A product with high-earning potential. An inventor who will donate his share of the profits to students. A University that will invest its cut to advance its mission of creating knowledge and sharing it with the world.
Entrepreneurship and selflessness don’t always go hand-in-hand, but at SUNY, the spirit of innovation is alive, and it is making a difference in the lives of those it touches.
For Neil Haney, it all started with a quiet drive in his truck.
“I was driving home from work one night,” said Haney, an instructional support associate who teaches in the Powersports Performance and Repair program at SUNY Canton, “and I got to thinking, ‘Why can’t we use an oil pump to lubricate a hydraulic-system chainsaw?’”
Haney and students Michael Verstraete, Andrew Walker, Alex Sterling, and Daniel Geisenhof had been building a firewood processor—a machine that turns entire tree trunks into firewood using an industrial-sized chainsaw—as part of the students’ capstone project when he came up with the idea for the oil pump.
According to Haney, the current method for lubricating chainsaw blades involves the use of a plunger that squirts hydraulic fluid onto the saw blade as the saw’s bar moves down through the wood. “As long as the bar is moving it’s pushing fluid, but as soon as the bar gets stuck in the wood, the chain doesn’t get any fluid, and that’s a problem.” Another problem with current designs is the use of hydraulic fluid itself as a lubricant. “It gets by, but it’s really not the best thing to use,” said Haney. “Our use of bar oil will make the bar and chain last longer.”
After his “aha” moment in the truck, Haney took his oil-pump idea to his students. He invested $10,000 of his own money so the team could create the new pump and processor. Together, the team built the system, which applies a novel gerotor technology, developed by Haney based on his extensive experience with all-terrain vehicle engine oil pumps, to a chainsaw. The system has enough power to pump thick bar oil to the blade to prevent overheating.
With a prototype in hand, the team tested its product at Empire Hydraulics & Machine in Adams Center, N.Y. The team found that the pump was capable of delivering 540 cubic centimeters of oil per minute to the saw blade, significantly more than the 33 cubic centimeters per minute that are needed to oil a saw.
According to Steven Wood, assistant director of innovation services at the Research Foundation (RF), one of the many ways in which SUNY supports a culture of innovation among faculty and researchers is by enabling inventors to share in the proceeds from sales of products and services embodying their inventions.
“SUNY’s very generous patent policy empowers inventors to share personally in 40 percent of any royalties generated from the product; that’s among the highest in the country,” said Wood. “This incentive, combined with the numerous other SUNY programs and initiatives designed to catalyze innovation, helps to achieve our ultimate goal: to get SUNY technology to the market where it can improve our quality of life.”
Haney got a glimpse of what SUNY’s support could mean for his product during a conversation with JoAnne Fassinger, grants coordinator at SUNY Canton.
“Based on the uniqueness of Neil’s pump, I thought he should investigate a patent,” said Fassinger. “His solution to the problem at hand was brilliant, and I thought others may be able to benefit from his innovation.”
As a result of Fassinger’s advice, Haney now is working with the RF’s Office of Innovation and Partnerships and has filed a provisional patent application for the product, and a local company already has expressed interest in building the pump and selling it as a kit.
Wood noted that the RF helps SUNY researchers pursue patents for their products by conducting a patentability assessment to determine whether or not the proposed invention is patentable under federal law. The RF also assesses the market opportunities for the product. If the invention is patentable and marketable, the RF engages outside patent counsel and guides the researcher through the process. “The patent system is in place to stimulate innovation by providing protections and enabling inventors to recoup their research and development expenses,” said Wood.
Haney noted that his primary purpose for seeking a patent is to provide funding for the college’s mechanical engineering program. “If the patent is successful, the school will get 60 percent of any income earned on the product, and I will get 40 percent, but I’m going to give most of my 40 percent back to the school,” he said. “It’s the school that gave me the opportunity to do this kind of work, so it’s important to me to see that others can have the same opportunities. I feel really strongly about this.”
Fassinger echoes the sentiment that these types of opportunities are important, not only for researchers, but for students too. “A lot more goes on at SUNY Canton than just teaching in a classroom,” she said. “Our students are engaged in these types of projects and are able to apply what they are learning and put it to work in real-life situations.”
Indeed, SUNY places high importance on exposing students to opportunities to be involved in innovation. “We recognize the necessity to make our scientists and researchers aware of their contributions with respect to intellectual property and considerations they need to take into account,” said Wood. “It’s crucial that we involve students in these activities because it gives them the opportunity for experiential learning with respect to the patent process.”
For Haney, the “innovation seed” has been firmly planted, and he is eager to help it grow. “I look forward to seeing the outcome of this invention and to get started on other ideas,” he said.
Parties interested in obtaining rights to use this technology are encouraged to contact SUNY Canton Grants Coordinator JoAnne Fassinger.
The Research Foundation works with the academic and business leadership of campuses to support research and discovery at SUNY through the administration of sponsored projects and adept transfer and sharing of intellectual property for public benefit and economic growth.