Lightning Packs

Looking to take a load off? Talk to Dr. Larry Rome, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Biology, who happens to be an expert in the physics of muscle movement.

As revealed in the journal Nature, Rome and fellow Penn researchers developed an innovative backpack that lightens the force of load for the wearer by 80 percent. The pack, fitted with a frame similar to that used for hiking, lessens the impact of jostling during walking, thus helping to prevent muscle and joint injuries. Another version of the pack converts the mechanical energy of walking into electricity.

As Rome describes, soldiers, rescue workers and field scientists all need to carry heavy equipment—which can weigh 80 pounds or more—and lug heavy replacement batteries around with them. Rome’s ergonomic design alleviates the stress of this weight on the wearer. His most recent iteration of the pack can also generate 20 watts of electricity, using the natural up-and-down motion of walking: enough power to operate a cell phone, GPS, night vision goggles and PDA simultaneously.

While handy for hikers, the pack may prove life-saving in other countries, where the technology to convert ambulatory energy could be used to power portable refrigeration units used to transport medicine and vaccines in remote parts of the world.

“If you run out of batteries in Afghanistan, you can’t go to the nearest convenience store,” Rome pointed out. “But with my pack you can generate and use electricity in real time. It also works like a hybrid car: When you’re braking, you’re generating energy that can be stored for later use.”

To profit from his innovation, Rome, who hails from Wayne, established Lightning Packs, LLC, and began applying for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants offered through the federal government to fund his venture. When he found he needed help to fulfill the grant requirements, he turned to George Boehm, a technology commercialization specialist at the Kutztown University Small Business Development Center (SBDC). With 30 years of experience in manufacturing and government contracts, Boehm easily saw the commercialization potential.

“The idea is really solid. It has a number of applications and there is serious interest in the technology,” Boehm said. Boehm worked with Rome to strengthen the business. “He had the general business in place, he had all the R&D methodology in place, but there were areas he was exposed,” the consultant reported. For instance, Boehm discovered Rome had friendly relationships with the subcontractors he used to prototype the packs but no formal subcontracts, non-disclosure or non-compete agreements were in place. He urged the entrepreneur to secure his intellectual property rights “immediately.”

“When you start to get big, you begin to get noticed, and everyone who wants a piece starts coming out the woodwork,” Boehm cautioned. “You have to protect yourself when you start. So we looked at where we needed to plug the gaps.”

The SBDC was also instrumental in helping the researcher identify and respond to several SBIR grant opportunities with the National Institutes of Health, and the Office of Naval Research. In total, Rome has been awarded $3.5 million dollars in grants and contracts.

Boehm also addressed the necessary items the entrepreneur would need to have in place to pass a defense contract audit for government cost accounting.“

Once we moved into the contract arena, we had to have a cost and fixed fee arrangement. That was a quantum step in complexity for me!” Rome laughed. “[George] really helped there, provided the push in saying ‘You have to hire an accountant. You can’t do this by yourself’ – which was absolutely true.”

He continued, “I do things by the seat of my pants, more or less, which doesn’t fly in a [Defense Contract Audit Agency] audit. George was instrumental in bringing that together. When things look bleak, he provides encouragement. And he almost expects an emergency phone call from me now.”

Boehm points out that these early successes with the SBIR program could become very lucrative for Lightning Packs down the line. Under SBIR provisions, the federal government generally will procure all additional packs of this type solely through the company. “In government markets alone, the opportunity is tremendous. If he works it right, backpacks for Marines, special forces and infantry could be his,” Boehm projected.

Recently, Scientific American named Lightning Packs as one of the SciAm 50, which recognizes the top-most decidedly new and transformative innovations, an honor the company shares with technologies such as Google’s panoramic Street View.

But Rome wants more. “I want to keep things moving. I want to see these backpacks out on the market some time. To have a product that can really help millions is an exciting opportunity.”