And I think that part of it is in itself worthwhile, even if you don’t win the competition.

Steve Melito: It’s a really good point. I never thought of it that way, is you’ve got to make this pitch anyway, because you’re going to have to go and get investors. And so you’re going to be able to get some training, some advice, some input, and make a really effective pitch. And no matter what happens at the commercialization competition, you’re going to take that knowledge with you.

Suresh Dhaniyala: You’re going to take the knowledge. You’re going to take this deck, a pitch deck, 20 slides that has been developed with the help of somebody who’s done this several times. You’re going to get this help. The development of this pitch itself, I think, is a huge positive, one that, like you said, you’re going to take that with you, the knowledge, the material. And you’ll use it outside. If you’re a startup that’s going to continue on the path of trying to build your company, that in itself is great value. I think it also gives you an idea of what others are doing. Just sitting in the room and listening to other pitches, listening to where others are in their building of their company, just gives you an idea of what your peer group is doing. And I think that’s really important, because most of us as startups, you may be working in a common incubator space, but you are still, you’re a small company. You’ve got maybe two, three employees. You’re somewhat alone, probably and coming to this competition, you see where your peers, at least at the state level are. And I think that’s, again, very helpful as you grow your business.

Steve Melito: That’s good. You mentioned startups, and certainly at FuzeHub, we work with startups all year long. It’s not just during the commercialization competition. And so since you are a successful startup, I’m wondering if you could share some advice to startups. What in general do they need to think about? What advice would you give them?

Suresh Dhaniyala: I’d say you want to start with a good idea. Maybe even more importantly, start with a good team. It could be two people, three people, could be one person sometimes. A good team will allow you to talk to each other, maybe debate your idea and refine it. You want to make sure that everybody in the team has their own expertise that they can bring to the table, and everyone in the team is willing to learn about everything else that the team does. You want to make sure that everyone else on the team understands what everybody else is doing, because everything in a startup is going to be teamwork. Lastly, I would want to say that you should be willing to put in a lot of time, because this is not going to be a nine to five job. It’s not going to be a 40 hour workweek. And so you’re going to be putting in a lot of time. For many startups, the founders are doing this as part of a second job, maybe. The commitment level should be pretty high. You should realize that the work you’re putting in is not going to be for just a short time. It’s going to be for a long time. And I think the effort level needs to be recognized pretty quickly if you want to be successful. I also want to add that what I have found has been critical for our success is the willingness to go out there and look for funding, look for advice. I say that because there might be a concern for startups that maybe my idea is not good enough. Maybe my team is not yet strong enough. Maybe my prototype is not yet ready for putting it out there. But I think you will not know whether you’re ready or not until actually you go and put stuff out there. And it’s okay to fail, and there’s a lot of resource out there for people who are willing to firstly try, and secondly do a job good enough to succeed. But if you don’t try, you’ll never know if you’ve done a job already that’s good enough to get going and, yes. I would say be proactive in taking your company forward, and that means writing all these grants that you’re eligible for, applying for all these competitions that will allow you to test out your business model. And be ready for criticism. And I think you’re going to grow from that and I can just point out to one thing, is that starting with a scientific background, almost no business knowledge, it is in just going through these grants writing and going through these competitions and going through these programs like what Nexus New York has provided, I’ve been able to absorb a lot of this business knowledge here and I think if you’re willing to learn, I think these resources will keep coming at you. But you should be willing to learn. Be willing to put yourself out there for these competitions and grants and so on.

Steve Melito: They do take time, as you said, but the willingness to try and even fail is all part of the experience.

Suresh Dhaniyala: Yeah. I think the only guarantee here is failure. And when you fail, you learn from the failure, and you move on. And eventually, you’re going to succeed. If you are determined enough, and if your idea’s good enough, and if you’re willing to sort of learn from the failures, there’s a high likelihood of success. There’s no guarantee, of course. But, yes. Be willing to put a lot of time, and I would say also be a little humble. A lot of you might have developed your technology, and you might know quite a bit about what you’re doing. But humility is great, because you are going to get criticized. You’re going to come across failure. And I think if you take each of these events as a learning process, you’re going to grow and succeed eventually.

Steve Melito: One last question, taking it back to the company entirely. For Potsdam Sensors, what are your goals for 2018 and beyond?

Suresh Dhaniyala: Our goal for 2018 is to get our product out into the market, sell at least one unit to a customer, and that’s the minimum we want to be able to do, because there’s a lot of steps for us to get to that point. And if we make it to that point, I think we have succeeded with where we want to be for 2018. Going forward after that, we want to be scaling up pretty quickly. We want to take what we have for a current technology, and we’ve identified a market space right now that we are going after. After we have had a chance to establish that, maybe even within six months, we want to be able to start looking at two things. One is we want to be looking at other customer segments where we think we can fit in, after we’ve had a good feel for the customer segment that we’re going after right now. But we’re also looking to already think about advancing our technology. What we are finding is that the technologies, if we don’t keep up, we may be a startup with the latest technology, but if we aren’t keeping up with technological progress here, we’re going to be tripped up by the next startup and so we’ve already, we have a plan for our next product that’s going to be a further advance on what we’re doing right now. And I would say a lot of these advances are also based upon what we are hearing from talking to potential customers and what they would like to see next and so 2019, we’re looking to not just be able to sell about 10 to 100 of these units. We want to be able to look at maybe selling one unit of the next version, because I think that’s sort of the pace we want to be at.

Steve Melito: Fantastic. Well, Suresh, we all wish you well and continued success. On behalf of New York Manufacturing Now, you’ve been listening to Suresh Dhaniyala from Potsdam Sensors. I’m your host, Steve Melito. Before signing off, I wanted to mention to everyone that the FuzeHub Commercialization Competition for this year will be opening soon. And in the meantime, and at any time, if you need manufacturing related assistance, the place to start is FuzeHub. You can come to us, and we will put you in touch with any of the 75 NYSTAR assets that are all part of the network here in New York state, and plenty of other connections as well. The way to do that is to go to the FuzeHub website, fuzehub. com. Look up in the right hand corner for the solutions portal. Click that link and then begin to fill out what we call a virtual request. It’s a way to request assistance online. And then after we get that request, we’ll be in touch with you within 24 hours. Again, on behalf of New York Manufacturing Now, this is Steve Melito signing off.

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