A sensor technology that can determine the real-time tread wear of tires on the road has been licensed from Duke University by a startup company backed by a leader in parts distribution and provider of replacement tires for automotive dealerships. Tyrata, Inc., has announced the closing of $4.5 million in series A financing from several investors, including a leading investment by Dealer Tire, LLC.
The funding will allow the Durham, North Carolina startup to develop the sensor technology into a product and prepare for large-scale manufacturing. The Tyrata tread wear sensor can be linked to data analytics systems to improve safety in consumer vehicles, reduce maintenance costs in large fleet-management operations and provide critical data for the emerging market of autonomous vehicles.
The technology is the brainchild of Aaron Franklin, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and chemistry at Duke. "With all the technology and sensors in today's cars, it's kind of crazy to think that there's almost no data being gathered from the only part of the vehicle that is actually touching the road," Franklin said. "Our tire tread sensor is the perfect marriage between high-end technology and a simple solution."
Since the technology was originally reported in IEEE Sensors Journal, Franklin has been working to commercialise it with colleagues in Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment led by Jesko von Windheim, associate dean of innovation and entrepreneurship.
The technology relies on the well-understood mechanics of how electric fields interact with different materials. The core of the sensor is formed by placing two small electrodes very close to each other. By applying an oscillating electrical voltage to one and grounding the other, an electric field forms between the electrodes.
While most of this electric field passes directly between the two electrodes, some of the field arcs between them. When a material is placed on top of the electrodes, it interferes with this so-called "fringing field." By measuring this interference through the electrical response of the grounded electrode, it is possible to determine the thickness of the material covering the sensor.
Franklin and his colleagues have spent the past six months optimising their original design and showing that it is sensitive enough to work with the thick treads of semi-trailer truck tires.
They have shown that using carbon nanotubes (tiny cylinders of carbon atoms just one-billionth of a meter in diameter) allows the sensor to track millimeter-scale changes in tread depth with high accuracy and sensitivity. The sensors could easily signal when it's time to replace tires or report information about uneven and often dangerous tire wear.
"We at Dealer Tire see a strong potential for this technology to improve consumer safety as it relates to tires," said Scott Mueller, partner and chief executive officer of Dealer Tire. "The investment in Tyrata is consistent with our strategy to enhance tire safety and provide exceptional, value-added services to our stakeholders and for the benefit of the overall industry."
The investment, Franklin says, would not have been possible without the collaboration with the Nicholas School.
"Jesko and his colleagues have unique experience and support capabilities that allow them to quickly ramp up a startup," Franklin said. "I was amazed at how efficiently they were able to take what we'd been trying to do for months with limited success and organise it into a smooth and effective effort that brought investors to the table."
"At the Nicholas School, we have focused on developing an entrepreneurship ecosystem that includes experienced entrepreneurs working with faculty and students in an educational environment supported by the Office of Research Support, the Office of Licensing and Ventures and the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative," says von Windheim.
"The launch of Tyrata represents a validation of our efforts and a wonderful success for the Nicholas School and for our donors who have generously supported the development of this ecosystem."
In addition to serving as associate dean at the Nicholas School, von Windheim is the Lynn Gorguze-Scott Peters Professor of the Practice in Environmental Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
David Koester, associate in research at the Environmental Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program, and John Glushik, managing director of the Duke Angel Network at the Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative (DIEI), worked with Franklin and von Windheim to launch the new company.
Additional support was provided by Joseph Andrews, a PhD student in electrical and computer engineering at the Pratt School, Allison Besch, director of executive education programs at the Nicholas School, Marie-Angela Della Pia, community director at Duke I&E, and Brian Lowinger, assistant director of contracts and compliance at the Office of Research Support.
"It's hard to imagine a more textbook example of how university innovation can be translated into a very solid startup, with sufficient funding and key partners that will help bring the technology to market," reflected Franklin. "This is all thanks to an impressive entrepreneurial ecosystem at Duke."
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Image credit: Duke University.