‘Bridge-in-a-Backpack’ hits milestone

Posted July 13, 2012, at 5:48 p.m.
Habib Dagher, director of the Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center at the University of Maine, poses at the school's testing laboratory in Orono in October 2008.
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Habib Dagher, director of the Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center at the University of Maine, poses at the school's testing laboratory in Orono in October 2008.
Workers from Stetson & Watson maneuver a carbon fiber tube over the Little River in Belfast in September 2010 to create the Herrick Road bridge, using Bridge-in-a-Backpack technology.
Workers from Stetson & Watson maneuver a carbon fiber tube over the Little River in Belfast in September 2010 to create the Herrick Road bridge, using Bridge-in-a-Backpack technology. Buy Photo

ORONO, Maine — The “Bridge-in-a-Backpack” technology developed at the University of Maine and licensed to an Orono startup company has received a key approval that could speed its commercial adoption.

The Bridge-in-a-Backpack was more than a decade in development at UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center. The technology is an innovative inflatable composite-concrete arch bridge that can reduce construction time and costs, potentially double the life span of bridges, reduce maintenance costs, and significantly reduce the carbon footprint of bridge construction.

On Thursday night, a subcommittee of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials voted unanimously to accept design standards for the Bridge-in-a-Backpack for inclusion in its book of codes, according to Habib Dagher, director of the center. Those standards were developed by UMaine researchers and Advanced Infrastructure Technology, the startup that licensed the Bridge-in-a-Backpack technology for commercialization.

The adoption of those standards was approved by a vote of 50 bridge engineers, one from each state. It spells out the engineering specifications used to deploy the bridges in a construction setting. Importantly, inclusion in the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials codes means a Bridge-in-a-Backpack used on federal or state highways is automatically eligible for federal Department of Transportation grants, said Dagher. Typically, bridges are funded 80 percent by federal dollars, 20 percent by state dollars, he said.

“It’s huge. This would be the first time composite materials will be included in the bridge code,” he said. “It opens markets.”

The inclusion is also a stamp of approval, noted Brit Svoboda, president of Advanced Infrastructure Technology.

“This is a huge advancement, for us to have this approval and recognition,” said Svoboda. “It moves us from a research endeavor into a mainstream technology.”

The technology is still a new product, and there is a degree of risk-aversion in the engineering community, said Svoboda. But this was a necessary milestone in fully deploying the technology in the market, he said.

It’s also an important step to securing future financing for the company. To date, Advanced Infrastructure Technology has been funded through family and friends, owner equity and a private equity fund. The company is now looking at angel investors and venture capital funds to ramp up and expand production capabilities.

“Now we have the substantiation that we needed to go after that big money,” said Svoboda.

The company has eight employees who have mainly focused on corporate development, product enhancement, market development and other important foundations, as it also worked on inclusion in the bridge code.

Now that the foundation is solid and the technology has been adopted into the code, hopefully growth is the next step, said Svoboda.

The company currently makes the bridge kits at Kenway Corporation in Augusta. The plan is to do more of the production work in the Orono area, while maintaining a strategic partnership with Kenway, he said.

The company has 10 bridges deployed in four different states, as demonstration models. There are 15 more bridge projects in design in another 10 states or so, with proposals in another half-dozen countries, he said.

“When we can ship this stuff from Maine to all those locations, it’s a tremendous opportunity for all of us here in Maine,” said Svoboda.

In 2010 the company met with Russian officials who were interested in deploying the technology in support of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Svoboda said the company likely won’t do much work with that project, due to the time frame and working through similar standards approvals in that country.

The Bridge-in-a-Backpack is an example of economic development that state officials have been encouraging for years, where state investment in research and development produces patented technologies that can be licensed out to commercial entities. That provides an income stream to the state university, as well as jobs and tax revenue on the commercial side.

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