Alumni Corner: Ryan McDevitt
- By Daniel Joseph Harvey
M.S., Mechanical Engineering (2011)
Ph.D., Mechanical Engineering (2014)
In the summer of 2009, I was five years out of college, a father of a two-year-old daughter, and the co-owner of an automotive accessory store that I ran with my wife. Life was good, but there was something missing that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
It wasn’t until I went back for a reunion weekend at my undergrad alma mater (Worcester Polytechnic Institute) and spent time listening to my engineering friends discuss their jobs that I realized how much I missed the challenge of engineering. On Sunday over brunch, my friends helped me decide that I should go back to school and, after perusing the research interests of the professors at UVM, I knew it would be a good fit.
As an undergrad, I had begun doing research into technologies for very small satellites (less than 8 pounds), and Darren Hitt, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at UVM, was doing exactly this type of research. I reached out to him first thing Monday morning, and within a few weeks I’d fulfilled all of the application requirements and been accepted into the M.S. program, starting in the Fall semester.
The first semester was rough. Between juggling my family responsibilities with classwork and getting used to having homework again, I barely had time to do any research. Fortunately, with the help of my support structure, I was able to survive the first semester and return better prepared in the spring. I was able to get into a good rhythm with my coursework, which finally gave me enough time to get into the research, and then I knew that I’d made the right decision returning to school, and doing it at UVM.
In the early 2000’s, when I’d first started studying small satellites, they’d been in the nascent stages of development. But by early 2010, there was a lot of active research going on and Professor Hitt, and the students working in his lab, were at the forefront of this research. In particular, they were working to develop micropropulsion systems that would allow small satellites to maneuver in space. Professor Hitt had developed a novel concept for a propulsion system that was so small, it could only be properly viewed through a microscope. This extremely small system would be the perfect fit for the next generation of even smaller satellites (less than 2 pounds). I was excited to be working on this project, and that energy and Professor Hitt’s guidance helped me to wrap up my M.S. degree by the fall of 2011.
As graduation loomed, I surveyed my research and decided there was still a lot left to do, so I enrolled in the Ph.D. program and got back to work. The next three years were a whirlwind, as I completed my coursework, became a father for the second time, and continued development of the micropropulsion system. This work proceeded successfully, and Professor Hitt and I, along with the help of several UVM faculty and students, were able to file for two different patents related to the work that I’d done.
While I prepared to graduate and enter the workforce, I had an idea that I couldn’t shake: the technology that I’d worked on had the potential to transform the small satellite industry, but it needed someone to bring it out of the lab and turn it into a product. After looking into it, I quickly realized that this transition is one of the most challenging steps in the research and development process, as it can be expensive, time consuming and risky. Still, the more I looked around at the industry, I knew that there was potential to do exciting things with the technology.
At that point, I became aware of way that UVM helps to support innovation in the community: through the SPARK-VT program, which is designed to provide mentorship and funding for UVM community members to commercialize their research. I attended the SPARK-VT lectures and was introduced to a support network of researchers facing the same challenges I was, and entrepreneurs and advisors from the area who could help us. These events helped me to confirm that I was on the right track, and I co-founded Benchmark Space Systems to commercialize the micropropulsion systems I’d been working on. With the support of advisors like David Bradbury from VCET, we were able to put together a winning SPARK-VT proposal. That award, and the funding and support that came with it, helped us to start our company and begin developing our product.
Today, Benchmark Space Systems is working with customers from around the world to develop propulsion systems for their upcoming launches. Our first products are scheduled to ship in late spring 2018, for launch in the fall. I continue to support the UVM engineering program by serving as an industrial mentor for the Senior Experience in Engineering Design (SEED) program. While I do this outreach to try to contribute back to UVM the support I received as a student, it’s a relationship that has paid dividends for me and my company. In the 2016-2017 academic year, I co-mentored a team of engineering students and was impressed by their effort and ability. When a position opened up at my company for a mechanical engineering position, I was happy to be able to offer that position to one of the students, Matt Walton. As a UVM alumnus, I knew that Matt had the engineering fundamentals necessary for the position, and my time spent working with him as a mentor gave me confidence that he had the right attitude for my team.
My time at UVM has changed the entire trajectory of my life. The support I received as a student and an alumnus has helped to make something I could have only dreamed of in the Fall of 2009 a reality.