Montana State University

Local company sponsors cumulative $5 million in research at MSU

January 26, 2015 -- Tanya Reinhardt, MSU News Service

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The technology capabilities of a small Bozeman company have been compared to Superman’s X-ray vision, while at Montana State University it is also the millions of dollars the company has invested in research over several years that places it in the superhero category.

S2 Corporation has provided $5 million to Montana State University research efforts, making the company our largest private sector sponsor,” said Rebecca Mahurin, director of MSU’s Technology Transfer Office. “It is about three times the amount of research dollars other companies have provided to MSU.”

Mahurin said the $5 million has been invested over a period of several years.

According to S2, which takes its name from its core spatial-spectral holography technology, the company is the only one in the world focused on providing extreme-wideband sensing and signal processing solutions for multiple customers. S2’s largest customer is the U.S. Department of Defense, or DOD.

“The DOD has invested more than $30 million to propel the S2 technology forward,” said Kris Merkel, S2 Corporation’s president and CEO. Merkel added that the investments have driven the S2 technology to capabilities that far exceed comparative systems.

S2 maintains a strong relationship with MSU for several reasons, Merkel said, including what he refers to as “the intellectual capital of MSU’s Spectrum Lab and the MSU physics department—smart people with know-how and innovation.”

S2 launched in 2005, and eight of its 10 employees are alumni of MSU or former MSU employees.

The company currently has rights to 17 U.S. patents, with 13 of these being licensed from MSU. S2 projects that in the next two to three years, it will subcontract an additional $1 million to MSU Spectrum Lab for research and development efforts, out of its approximately $6 million in current and pending efforts on several highly competitive contract awards. 

The MSU Spectrum Lab performs advanced research and development of photonic technologies in partnership with Montana technology companies. Its director, Zeb Barber, said the relationship between the Spectrum Lab and S2 has provided significant benefits to both.

“This has been a very good collaboration, especially over the past few years,” Barber said. “The funding is definitely beneficial for MSU, but the relationship also helps support students and other research scientists.”

Merkel said the technology S2 is using for radio frequency surveillance and signal processing is proven to be better than anything else on the market.

“The S2 technology is the most cost-efficient solution over wide bandwidth and has 100 times the dynamic range of any other available wideband systems.”

The technology takes signals from the radio frequency range of the electromagnetic spectrum and translates them into an optical signal via modulation of a laser beam, which is then absorbed and signal processed by a synthetic crystal. Many of the signal processing crystals S2 uses have been developed by MSU personnel, and one such crystal was jointly developed and patented by MSU and S2.

Merkel said the DOD is particularly interested in using the technology to sense and identify the energy of specific transmitters based on their radio frequency and time of emission, as well as on the angle from which it was received and its modulation format. He added that S2’s goal is to package the technology so that it can be used for tactical spectrum situational awareness and management, which is increasingly important to ground, ship and airborne missions and to identify potential threats.  These can include many types of radio frequency emitters, such as roadside bombs that could be detonated by cell phones, or as a real-time early warning defense system for incoming missiles. However, the same core technology can be used for radio frequency communications, radar signal processing and real-time massive database searching.

Mahurin said it is a privilege for the university to work with Merkel and S2.

“They are committed to the technologies, and they are committed to working with MSU,” she said.

In the fall, MSU celebrated its first year as a charter member of the National Academy of Inventors. As part of the event, the Technology Transfer Office hosted a celebration in honor of inventors and recognized Kris Merkel -- who worked at MSU as a research scientist prior to starting S2.

Merkel also recently received the prestigious Jerry Sowell Radio Frequency Award for advancing wideband spectral monitoring technology from the Association of Old Crows, an organization of the nation’s top specialists in advancing strategy, policy and programs for radar, electronic defense and electromagnetic spectrum operations.  

“S2 is a class act, Kris (Merkel) is top-notch and their technologies are for the betterment of the world,” Mahurin said. “We value their commitment to MSU and appreciate the collaborative partnership.”

Mahurin noted that S2 is one of approximately 30 laser photonics companies that was started or has been expanded in the Gallatin Valley thanks to MSU's research in the area – the first optics company came to Bozeman in 1980. Bozeman has the distinction of being home to twice the number of optics companies per capita as Tucson, Ariz., which is widely regarded as a major center of the optical industry, Mahurin said.

Contact: Rebecca Mahurin, director, MSU Technology Transfer Office, (406) 994-7868, rmahurin@montana.edu