His business began with rats. More specifically, rats' knees. It was 1978, and UVM sophomore Steve Arms had landed a good work-study job in the department of orthopaedics and rehabilitation. "I'd take dead lab rats and prepare a specimen that was just the medial collateral ligament and the bones on either end," says Arms, president and founder of MicroStrain, Inc.
In the lab of Dr. Robert Johnson, Arms would load the specimen into a machine that would repeatedly flex the knee. "We were trying to figure out how the ligament was affected by cyclic loading. There was interest in the idea that ski injuries could be prevented this way," he says.
Arms began to ask Johnson basic questions, like: "How do you know what strain level to set this machine to? What are the strains when people ski or walk?" he says, smiling broadly at the recollection. "I was a curious kid."
"And the answer came back, 'Well, we don't really know!'" he says. "So I asked: how come you don't know? 'Because we don't know how to measure it.'"
Arms decided to look for a solution. Over the next few years, he developed an innovative device to measure strain.
Answering basic questions about how to measure movement, location, and force — in ever-smaller devices, harsher conditions, and with less power — has propelled Arms from a one-man business in his graduate student apartment on Park Street in Burlington, to a fifty-person company in Williston with $10 million in annual revenue.
"Our business is constantly innovating, so it's really important to be near a university," he says. "We hire lots of UVM students who have worked here as interns."
"One of my big areas of interest now is cyclic loading on metals and fatigue of mechanical parts, like these helicopter components," Arms says, "My path has led me back to what I started doing with those rat knee specimens a long time ago."