Local inventor Randy Jones sensed a problem when, for the third time, he sponsored an employee with a green card granting access to the United States.
The issue wasn't that Jones was recruiting engineers for his Sarpy County business from places like China, India and Canada. They were just what he was looking for as he added 12 positions in the last year: highly skilled workers who could transform mathematical principles into mechanical and electronic products.
But Jones, president of Resonance Innovations LLC, which creates parts for magnetic resonance imaging — or MRI — machines under the name ScanMed, wondered why those kind of hardware engineers weren't coming out of the two state universities in his backyard.
“The only way I have to fill that void is to recruit from another state or recruit from another country,” he said.
Finding the right workforce is just one of the challenges faced by Jones and others involved in highly specialized technology fields based in Nebraska. His journey as an entrepreneur in an ever-evolving industry highlights how complex the process of bringing ideas to fruition can be.
And he provides a glimpse of what University of Nebraska officials hope can be achieved by the Innovation Campus now under construction in Lincoln: to see “technology transfer” as scholars branch off, start their own companies and create jobs.
Jones' latest company, located in an unassuming office space off 144th Street and Interstate 80, houses about 25 workers.
Part of his business works to bring his inventions to life, while the other part serves as a repair shop for all kinds of MRI equipment. Almost everyone in the business is a mechanical or electrical engineer, and some have technology degrees.
His company's latest creation — one he showed at an international radiology trade show in Chicago last week — is a diaper-like antenna set that scans reproductive organs. It replaces the need to scan that area of the body with an existing inner-cavity probe, a device that, Jones said, by its name is pretty cringe-worthy.
“It's been about two years where I've been keeping an eye on this particular part of the medical imaging market,” said Jones, who has patented at least 10 of his past MRI antenna ideas and finished the patent for this latest just weeks ago.
“I wasn't seeing a lot of improvements, and with lots of disdain for the probe and in talking to colleagues, we just decided to go for it,” he said.
Jones was introduced to the medical industry more than two decades ago during his time at Texas A&M, where he simultaneously earned a doctorate in engineering and an MBA. While spending most of his college career researching and learning tools for business management, Jones met a professor who specialized in MRI technology.
The possibilities in developing MRI parts appeared endless. Jones remembers reading back then that medical imaging was one of the most complex technologies ever invented by mankind, only behind the supercollider and the space shuttle.
“That's not bad,” he thought. “That's pretty cool stuff.”
The MRI professor quickly became Jones' adviser, and he spent his last nine months in Texas learning everything he could. He tinkered with MRI machines and the antennas that attach to the skin, dreaming up ways the devices could better diagnose patients.
But the machines were still in their infancy. The first imaging units were coming out in the late 1980s, and Jones did much of his Ph.D. work on archaic imaging systems that are no longer in service today.
The notion that more work was to be done fueled Jones' ambition to continue inventing.
After college, he moved to Milwaukee to pursue a job in MRI product development. But the Thedford, Neb., native wanted to move closer to home so that his children could grow up with their grandparents nearby.
He saw NU's growing technology capabilities, so he and his family made the move to Omaha, joining the University of Nebraska Medical Center in 1993 as its first physicist, a part-time role he held while also developing MRI products through its technology licensing arm, UNeMed Corp.
Through UNeMed, which was founded in 1991 to build connections between medical researchers and businesses, Jones carried out his plan to start ScanMed, an earlier version of his business today. The relationship with the university allowed Jones to use UNMC's MRI scanners and in-house knowledge from radiologists who encountered problems with existing technology and suggested things they'd like to see changed.
His first patent — a neck coil that sold about 10,000 units globally — was issued in November 1992. Eight more followed, including, more recently, an MRI device that can better diagnose eye ailments.
Jones estimated he's developed some 20,000 products that are used in about 15 countries and on every continent excluding Antarctica. He's never been short for ideas, noting he's always had more ideas than capital to support them.
Earlier this year, he received $1.2 million through Invest Nebraska, a nonprofit group supported by the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, investors and others to help “high impact” Nebraska entrepreneurs find venture capital. Invest Nebraska CEO Mark Crawford said the group saw high growth potential for ScanMed because of its specific, booming industry.
The investment has allowed Jones to hire more workers and delve into more development, which he said paid off at the trade show. He left there with contracts from some of the industry's major manufacturers who are interested in marketing his latest invention.
In the past, Jones has faced hurdles as he competed against the biggest MRI manufacturers in the country, and sustaining his business has been a work in progress for many years, said James Linder, president of the University Technology Development Corp., the organization that oversees the process of developing research findings into commercial products at NU's four campuses.
When Linder took the helm a year and a half ago, he knew stories like Jones' existed. And he recognized that it would take time to generate a technology ecosystem that produces students who can do highly technical work.
To Linder, the issues facing Nebraska's growing tech community are not challenges but opportunities.
“Like a lot of things, it's a process, not an event,” said Linder, whose appointment as NU's head of innovation and economic competitiveness meant a more pointed focus on turning research findings into marketable products.
And he sees progress. “If you look at, say, where Nebraska was in 2003 compared to where it is today, in 2003, the faculty disclosed about 50 inventions. In 2011, it was over 200.”
Linder attributes each to a faculty member's willingness to dive into the bottomless pool of possibilities that entrepreneurship and development offer.
“When you have faculty who have that kind of mental attitude and when students are in their programs, they experience that and they get excited,” he said. “The students and faculty are progressing through this cultural change together.”
Though Jones is no longer part of the UNeMed agency, he retains a relationship with the medical center, using its equipment when necessary to test his inventions and tap into radiology expertise available there.
The benefit for the university is accessibility to equipment that is typically tens of thousands of dollars, said Craig Walker, chairman of radiology at the Nebraska Medical Center.
“He can help solve problems we have,” he said.
Out of the partnership, for example, Jones developed a niche set of surface coils for pediatric patients who need brain and spine scans. Before Jones' invention, there were just two separate coils to do the job. His invention allowed the process to happen simultaneously, a “significant development” for the medical industry, Walker said.
UNeMed CEO Michael Dixon said Jones has “really been able to help grow our tech community.”
But Jones sees room for improvement here.
The engineers he sees graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and University of Nebraska at Omaha collaborative Kiewit Institute are software engineers. They aren't the hardware engineers — people who can work on everything from the back end of a computer to its physical parts — Jones is seeking. They're not the radio frequency and product engineers he needs, either.
What he's looking for are hybrid engineers, part mathematical wiz and part builder who can look at circuits and transmission lines and make them workable products for the medical industry.
That leaves Jones responsible for training his employees. These days, he spends about three-fourths of his time working on the bench and teaching how to solve technical problems. That takes away from nurturing his company's business development end, he said.
Wisconsin, Ohio and Minnesota's medical technology landscapes are much further ahead of Nebraska's, said Mark Richards, vice president of operations of ScanMed. The medical imaging giant General Electric was based in the Milwaukee area for years, and one of the original companies that developed MRI scanners came out of a Cleveland suburb.
Smaller startups and spin-offs have since developed in Minneapolis, he said.
Successful university and economic development relationships and subsequent spinoffs have been contributors in some of those cases, Dixon said.
The country's first technology transfer office followed the 1920s discovery by a University of Wisconsin biochemist of how to make vitamin D a commercial product. In the 1960s, researchers at the University of Florida developed Gatorade.
Richards hopes the Nebraska medical industry grows and makes similarly well-known contributions.
“Nebraska has a lot of interesting things going on in tech companies and startup companies,” he said. “We do what we can do single-handedly, but we're a growing company — and that's good — but is it going to become a hub by just us doing that? Probably not.”
Jones agrees. Though it's taking time, he likes what he's seeing.
Google expanding across the river in Iowa is good news, he said, and the amount of investment and infrastructure planned for the Innovation Campus is even better news. He believes the center will draw the kind of students he needs, potentially solving his recruitment problem.
“We've got a long ways to go, there's no doubt about it,” he said, “but the investment is going in the right direction.”
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