Founder Friday: Ward Thomas, Sentient Science

A company founded in 2001 typically doesn’t consider itself a startup anymore, but Sentient Science is incredibly grounded when it comes to their recent big wins – including $22.5 million in Series B funding from a Toronto venture capital firm, which is allowing them to expand their work in the wind turbine market to 100,000 turbines around the world.

16 years ago, Sentient Science was launched to use materials science (studying the structure of materials, like metal and semiconductors) to monitor the wear and tear of large industrial equipment. For years, the company wasn’t sure that their efforts would prove to be fruitful, but that quickly changed when their scientific approach was validated by NASA. Talk about a game-changer.

At that time, the company’s headquarters was located in Idaho. But efforts by Invest Buffalo Niagara and the University at Buffalo had other hopes for Sentient Science, and ultimately they decided to move the headquarters to Buffalo.

Now in 2017, Sentient Science has set its sights even higher, with plans to hire an additional 70 employees – more than doubling their staff. They’re also on pace for an IPO in the next few years.

Learn more about what attracted Ward to Buffalo and what’s on the horizon for Sentient Science in today’s Founder Friday.

How did your startup, well, start up?

Sentient Science was founded in 2001 from a Small Business Innovative Research project that was looking to use materials science as a way to “decode the material genome.” Essentially, what this means is our researchers were looking at how materials in bearings and gears degrade or fatigue over time. Our team built a software that simulates how loading conditions impact the life of critical components in rotating equipment. We began selling the software commercially in 2013 to large equipment operators in wind energy and continue our research in aerospace.

What do you do? Your startup?

Today, wind operators use our software to monitor the health and achieve life extension on 20,000+ wind turbines around in the globe in North America, Europe and China. We continue our R&D with the Department of Defense and Department of Energy for aerospace applications and have launched commercial sales in aerospace and rail.

When was the ‘aha’ moment for your startup when you realized this could actually work?

After nearly 10 years of failure, the approach was validated by NASA in 2010, and then we completed 3 additional years of validation studies with commercial partners. After those successful outcomes, we knew that we were ready to commercially launch the software. Wind energy was our first commercial industry, and we’re now developing commercial offerings for aerospace and rail. We won the 2014 Tibbetts Award issued at the White House by the Small Business Administration, and the Pioneers Award in 2016 from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

What was some important advice you received when starting up and who told it to you?

I had the opportunity to meet Donald Trump in Trump Towers in the early 90s. He told me to aim high and keep pushing, pushing, pushing to get there.

Goals for the next year? Three years?

We just closed our Series B funding round, and we’ll use those funds to double our staff size and close new deals in wind, aerospace and rail. We’ll file for IPO in 2019-2020.

Why Buffalo?

Buffalo is a great place to start a startup because the state and federal government support new business opportunities here. Our headquarters are in a mansion in Buffalo. If we headquartered in California, we’d be working out of a garage.

How do you do it? What drives you?

I have always had big aspirations. During the .com bubble, my company Aspect Technologies sold to I2 Technologies for $9.3 billion. I saw people become millionaires overnight. The technology my team has created at Sentient Science is changing the way the world operates. When we go IPO at a $10 billion valuation, we’ll have millionaire and billionaire tribologists, engineers, data scientists, marketers, etc.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Dream big and don’t stop until you get there.