Aaron and Michelle Crumm are both alumni of the University of Michigan. Aaron graduated with an undergraduate degree in Materials Science Engineering in 2000. Michelle got her Masters in Business Administration from Ross, they year before in 1999. They currently work together at Adaptive Materials.
Aaron and Michelle are an interesting match. Both are brilliant and friendly. Aaron’s intense, like he has thirty hours of work to do in a twenty-four hour day. Michelle’s a perfect reflection of what some friends call her: “Sparkly.” And together they’re the powerhouse that created Adaptive Materials (AMI), a small company that’s attracted DARPA, the U.S Marines, the Air Force and a worldwide electronics conglomerate, as well as a number of other interested parties that are lining up in front of AMI’s unassuming facility in Ann Arbor.
Why the fuss? AMI manufactures fuel cells that are lightweight, put out enough electricity to power military instruments, ultra-light aerial vehicles, computers, TVs and small appliances, and last up to11-times longer than conventional batteries before they need refueling – with nothing more than propane, an inexpensive, universally available gas that’s commonly hooked up to backyard barbecues. This is a dream product from a company that’s become a sensation.
The technology emerged from the PhD work that Aaron (PhD MSE ’00) started more than twelve years earlier at Michigan Engineering.
“I spent a lot of time in the labs,” he said. “I’d been attracted to Michigan Engineering because, as part of the one world’s major universities, there were exceptional resources at my fingertips, and there was always an expert to collaborate with.”
“I’d been attracted to Michigan Engineering because, as part of the one world’s major universities, there were exceptional resources at my fingertips, and there was always an expert to collaborate with.”
His major collaborator was John Halloran, the L.H. and F.E. Van Vlack Professor of Materials Science and Engineering. They developed an extrusion process for the microfabrication of piezoelectric hydrophones. In one of those flashes of insight that frequently accompany breakthroughs, they realized the same process would produce ceramic tubes for solid oxide fuel cells that would generate electricity and run on a cheap, readily available fuel.
Aaron and Michelle (U-M MBA ’99) saw the technology’s business potential. Michelle said that she didn’t think of herself as a risk-taker. “But I am a business junkie. And I like to solve problems. Aaron’s incredibly smart – most people see the surface; he sees ten layers deep. He’s passionate about everything he does. And I’ve always believed in him, one-hundred percent, so starting a business wasn’t scary at all.”
They launched Adaptive Materials in 1999.
“Michelle had an investor relations job in Battle Creek,” Aaron said. “We lived in Jackson and I commuted to Ann Arbor for a year while I got things rolling. I learned a lot. One, if you’re hungry enough and if you have the energy, then you can succeed. Another good one: much of success is timing. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a wave of investments to develop your whacky ideas into something useful.”
They wrote a proposal in the fall of 2000 and received an award for $1 million in March of 2001. “It came by fax,” Aaron said. “I thought, we’re on our way. We came to Ann Arbor. Michelle took care of the business, and I spent a lot of time figuring out how to get used equipment, rental space and so on. I also spent a lot of time learning to orchestrate people with different skill sets.”
The PhD work consumed him. Michelle realized that he couldn’t spare much time for her. “I decided to make use of the time to get an MBA. Aaron was so busy that I don’t think he knew I was in school until I finished my degree.”
AMI went through 10 challenging years during which Aaron guided the fuel cells through various incarnations, each one looking for a market that would find it useful. Two years ago he found the version that made the military sit up and take notice. Since then, AMI has identified a number of potential commercial applications. All of which made AMI particularly attractive to Ultra Electronics, a United Kingdom-based company with interests that include defense, energy and security. Ultra Electronics purchased AMI, creating ULTRA-AMI. What started in a lab a dozen years ago has become a leader in an intensely competitive market.
Aaron said that the company has “50 employees and is in the process of hiring more.”
Michelle added that they’re “creating meaningful jobs for people.”
For their efforts they were, together, named 2011 Executives of the Year in Michigan. Aaron hit Crain’s Detroit Business 2007 list of “40 Under 40.” In 2009 Michelle was awarded the prestigious title “Entrepreneur of the Year” by Ernst and Young, “Most Influential Women” by Crain’s Detroit Business, one of Enterprising Women’s “Women of the Year,” and a “Leader to Watch” by Women in Public Policy.
“We’re not quite sure what we’re planning for the future,” Michelle said. “But,” Aaron added, “whatever we do, we’ll do it together – we’re a great team.”