Entrepreneurs can take advantage of a supercomputing superhero in Buffalo

When Sentient Science President and CEO Ward Thomas decided four years ago to relocate his company’s headquarters from Idaho, he was looking for one thing in particular: computing capacity. A lot of it.

The University at Buffalo’s Center for Computational Research had exactly what Sentient needed.

Thomas’ company developed and perfected a computer program that can predict when the mechanical components of machines will break down. Sentient monitors some 20,000 wind turbines around the world, collecting live-streaming data from each machine, with plans to monitor 100,000 turbines by 2019.

It would be impossible to process all that data with ordinary computer servers. Sentient uses 3,400 processors at the CCR every day.

Sentient is one of nearly two-dozen companies that UB’s Center for Computational Research has put its supercomputing capabilities to work for. The center opened in 1998 in Norton Hall on UB’s North Campus. In 2006, it relocated to its current home in UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, has generated an economic impact of more than $20 million, while creating or retaining dozens of jobs across 23 companies.

“We’re very proud of that. It’s great to see Buffalo succeeding, especially in the tech startup sector, and to know that we’ve played an important role in helping some exciting companies grow their business here because of what we’re able to provide,” said Dr. Thomas Furlani, the center’s director.

Sentient employed just three people when it relocated to Buffalo in 2013. Now, it has 40 workers, and expects to double that in the near future. “We would not be able to commercialize our technology, especially at the rate and effectiveness we have, without UB’s Center for Computational Research,” Thomas says.

On the other end of the spectrum is Praxair, which has 26,000 employees in 50 countries and has a strong presence in Western New York. “Praxair runs simulations and calculations on our supercomputer that is targeted for industrial use. They receive that service at a rate that’s less than what the marketplace would charge. Part of our mission is to foster economic development in WNY,” says Furlani.

And then there’s Garwood Medical Devices, a small company that focuses on wound care, infection control, and bone regeneration. It’s based in the UB Downtown Gateway Building. “They’re a small company that doesn’t yet have the technical expertise to run the complex modeling and simulation computer programs that are needed to more rapidly develop their new devices. UB faculty, utilizing CCR computing resources, provide that for them,” Furlani said.

“We help everyone from very small startups to large companies that want to leverage advanced computing and data analytics to help grow their company,” adds Dr. Shawn Matott, CCR’s industry outreach coordinator, added.

The CCR has more than 170 teraflops of peak performance computing capacity and 3 PB of high-performance storage. The center’s computing facilities are housed in a state-of-the-art 4,000-square-foot machine room on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Companies often hear about CCR’s technical expertise and supercomputers through word of mouth or via START-UP NY, the Empire State Development-run program that offers new and expanding businesses the opportunity to operate tax-free for 10 years on or near eligible university or college campuses in New York State.

The center also employs a staff of people who conduct industrial outreach. In addition, CCR is part of the state’s High Performance Computing Consortium. The consortium brings together the collective expertise and resources of New York’s top universities, advanced computing centers, and economic growth centers to help businesses and organizations solve their business, technology, and research and development needs.

Sometimes, companies are already familiar with CCR and its staff, as well as the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences faculty who collaborate with CCR. That was the case for VADER Systems, the Buffalo-based metal 3-D printing company started nearly six years ago by former UB student Zach Vader.

Vader Systems uses an innovative technology called liquid metal jet printing to create highly complex three-dimensional objects by printing droplets of molten metal in layers. The process requires complex computer modeling, which CCR provides.

Vader Systems’ technology is expected to bring in more than $100 million in economic activity to Western New York over the next several years, including the creation of dozens of advanced manufacturing jobs.

CCR’s Furlani says the center is excited to continue working with companies both locally and around the U.S. in the years to come, especially as CCR’s supercomputer infrastructure becomes more in demand.

“The entire economy is moving in the direction of machine learning, artificial intelligence, modeling simulation, and data analytics. Those all require access to sophisticated computing,” he says.

“A lot of startups don’t have the resources to leverage the latest tech in AI or modeling and simulation and machine learning. We can offer UB faculty who have the expertise they need. Our mission is to help companies develop and create jobs through access to advanced computing technology,” Furlani adds.

Read more articles by David J. Hill.

David J. Hill works in the Division of University Communications at the University at Buffalo, which, by the way, happens to have a really good football team this season, unlike those other guys who play on Sunday.
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