Entrepreneur Helping to Lead Pittsburgh’s Transformation May Now Protect It

June 15, 2009 | SBDC Pittsburgh

PHILADELPHIA—This fall, Pittsburgh will offer international audiences proof positive of how to turnaround a failing economy as host of the 2009 G-20 world economic summit. One of the ways the city was able to reinvent itself—after the collapse of its steel industry in the 1970s—was through its robust entrepreneurial community.


Big thinking, naturally curious, well-connected and self-described as “partially crazy,” these entrepreneurs emerged out of the ashes and joined forces with fellow technologists and innovators. They also turned to some of the nation’s best resources gathered in Pittsburgh’s university communities, such as the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at the University of Pittsburgh.


Walter J. Keller, CEO of Nokomis, Inc. in nearby Charleroi offers one such example. Keller, a physicist who built a 30 member team of technologists to produce advanced electromagnetic products for the Department of Defense, frequented the Pitt SBDC for assistance related to business planning and proposal assistance that significantly supported the company’s development.


“Nokomis has found the SBDC to be a significant regional asset,” said Keller. “The University of Pittsburgh SBDC was instrumental in providing assistance related to our Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) Program transition efforts and general business planning throughout this period of growth.” The SBDC provided a seasoned technology consultant to work closely with Nokomis to develop business structures and plans necessary to receive larger federal contracts. Keller also worked the SBDC’s extensive connections with other technology and regional resources, including a developmental agency to review proposal concepts.


Last August, Nokomis secured a highly coveted Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contract from the Navy with a ceiling of almost $10 million. The company has also received several Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) awards over the past four years with the Pitt SBDC’s help, including six Phase I, three Phase II and six Phase III awards.


The IDIQ contract funds transition and commercialization activities related to Nokomis technology, which detects, identifies and locates electronic threats. The funding has also enabled Nokomis to expand operations, creating new jobs and opportunities for workers in Charleroi and the surrounding region. Follow-on contracts have facilitated expansion in Pittsburgh and a new facility in Toledo, Oh.


"Nokomis offers a prime example of how entrepreneurs are driving the state’s economic recovery," State Rep. Peter J. Daley (D-Washington/Fayette) said. "They exemplify how innovators are leveraging regional assets and seizing opportunities that keep Pennsylvania competitive." Keller recently collected a Phase I SBIR contract worth $100,000 from NASA’s Glenn Research Center for the development of advanced antenna technology for aerospace vehicles and satellites. The research will also have potential applications in areas like cellular base stations, commercial satellite communications, WiFi systems, airport infrastructure and public safety.


"We’re extremely pleased to support future NASA missions with our technology, and are excited about the strong prospects for continued job growth despite this difficult economy," Keller said. He often notes that the Mon Valley location is a prime location for recruiting top engineers and technicians with advanced degrees from nearby universities.


Keller has been exploring another market for Nokomis products of late: police departments. Nokomis has been involved with the staff at the Pennsylvania Region 13 Task Force to adapt Nokomis technology to the needs of first responders and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) personnel. The relationship with local police forces extends back to earlier stages of development, where the prototype was called upon by a local police force to aid in a bomb threat investigation at a local school.


With the city rapidly moving to accommodate the thousands of heads of state, finance ministers, delegation members, media representatives and inevitable protestors that will descend late September, the technology may come in handy. Public safety departments have already begun coordinating security details with the Secret Service for the summit.


"I’m confident we can help," Keller said. "The kind of technology we offer is anticipatory, and actually would be ideal to have for this type of event."