How a Columbus startup named after Iron Man is creating out-of-this-world tech in Ohio
For decades, Ohio has been known as the home of aerospace. From Neil Armstrong to John Glenn, the Buckeye State has long been connected to America’s aeronautic aspirations. But in the midst of a global pandemic, NASA is teaming up with Ohio innovation in a new way: to help manufacture ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients. Thanks to their connections in the industry, STARK Industries, a medical technology startup in Columbus, had the opportunity to submit a proposal for ventilator production to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. STARK’s tech was chosen as one of eight producers of the ventilators, launching a fast-paced change in focus for the company.
“We had approximately five days’ notice between learning that the license was available and the deadline for the proposal being submitted,” said co-founder and CEO Joe Swantack. “So in just five days, we were able to assemble a successful proposal against more than 100 other proposals in the country. Our design was chosen, and now we’re producing the ventilator for NASA, which we’re calling the STARK Ventilator.”
What separated STARK from the competition was their ability to speed up the ventilator production process. The ventilators – a much-needed piece of technology used in treating COVID-19 patients – are in greater demand than supply can match. To account for that, NASA put out a call to companies that could find ways to eliminate the “bottleneck” of production. Thanks to their medical tech background, STARK made it happen.
“We’re one of, if not the first to roll out functional ventilators,” said Dr. Peter Lee, co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of STARK. “Our design is relatively simple — they aren’t intended to have all the functionality of a $50,000 ventilator used in an ICU with more urgent patients. Our ventilator addresses the 80 or 90 percent of patients who need simpler ventilators, which frees up the more expensive designs for the people who need them. We like to say those are the Cadillac of ventilators and we’ve built the Toyotas — they’ll get the job done at a fraction of the cost. We’re working through the final few steps with NASA and we’re at a point now where we’re aggressively looking for the people and entities that need these ventilators.”
The company was named in tongue-in-cheek fashion as a reference to Tony Stark, the man behind Iron Man, and his fictional company, Stark Industries. Swantack said he joked that they were “doing Iron Man-type work,” and when the product started matching that vision, they came up with an acronym to make the name official. On top of that, STARK has had its very own NASA connection from the start. Lee is among the 15,000 applicants going through a vetting process to become a NASA astronaut. And for a growing startup, increasing their connection to one of the country’s most visible federal agencies can be the start of something big.
“This has made a critical impact on us; it puts us on the map,” said Lee. “This partnership will pay dividends for us, in terms of reputation, networking and financing. We could have built the exact same ventilator with the exact same design, but not be designed by NASA, and it won’t garner the same attention. The fact that NASA is involved has a value that you really can’t put a price on. The fact that this was sitting on the President’s desk says something. But the coverage also helps to highlight the fact this ventilator is there and available, and hopefully that means it will have an impact and be a benefit to thousands of people.”
STARK Industries’ impressive portfolio fits just as perfectly in their Columbus headquarters as it would on the pages of the comic books that inspired their name. The organization grew with the help of Rev1 Ventures, and looks to be part of an inspiring group of high-tech developers who call central Ohio home.
“Columbus has been a great location for us,” Swantack said. “Rev1 has been a great partner; they’ve put us in touch with a number of state and federal organizations that help foster the growth of startup companies, such as STARK. Columbus has become a great place for businesses, particularly for startups. Between that and the aerospace background and history here in Ohio, along with the resources available, Columbus really supports us.”