In Focus: Sentient Science finds Buffalo the perfect place to grow a business

Sentient Science occupies a prestigious niche in Buffalo’s landscape. Located in the former Butler Mansion (now owned by the University at Buffalo and known as the Jacobs Executive Development Center), the company’s domain includes the dining room where, according to Director of Revenue Marketing Natalie Hils, President McKinley had been expected to attend a party in his honor on the evening of the day he was shot.

Historic setting notwithstanding, the company is firmly situated in the 21st century: It uses powerful computer processors and materials science to apply digital product design and testing strategies to the manufacturing industry. Founded in Idaho in 2001 by President and CEO Ward Thomas, Sentient Science spent a decade formulating and testing its methods before bringing them to market. Rather than beginning with the technology and looking for ways to build a business around it, the company set out to find and address inefficiencies within the manufacturing industry. The biggest challenge, Thomas said, was the cheap cost of Chinese labor. “And [we thought], let’s not apologize for having the best labor force in the world—let’s not pay them less, let’s pay them more. Let’s find out somewhere else where we can use technology to compete.”

That turned out to be in the realm of product testing. Thomas said his team had a breakthrough when they asked, “Did Mother Nature do the same thing with materials that she did with the human genome?” As he explained, when an individual’s genome is decoded, potential problems can be spotted in advance, such as an elevated risk for a particular health issue, and steps can be taken to mitigate it. With regard to materials, he said, “This is exactly the same thing that our scientists believe is possible, and it turned out to be true; NASA validated our materials science decoding capability. We mapped the material genome in the beginning of 2011. NASA had 30 years of physical test data which we mapped statistically perfect to. They gave us information from 1980 and we did the next 30 years of all the failings that would have happened.” This meant that Sentient Science, using modeling software, could successfully perform digital tests, reducing the need for expensive physical testing.

The theory ratified, the company faced the next steps: deciding how to apply it, and where to establish its base of operations for the next phase. “We wanted to use the technology for something good—great—awesome. And we decided to focus on wind turbines, which we knew nothing about. And, to be honest, three and a half, four years later, one in 10 wind turbines in the world uses our software every day to give them life extension. So instead of going and using it for the computational testing, these models we’ve created, which are materials science and data science models together, we decided to apply them to life extension of assets already in the field.” In other words, the technology could be used to extend the lifespans of extant turbines, not just improve new ones.

According to Thomas, Senator Chuck Schumer was an early champion. “For probably over 10 years, he’s been writing letters of support,” he said, adding that he credits much of the government’s financial investment to Schumer. The state government also created conditions that appealed to the company. “What made us successful, here in New York, was that the state had a vision to invest into infrastructure, educational infrastructure here in Buffalo, which is world-class,” he said, citing UB’s materials science program and the Center for Computational Research, among other resources. “We were given NYSERDA funds, we were given this incredible X-Men mansion—just the access to the processors which are just so important to a company like ours, so computation-intensive, and then the access to talent coming out of the university…”

Thomas grew up on the south side of Toronto, but wasn’t familiar with Buffalo prior to relocating. “We went to Niagara Falls a lot,” he said, but “it was just the era when most companies were leaving Buffalo.”

His experience relocating was not entirely frictionless. As he put it, “I’m used to Silicon Valley … you walk [into a bank] in Silicon Valley as an entrepreneur, the red carpet rolls out, because they know how successful that’s made the economy there.” In Buffalo, he was frustrated by the banks, which he said are less adapted to working with startups, especially those that are tech-oriented.

Thomas also chafed against regulations that he encountered. As an example, he described one that penalizes employers for paying employees late. “If you missed an employee payment by two days, which in an entrepreneurial type of company is quite possible … you are incompliant,” but this was intended to protect manufacturing workers living paycheck to paycheck, not high-income employees, he said. “When we brought people on board, we would tell them, ‘We’re growing so quickly that if [for example] GE didn’t pay us on time, that could be a big effect … but that’s the thrill here, is the stock options that you get, and pretty much everyone in this type of company’s going to be a millionaire.’” People who are excited by that aspect of working for a startup are willing to overlook cash flow hiccups, he said. “This is what the state hasn’t quite figured out, and I’d love to participate in helping them identify those areas.”

Despite these concerns, Thomas said that 95% of his experiences have been positive, and he sees financial upsides to operating out of Buffalo. The University at Buffalo is going to be an “incredible hiring resource,” he said, but because the materials science departments are new, they will take time to mature and produce Ph.Ds. Until then, when he can’t find people locally, he has to attract them from high-tech—and high-cost—places like California. Buffalo’s real estate market provides leverage. “One of the surprises, when I came here, is not only the beautiful architecture, but for the price of a house in California, you can buy a street in Buffalo,” he said. “So, not only can you make money by having equity in a company like Sentient … you can come out here and make money in real estate.”

Thomas sees a bright future for Sentient. “If we don’t make another sale in the wind turbine industry and we do a good job with the customers we have, we’ll have 50% of the wind turbines in the world—China, the U.S., and Europe. So it’s been phenomenal, the success,” he said, noting that Sentient has grown from 13 people at the time of its arrival in Buffalo to 70, and is on track to reach 130.

Asked what keeps him committed to Buffalo, Thomas answered emphatically. “Oh, we’ve fallen in love with it.” Sounding surprised, he added, “I wouldn’t even have thought that that question would be something I would think about. … Once we were here, we found out how great it is, and because we’ve been a part of improving it, we take ownership of this change, and we’re excited about it. And it is one of the rare cases where the alignment between government and the commercial sector has been 90% great.”

Then, considering, he revised upwards. “It’s been phenomenal. Other than the banking and some regulations, this is the perfect place to grow a business, to raise a family, and to see all the natural things outside, clean energy, the environment—it’s a great place.”

Read more articles by Jen Wellington.

Jen Wellington is a native of New Orleans and a recent transplant to Buffalo. She holds a master's degree in fine arts from Columbia University. In her free time, she enjoys foraging wild mushrooms, picking banjo, and playing with her dog, Gumbo.
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