Three years ago, Dave Neundorfer was having breakfast with Jim Petras, an associate and a venture capitalist, when he first heard of a startup called LineStream.
Petras’ fund, Early Stage Partner, was the lead investor for LineStream, which had been started by Zhiqiang Gao, a Cleveland State University professor who had created software that made industrial equipment more energy efficient.
Neundorfer, originally from Cleveland Heights and a former Eaton Corp. employee, still had one year left at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. LineStream had raised capital, but it had no business plan or customers.
What it did have, though, were really big plans and some amazing simulations pointing to technology that might change the manufacturing world forever, Neundorfer recalls.
“They were getting some very astronomical improvements over standard technology,” he says. “At Eaton, we would work on a complete system overhaul that would increase energy efficiency by 3 or 4 or 5 percent. Here was Gao and his students just changing software and improving energy efficiency by 30, 40 even 50 percent. That was completely mind-blowing.”
Neundorfer signed on, and he spent the second half of his time at Stanford working on a business plan.
Less than three years later, in April, Line-Stream signed a long-term licensing agreement with Texas Instruments. The agreement allows the company to use LineStream’s software in control chips used in motors for products ranging from washing machines to sophisticated medical equipment.
Before LineStream signed with Texas Instruments, though, the company had to prove its software did what simulations suggested. And before that, the software had to be developed. And even before that, someone had to think it was possible.
That someone was Gao, who currently serves as — and this is a long title — associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the center for advanced control technologies at Cleveland State University. He is also the founder and an adviser to LineStream.
Gao received a doctoral degree in controls from University of Notre Dame in 1990. His first five years at Cleveland State were focused on publishing research papers to obtain tenure. Once he earned that security, Gao realized the academic work he had been doing had no real impact on everyday life.
In 1995, he attended a research conference in China and met Jingqing Han, a renowned researcher who was looking into controls and their industrial implications.
“I saw a disconnect between my research and the contemporary engineering problems,” Gao says. “He really opened my mind up. He is kind of the pioneer.”
Gao, Han and a group of graduate students worked on the theory that a simple software upgrade could improve machine efficiency. “The reality is that after 80 years of advancement, [manufacturing control technology] is still quite primitive,” Gao says.
It took eight years for Gao to develop the software, and remarkably, it didn’t cost a dime. During that time, Gao earned about
$3 million in research funding to work on several other engineering projects. It was what he learned in those projects that ultimately led to what would become LineStream.
“I remember the idea came to me while I was waiting to pick up my kids after their piano lessons,” Gao says. “It was a moment of clarity that I will never forget.”
Gao compares today’s industrial machines to a 2011 BMW with a 1922 Model T engine. Most machines are controlled by technology that only adjusts to the manufacturing process once something bad has happened, like a machine overheating. LineStream’s software detects the disturbance early and adjusts accordingly before problems occur.
With Neundorfer onboard, LineStream worked out a deal with Parker Hannifin to test its software on one hose-extruder line, which essentially takes nylon pellets and melts them down to make a hose.
“There is a lot of heat and a lot of energy,” Neundorfer says. “We wanted to see if our software could reduce the energy consumption.”
It did. In a matter of hours, LineStream had installed the software on Parker Hannifin’s machine, and energy consumption fell by
57 percent. Before the software upgrade, Parker Hannifin’s extruder would overheat and then kick on fans to cool it down.
LineStream’s software made the machine heat to 500 degrees Celsius and stay there. The heater didn’t work as hard. The use of the cooling fans was eliminated.
“We then expanded across all their automated extrusion lines and replicated the results,” Neundorfer says.
The long-term agreement with Texas Instruments is likely to propel LineStream from a small startup to a growing company.
It delivers LineStream technology to the vast number of groups that fall under the company’s umbrella, getting the software out far faster than otherwise possible.
Texas Instruments has licensed the company’s SpinTAC tuning and control technology, to use in more consumer-based applications such as washing machine motors. LineStream will get a royalty for every chip that uses its software, though that is about as specific as Neundorfer says he can be in regard to the agreement.
“We don’t have the resources to go to each manufacturing plant as we did with Parker,” Neundorfer says. “Through the collaboration with [Texas Instruments], it gives us multiple platforms and a high room to grow within TI. It’s such a huge organization with so many product lines, it really is a huge first step.”
The next step is licensing the software with companies that make manufacturing equipment. Fortunately for LineStream, there is still a lot of manufacturing in Northeast Ohio.
That is one reason Gao says the company is perfectly situated in Cleveland and not Silicon Valley: There is a lot of real-world application study to be done in Northeast Ohio’s manufacturing realm.
“There are so many control problems in the manufacturing industry,” Gao says. “We are sitting in the middle of an industrial region, so we have constant interaction with engineers.”
One of Gao’s former students, Gang Tian, a doctoral candidate at Cleveland State who has also published work on advanced control algorithms and industrial control applications, is now the chief technology officer for LineStream.
“He was really one of the driving forces that helped put [the software] into implementable form,” Neundorfer says.
At the time of the Texas Instruments agreement, the company had three full-time employees. At the end of September, it added a fourth full-time employee in Adam Reynolds, who left a promising startup in Indianapolis that makes advanced outdoor robotics.
“I realized what they were trying to do,” Reynolds says. “They have a very revolutionary technology. I’ve worked with a lot of controls at my old position, and I knew how important this could be.”
Neundorfer expects to have at least eight employees by year’s end and then double that next year. Because of LineStream’s potential, Neundorfer hasn’t had trouble attracting top talent. Matt Zilli, LineStream’s vice president of marketing, left Silicon Valley for Cleveland.
“After doing quite a bit of research,” Zilli says, “it was clear LineStream had a real technology, a game-changing technology, which is one of the areas the traditional tech center is not focusing on much.”
Zilli had been working for a web-based video startup before joining LineStream in June. He said this company is unlike any other startup for which he’s worked.
“LineStream is a startup company,” he says, “but it doesn’t have startup technology.”
That, says Neundorfer, is all thanks to Gao, whom he calls a control luminary.
“He saw it,” Neundorfer says. “He believed in it. It was incredibly different from anything being researched in academia, and the key thing that brought it to fruition is the fact that Dr. Gao stayed with it and proved its benefits and made it extremely simple to implement.”