MicroStrain uses state assistance to expand (4/2/09)

Governor looks to use stimulus money for economic development

April 2, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

What began as a homegrown company in Steve Arms’ tiny Burlington apartment 22 years ago has grown into one of the country’s leading manufacturers of wireless sensor technology.


    Observer photo by Greg Duggan
MicroStrain President and CEO Steve Arms (left) and Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie listen last Thursday as Gov. Jim Douglas announces his plan to spur on the state’s economy.

Now based in Williston, MicroStrain has continued growing, even in an uncertain economy. As Arms, the company’s president and CEO, recently told the Observer, MicroStrain’s success could not have happened without crucial state aid. In recent years, the company has received funds from the Vermont Training Program and the Vermont Economic Development Authority. The money has enabled MicroStrain’s staff to grow and become experts in the field, Arms said.

“That state aid has helped us greatly,” Arms said. “It allows us to do a better job and to make us a stronger company.”

It’s also been able to keep MicroStrain in the state. Arms said he’s never considered moving his company out of Vermont and has no plans to do so in the future.

Citing MicroStrain’s success in Vermont, Gov. Jim Douglas stopped by the company’s headquarters on Hurricane Lane last Thursday to tout his new economic plan, known as “SmartVermont.”

“I bring a commitment that I’m on your side ready to do what’s necessary to bring about a robust economy,” Douglas said at the press conference.

Douglas’s proposal would take more than $17 million from the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund — part of the federal stimulus package — and invest the money in economic development. Part of his plan would boost funds for the Vermont Economic Development Authority and the Vermont Training Program.

“These proposals, I believe, will bring us closer to the day when all Vermonters can feel secure about their economic future,” Douglas said.

State support

MicroStrain began as a side project for Arms, who was attending graduate school at the University of Vermont. Working on a project to measure stress upon knees, Arms developed a sensor to determine strain in ligaments. Not only were doctors impressed with the results, but they were also amazed that no one had previously created such a sensor.

Soon, Arms started producing greater numbers of his so-called focus sensors, and transitioned from measuring strain on the body to gauging strain on mechanics. Today, MicroStrain produces sensors for government organizations and private corporations.

In 1995, MicroStrain used the Vermont Economic Development Authority to take out a $30,000 loan to boost its business. Money was tight, and Arms wanted to advertise his company in a specialty magazine. The advertising worked, giving MicroStrain national exposure while helping to grow his business.

“I’m really proud of the way we’ve run our business here,” Arms said. “Equity has been maintained within the company and we never borrowed more than we couldn’t pay back.”

As new projects came in, Arms wanted to train his staff in new technologies and jobs to keep MicroStrain competitive. The company received $61,700 earlier this year — with MicroStrain kicking in matching funds — from the Vermont Training Program for professional development.

Arms said most of his nearly 50 employees will either participate in cross training or take technology education classes at MIT this year.

“We’re a strong believer in job training and continuing education as a great long-term investment,” Arms said.

For employees of MicroStrain, continuing education will come in handy, with several new projects in the works. Last week, the company announced a partnership with the Ireland-based semiconductor company, DecaWave. MicroStrain will be using DecaWave’s state-of-the-art radio technology to create widespread sensing networks.

And on Tuesday, MicroStrain announced it was recently awarded a contract through the U.S. Navy to develop tiny energy harvesters for powering wireless sensors on Navy aircraft. The contract will provide MicroStrain with nearly $1 million over two years.

“This proves that high-tech industry can happen in Vermont,” Arms said.

With Vermont looking for more ways to invest in its industry, despite the economic conditions, Arms said he looks forward to growing MicroStrain even more in the years to come.

“We love it here,” Arms said. “Why would we ever want to leave?”