Ann Arbor-based AMF-Nano Corp. is the tech equivalent of "It takes a village to raise a child."
For founder and President Rakesh Katragadda, his company is the metaphorical child, born in 2009. The village is what has grown into a statewide entrepreneurial support system that has helped him reach about $100,000 in revenue this year and a projection of $500,000 to $1 million next year and up to $12 million in three or four years.
Katragadda's company, which has three patents, makes wireless environmental sensors about the size of a penny that monitor water and air quality, temperature, humidity, soil quality and other conditions. It employs five and has had entrepreneurial support from institutions and people ranging from Troy to Traverse City to Iowa.
Katragadda, 32, who got his master's degree in engineering from Wayne State University in 2007, worked on a retinal eye implant project for the Kresge Eye Institute, then as a consultant for Kalamazoo-based Stryker Corp., before using $30,000 in credit card debt to found AMF-Nano.
He now rents a small office and lab space at the University of Michigan's Lurie Nanofabrication Facility, where he designs and builds silicon-based sensor prototypes for uses including medical devices, manufacturing and agriculture.
Michael Drake, director of corporate relations for UM's College of Engineering, said the purpose of having for-profit companies like AMF-Nano use university facilities is that in addition to leveraging UM facilities for societal good, having private-sector users sharing space with students allows those students to learn lessons in product development and real-world demands.
Katragadda has formed a crucial relationship with General Motors Components Holdings LLC, a division of GM that is helping prototype a sensor to monitor tire pressure in cars at its large industrial sensor fabrication facility in Kokomo, Ind.
GM will also build AMF's sensors as he ramps up production for members of the Iowa Family Farms, an association of hog farmers. Sensor sales to pig farmers account for most of his current revenue. The farmers use the sensors to monitor the environment in barns.
GM Components Holdings has been trying to bring the Kokomo plant to full capacity since 2011 by forming partnerships and joint ventures. Brian King, the plant's business development manager, said he couldn't discuss specifics but could confirm a partnership involving sensor design and manufacturing.
"Rakesh has a great technology and he's relentless," said Bill Mayer, director of entrepreneurial services at Ann Arbor Spark, who helped Katragadda get an investment of $50,000 from the Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Microloan Fund.
That's a matching-fund program. G. Krishna Kumar, a Troy-based gastroenterologist, was the first investor in AMF-Nano and is its CEO. He said he met Katragadda several years ago and was intrigued by the potential for wireless sensors to be implanted in the human body to give real-time feedback on such things as aortic grafts.
They decided the quickest and cheapest path to market was to target agricultural and industrial applications — which, unlike medical devices, don't require approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and costly trials.
"There are so many opportunities for the technology. It's my job to focus (Katragadda) and set a road map in front of him," said Arcadio Ramirez, a Michigan Small Business Technology Development Center consultant who helps early-stage entrepreneurs refine business plans and hone market opportunities.
Ramirez negotiated with GM and introduced Katragadda to Chris Wendel, a consultant with Marquette-based Northern Initiatives, a nonprofit community development corporation that provides entrepreneurs with access to capital, consulting help and markets.
Wendel, in turn, introduced Katragadda to Nikki Rothwell, who has a split appointment to the Michigan Agricultural Research Station and the Michigan State University Extension, both in the Leelanau Peninsula northeast of Traverse City, which is home of many vineyards. He also arranged a meeting between Katragadda and Lee Lutes, head wine maker and general manager of Black Star Farms, one of the peninsula's largest and most successful commercial operations.
Rothwell said MSU operates one weather tower in the Leelanau, which is hardly enough for the grape growers, whose slopes contain microclimates that can have different conditions just yards apart, conditions at some times of the year that can be crucial.
Grapes lower on a hill might be in air warm enough where frost isn't a concern. A bit up the hill, frost could be imminent without growers taking action, she said.
Rothwell said AMF's nanos could provide the kind of real-time data that keeps crops healthy, and she is pursuing a state grant that will verify how well the sensors work and their potential value to growers.
The potential applications of the technology include frost protection, disease control and pest mitigation.
Lutes said Katragadda is to deliver a proposal to Suttons Bay-based Black Star Farms in December to become a supplier of sensors.
"Water monitoring, for example, is important, especially in sandy soils that are prone to drought stress. This is technology that can serve a multitude of purposes," Lutes said.
Lutes said AMF can help not just with existing vineyard stock, but with a cloning project Black Star Farms is involved in to introduce particularly valued vines to his and his supplier's slopes.
He is working on the cloning project with David Milarch, of the Copemish-based Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, who recently got headlines nationwide for successfully cloning a dying redwood planted by fabled conservationist John Muir in the 1880s on his ranch in Martinez, Calif.
Said Lutes: "I am certain these sensors can play a role in doing soil analysis and weather monitoring prior to planting to make sure we match certain clones to the right sites."