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Defense Mechanisms 

Here in Vermont, we're surrounded — by military contractors

If Omni Measurement Systems of Milton ran an ad for its best-selling product, the Advanced Mission Extender Device, it might look something like this:

One F-16 Falcon fighter jet: $14.6 million

Cost of training a fighter pilot for one year: $2.6 million

Cost, per flight, of using the Advanced Mission Extender Device: $50

Freedom to empty your bladder at 35,000 feet during a Mach 3 dogfight: priceless

But Omni Measurement Systems, which employs 33 Vermonters, doesn’t have to advertise — its biggest customer is Uncle Sam. In 2008, the Department of Defense spent $4,050,935 on Omni Measurement Systems’ patented bladder-relief technology, which allows pilots and mechanized ground forces, such as tank drivers, to go potty on the go. That’s quite a shift in product line for a company that started in 1998 making weights and measures for the cattle industry.

Marketing director Jamie Walker explains that developing this technology became a priority for the military after 9/11, when air missions got much longer. The Advanced Mission Extender Device, which is available in both male and female models, also has civilian applications. Walker reports that her company is currently “working out the kinks” to sell them to nursing homes and home health care providers, which promises to be a burgeoning market in the coming decade.

Love it or hate it, the Pentagon’s enveloping embrace touches all 50 states. Defense contractors can be found in more than 90 percent of all congressional districts, and Vermont is no exception. In 2008, total federal contracts awarded in the Green Mountain State exceeded $529 million — down from a decade high of $901 million in 2007. The bulk of that money was spent on defense-related aeronautical supplies: aircraft parts, missile and explosive components, guns, ammunition and “quick-reaction capability equipment,” according to the Federal Procurement Data System.

But while most Vermonters are probably familiar with the state’s largest defense firms — General Dynamics of Burlington and the Goodrich Corporation of Vergennes — scores of smaller firms doing business in Vermont sell goods and services to the U.S. military. Many have been around for decades but maintain relatively low profiles. Sometimes it’s because they don’t advertise, recruit or sell their wares in state. Other times it’s because they perform sensitive or even classified research and development. Still others choose to fly under the public radar due to Vermont’s left-leaning populace, which often takes a dim view of all Pentagon projects.

Still, as overall spending on defense contracts has swelled in recent years — from $133 billion in 2000 to $391 billion in 2008 — so too has the number of defense contractors operating in Vermont’s tech sector, which employs some of the state’s highest skilled and best-paid workers. This week, Seven Days takes a closer look at a few of those firms in our own backyard to find out what they do, who they employ and why they’re here. All were asked whether their products are considered dual-use technologies — that is, available for both military and civilian applications — and whether Vermont’s congressional delegation had a hand in bringing them business.

(Note: All contract dollar figures listed below are those reported for FY 2009 by the Federal Procurement Data System.)

Preci-Manufacturing Inc.

Location: Winooski

Number of VT employees: 95

2009 defense contracts: $1,413,247

This privately held manufacturing firm has been in Winooski since the Grunvald family relocated there from their native Montréal in 1978. Vice president Jeff Grunvald, who still runs the company with his father and brother, says that about 75 percent of their business — roughly $10 million annually in sales — is defense related. Preci-Manufacturing makes precision mechanical components used in planes, helicopters, ships, submarines and heavy armored vehicles. The company initially moved to the Burlington area to be closer to its main customer, IBM, though those sales have since dried up. When asked if Vermont’s congressional delegation was helpful in landing those defense contracts, Grunvald chuckled and said, “They’ve come to me for more advice than they’ve given to me.”

Ascension Technology Corp.

Location: Milton

Number of VT employees: 40, not including freelance consultants

2009 defense contracts: $2,359,000

In 1986, company cofounders Jack Scully and Ernie Blood left their previous employer and current competitor, Polhemus Inc. of Colchester, to launch Ascension Technology, a small high-tech start-up company. The firm began by making computer hardware that lets fighter pilots aim their weapons simply by turning their head and looking at their targets through a visor. Now in its 23rd year, the company has since shifted much of its work to the civilian sector, where it sells tracking technologies used in virtual reality games and computer animation for television and film. Recently, the company has been developing the next generation of magnetic sensors used in medical procedures, such as one that can accurately track a biopsy needle three dimensionally without exposing the patient or provider to radiation from a CT scan. Says Scully, “It totally takes the guesswork out of it.” Though most of Ascension Technology’s business is in the civilian sector, Scully credits Senator Patrick Leahy for landing him various earmarks since 2005 worth about $5 million.

QuantaSpec Inc.

Location: Burlington

Number of VT employees: “About a dozen”

2009 defense contracts: $640,000

Since 2004, this small Burlington business has been developing infrared technology that can detect everything from roadside explosives to smuggled uranium to food-borne pathogens. According to founder/president Ken Puzey, much of the company’s recent R&D has been done for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, developing a method for rapidly diagnosing malaria. “I don’t think most people realize that the Army spends quite a bit of money on medical research, pushing very advanced technologies that will be of great benefit to people in civilian hospitals,” Puzey says. QuantaSpec also has developed a tool for quickly identifying hospital-acquired infections, which affect about 2 million Americans and kill 180,000 annually. In some cases, the company’s technology can also reduce diagnostic times from 72 hours to several seconds, saving more lives. The company’s latest foray is into cancer research, using similar technology to speed those diagnoses as well. Why is QuantaSpec in Vermont? Says Puzey, “There’s a large pool of highly educated but underutilized people in the area.”

Problem-Knowledge Couplers Corp.

Location: Burlington

Number of VT employees: 65

2009 defense contracts: $7,157,500

Located in Burlington’s Chace Mill on the Winooski River, PKC builds “clinical decisions support technology” that helps doctors and patients make more informed medical decisions. Based on a system developed by company founder and Vermont medical innovator Dr. Larry Weed, PKC’s staff compiles the most up-to-date data from peer-reviewed medical literature and research projects and enters them into a computer. Then, the company’s software allows a doctor to enter specific symptoms — say, chest pains or headaches — match them with the patient’s medical history, and pull up the universe of known conditions that could potentially cause them. As longtime CEO Howard Pierce explains, in an age when the scope of medical research is expanding at an exponential rate all over the world, “Everyone agrees that it’s physically impossible for anyone to do this in their head anymore.” Though PKC’s software has obvious civilian uses, Pierce notes that the company’s biggest customer is still the military, which uses its software to help keep military personnel deployable. Pierce is a big fan of Vermont’s senior senator: “Senator Leahy was absolutely instrumental in our early years,” he says. “I can’t say enough about him and his staff.”

Versatilis, LLC

Location: Shelburne

Number of VT employees: 1

2009 defense contracts: $99,000

Versatilis owner and founder George Powch was a bit wary of answering a reporter’s questions about what his firm does. A virtual company with about half a dozen partners and collaborators scattered nationwide, Versatilis is “all about R&D focused on enabling flexible electronics on flexible substrates.” In layperson’s terms, that means developing new technologies, such as computer monitors, that can be rolled up instead of opening and closing like a clamshell. “Someday,” says Powch, “the clothes you wear may display different patterns, so you can download the fashions of the day.” Although all the work Powch does has dual-use applications, Versatilis’ primary dealings are with the Defense Advanced Research Products Agency, the R&D arm of the Pentagon known for funding such “high-risk, high-reward” projects as the first hypertext system and the Global Positioning System. When asked if Vermont’s congressional team has been at all helpful in landing his company’s contracts, Powch sounded a scornful note: “No. I’ve tried, but they were useless.”

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Bio:
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.

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