Meet the elite: The Virginia Tech Faculty Entrepreneur Hall of Fame

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Members of a premiere group of faculty members have taken their passions, dreams, time, and effort to create products and services that improve the quality of life for citizens and support the interests of the nation. Learn more about Vinod Chachra, Richard O. Claus, Fred C. Lee, Arvid Myklebust, James D. Rancourt, and Tracy D. Wilkins, the inaugural class of the Virginia Tech Faculty Entrepreneur Hall of Fame.

They were inducted during a ceremony at the 20th annual banquet of the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center.

 

Vinod Chachra is an internationally recognized lecturer and consultant in the field of information system planning.

Beginning in 1975, he designed the original software that in 1980 became Virginia Tech Library System. Known as VTLS, it was an automated circulation and cataloguing system created for Newman Library. After more than five years of producing software and building a model for library networking, Chachra was asked by Virginia Tech President William E. Lavery to lead the university’s first spinoff company.

Lavery, who had envisioned Virginia Tech’s Corporate Research Center, thought Chachra was a prime candidate to help Virginia Tech flex its economic development muscles. 

In 1985, in partnership with Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties, he founded VTLS Inc., which became the first tenant of the CRC. The abbreviation today stands for Visionary Technology in Library Solutions, and it is an international leader in integrated library automation, digital asset management, and radio frequency identification technology. With six offices around the globe, it has a customer base spanning more than 1,900 libraries in 43 countries.

Active in the library profession for more than 30 years, Chachra represented Virginia in the White House Conference on Library and Information Sciences in 1979, served on the legislative committee for library networking in Virginia, and is a former member of the White House Conference on Library and Information Services Task Force. For several years he served as the senior consultant the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

He has worked with several countries in the design and implementation of their national bibliographic information resources and union catalogs. After earning his Ph.D. in industrial engineering and operations research at Virginia Tech, Chachra served the university in a variety of capacities. From 1972 to 1985 he successively assumed the roles of director of software development, director of computing and information systems, vice provost, and then vice president of computing and information systems.

During his career, Chachra has received the Distinguished Information Sciences Award from the Data Processing Management Association, the CAUSE Award for Exemplary Leadership (CAUSE is the professional association for development, use, and management of information systems in higher education), and the Blacksburg Jaycees Man of the Year Award.

In 1992, he was invited to be a member of the American Library Association delegation to Romania and to serve on the ALA International Relations Committee's Bibliotheca Alexandrina subcommittee. In 1994, the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) elected Chachra to serve on its Board of Directors.

In 2007, Chachra chaired the NISO Working Group on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) of books and other materials in U.S. libraries, and he represents the U.S. in international meetings regarding RFID standards. Chachra has written two books, a chapter in a third book, and numerous journal articles.

 

Richard O. Claus, founder and president of NanoSonic Inc., is a recognized expert in advanced materials and structures. NanoSonic was established in 1998 as a result of a spinoff of federally funded research at Virginia Tech. The company got its start in the kitchen of a graduate student’s apartment with two part-time employees.

Today, it counts NASA, defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman, as well as major chemical suppliers, rubber industries, and electronic companies among its customers.

Now celebrating more than 15 years in business, Nanosonic has about 100 employees. The company’s mission is to design and manufacture beneficial new materials and products using environmentally benign processes and techniques.

Claus has won international awards for research from professional organizations and government agencies, including the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Instrument Society of America, SPIE – the International Society for Optical Engineering, and NASA.

Claus received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the Johns Hopkins University. In 1977, he joined Virginia Tech and served for more than 30 years on the engineering faculty, teaching electrical engineering, and optics and materials science. He held the Lewis A. Hester Chair of Engineering. 

While a faculty member, he published more than 1,000 journal and conference papers and 30 issued patents, most related to multifunctional materials, optical devices, and sensor instrumentation systems. He served as the principal investigator on more than 700 externally sponsored research programs supported by industry and government sponsors, totaling more than $50 million. 

Claus left Virginia Tech in January 2009 to work full time at NanoSonic, where he serves as its president.

Claus has received the American Society of Mechanical Engineers/American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Adaptive Structures Prize, the American Society of Civil Engineers Norman Medal, the Charles Stark Draper Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award from SPIE, and prizes from the Optical Society of America, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and the Institute of Physics (UK).

He co-founded the international journal Smart Materials and Structures in 1993 and served as its editor-in-chief from 1993 to 2007. For work in teaching, Claus received department, college, and university teaching awards at Virginia Tech, and national and international awards from the Electrical Engineering Honor Society and SAE.

 

Fred C. Lee is a University Distinguished Professor and director of the Center for Power Electronics Systems(CPES), a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center(NSF ERC). Established in 1998, with four university partners and more than 80 industry members, the center’s vision is “to provide leadership through global collaboration to create electric power processing systems of the highest value to society.” Under Lee’s leadership, the center has been cited as a model ERC for its industrial collaboration and technology transfer, as well as education and outreach programs.

Because of Lee, any recent device that contains an Intel processor — and that can be anything from a laptop to a smartphone — has a little bit of Virginia Tech inside.

Intel, a multibillion-dollar global company that introduced the world’s first microprocessor, built its new generation of computer processors with Lee’s help. By 2000, every Intel processor used a revolutionary power supply source, known technically as a multi-phased voltage regulator module, which Virginia Tech helped to develop.

Lee has served as president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Power Electronics Society (1993 to 1994), was a member of the board of directors for Zytec/Artesyn, a designer and manufacturer of power conversion products (1987 to 2004), and was chairman of the board for VPT Inc., a global leader in providing power conversion solutions for use in avionics, military, and space applications (1993 to 2009). He serves on the board of directors for Delta Electronics Inc. and the Delta Environment and Education Foundation. Lee was named to the National Academy of Engineering in 2011.

He received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan in 1968, and his master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from Duke University in 1972 and 1974, respectively.

Prior to CPES, Lee was the founder and director of the Virginia Power Electronics Center (VPEC), one of the largest university-based power electronics research centers in the country. The VPEC Industry-University Partnership Program provided an effective mechanism for technology transfer and the opportunity for industry to profit from VPEC research results.

Lee’s research interests include high-frequency power conversion, distributed power systems, renewable energy, power quality, high-density electronics packaging and integration, and modeling and control. He holds 70 U.S. patents, and has published 243 journal articles and over 619 refereed technical papers. During his tenure at Virginia Tech, Lee supervised 73 doctoral and 84 master’s students.

Lee was a recipient of the Society of Automotive Engineering’s Ralph R. Teeter Education Award in 1985, the William E. Newell Power Electronics Award in 1989, Virginia Tech’s Alumni Award for Research Excellence in 1990, the College of Engineering Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research in 1997, the Arthur E. Fury Award for Leadership and Innovation in 1998, the Honorary Sun Yuen Chuan Chair Professor at National Tsinghua University, Taiwan, in 2001, the Outstanding Alumni Award from National Cheng Kung University in 2004, the Ernst-Blickle Award for achievement in the field of power electronics in 2005, and the Honorary Kwoh-Ting Li Chair Professor Award at National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan, in 2011.

He has received honorary professorships from Shanghai University of Technology, Shanghai Railroad and Technology Institute, University of Nanjing Aeronautical Institute, Zhejiang University, Harbin Institute of Technology, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Tsinghua University, Xi’an Jiaotong University, and Beijing Jiaotong University.

 

Arvid Myklebust is a leading authority is in the fields of computer-aided design, computer-aided aircraft design, and kinematics and dynamics of non-linear mechanical systems.

Aprofessor emeritus of mechanical engineering with the College of Engineering, Myklebust earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in engineering from the University of Florida. He became a postdoctoral fellow at the Norwegian Institute of Technology after entering and winning a worldwide competition sponsored by the Royal Norwegian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. He joined Virginia Tech as a faculty member in the department of mechanical engineering in 1983 and eventually taught 28 different courses from sophomore to advanced graduate levels. He was the founder and director from 1983 to 2001 of the Virginia Tech Computer-Aided Design Laboratory.In 1987, Myklebust began working on a project to aid in the conceptual design of aircraft, and he became the co-founder and co-director of the ACSYNT Institutein 1990. Short for “AirCraft SYNThesis,” the ACSYNT Institute emphasized aircraft design research, development, and software creation for the U.S. aerospace industry and government.

With common R&D goals and energy devoted to nonproprietary solutions, the ACSYNT Institute provided a climate conducive to joint research efforts between government and industry. It was unprecedented in terms of R&D collaboration in computer-aided aircraft design, and it led to NASA’s first-ever exercise of its primary vehicle for partnering with the external community — a Space Act Agreement.

In 1995, as a consequence of the ACSYNT Institute mission and research for IBM, Myklebust co-founded Phoenix Integration Inc. with two of his doctoral students. Phoenix Integration is a global leader in software integration and multidisciplinary design optimization to develop products that enhance decision-making capabilities within aerospace, defense, and heavy industry.

Myklebust was instrumental in two additional startups at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center. In 2001, he co-founded AVID Aerospace — short for Air Vehicle Integrated Design — and served as CEO until retiring in 2005. AVID LLCwas the principal design team for the DARPA/Army Future Combat Systems Organic Air Vehicle. Myklebust is currently the chief technical officer and a founding partner at Theta Tech Solutions LLC, a company specializing in R&D and manufacturing projects for the intelligence sector.  Theta Tech Solutions was chosen as one of three companies to develop a propulsor for IARPA’s Great Horned Owlunmanned air vehicle.

He has been the owner-operator of Myklebust Farm in Sinking Creek, Va., since 1984.

While at Virginia Tech, Myklebust initiated and directed numerous research grants and contracts and published more than 70 technical papers. He was frequently an invited speaker on Computer-Aided Design and CAD education.  Described by a former student as an engineer, farmer, philosopher, entrepreneur, and Renaissance man, Myklebust guided more than 50 master’s students and Ph.D. students and was valued as a teacher and mentor.

He served on a number of committees of the national professional technical societies, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the American Society of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

 

James D. Rancourt is a Massachusetts native whose youthful interest in science and chemistry recrystallized in 1987 when he received his graduate degree in materials chemistry from Virginia Tech and founded Polymer Solutions Inc., an independent testing laboratory in Blacksburg with a worldwide clientele.

Rancourt was finishing his undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of Lowell when he accepted a research position at Albany International Research Corp. at Dedham, Mass. In short order, he helped elevate the company’s existing thermal analysis laboratory from an array of misunderstood and underutilized instruments to an arsenal of critical, heavily used, project-advancing tools.

In 1983, Rancourt attended a polymer short course at Virginia Tech, an experience that influenced him to further study materials chemistry. With his industry experience, Rancourt moved to Blacksburg to pursue a Ph.D.

He began working on electrically conductive plastics and successfully developed a nontoxic replacement for liquid mercury for use in switch applications, which he and colleagues patented in 1995. In addition, Rancourt developed Theragauze, a sterile polymer wound care dressing that accelerates healing. Essentially it is a hydrogel with nanopores that controls the humidity at the wound site, now being marketed. More recently, he and colleagues patented a system and method for collecting DNA and fingerprints. He holds seven U.S. patents.

Rancourt’s passion for helping others combined with his love of analytical chemistry flourished at Polymer Solutions, where he assembled a team of scientists and support staff to create a premiere independent testing lab.

During the company’s formative years, Rancourt continued to serve as the leader and supervisor for students and graduate students working in polymer laboratories at Virginia Tech. Likewise, he provided continued guidance and direction for a variety of industrial polymer analysis programs as well as large Department of Navy and NASA programs.

Today, Polymer Solutions has clients from around the world ranging from the largest companies to small and promising innovative startups in the manufacturing, medical, pharmaceutical, and biopharmaceutical industries.

The company also provides analysis for the aerospace and defense industries, and analyzes consumer products and toys because of health concerns related to banned plasticizers, heavy metals, foreign materials, and contaminants.

Rancourt is recognized as an authority in his field and is frequently called on to provide expert testimony for a myriad of litigated matters involving manufacturing defects, design defects, misappropriation of trade secrets, and patent infringement.

 

Tracy D. Wilkins is a world leader in the biotechnology industry.

The former director of the Fralin Biotechnology Center — now known as the Fralin Life Science Institute— has founded successful biotechnology start-up firms, including TransPharm Inc., a company focused on the production of human proteins in the milk of transgenic animals. TransPharm eventually merged in 1996 with Edinburgh, Scotland-based PPL Therapeutics, the company that cloned a sheep named Dolly.

An internationally recognized expert in anaerobic microbiology, Wilkins also founded TechLab Inc., a biotechnology firm located in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center focused on enteric disease and microbiology of the intestinal tract. TechLab develops, manufactures, and distributes rapid non-invasive intestinal diagnostics in the areas of intestinal inflammation, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, and parasitology.

He and colleagues patented a life-saving test for the cause of a virulent, infectious form of diarrhea called Clostridium difficile toxin — known to health-care workers the world over as C. diff. The patent was first issued in 1985 and subsequent patents have been issued for refinements. Because the disease kills people worldwide but can be countered with early detection, there have been a dozen licensees to companies that have paid for the right to produce the test.

The C. difficile patent has produced income for the local community as well as the university. TechLab produces three C. difficile products and five other diagnostic products. It sells to distributors in more than a dozen countries.

Wilkins, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas, was the initial Stroobants Professor of Agricultural Biotechnology at Virginia Tech.

Wilkins was responsible for initial design, construction, and operation of what is now called the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. In addition, Wilkins planned and developed the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, which emerged from a white paper supporting the merits of biotechnology research and gradually led to the opening of the first laboratories in the Corporate Research Center. He served as interim director from February to June 2000, guiding the hiring of the first faculty members and the permanent director of VBI.

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