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Small Business Grant Funding Retractable Flood Walls

Jorge Cueto and smart wall

Jorge Cueto, in polo shirt, founder of Smart Walls Construction, in the lab with telescoping flood walls. (Douglas Levere, University at Buffalo)

30 November 2016. A University at Buffalo graduate student in engineering took an idea for space-efficient flood control walls to protect waterfront properties, and started a company to take the idea to market. Jorge Cueto’s company, Smart Walls Construction LLC in Amherst, New York, received a $225,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant this summer from National Science Foundation to develop and test prototypes of his invention.

Cueto came to Buffalo on a Fulbright grant as a civil engineering doctoral candidate after receiving an undergraduate engineering degree and running a construction company in his home town of Bogota, Colombia. In his doctoral dissertation, Cueto proposes a system of retractable fiber-reinforced concrete boxes for waterfront properties that would be deployed in the event of flooding, yet still be self-contained to make more efficient use of space.

The idea, says Cueto, came from an emerging technologies class project to design a novel solution to a pressing problem, in this case to protect flood-prone properties. Opening and closing an umbrella in his apartment sparked an idea for structures that retract and fit inside each other, to take up a minimum of valuable property. The system consists of precast telescoping boxes made of fiber-reinforced concrete, with gaskets to keep water out of the walls, and expandable flaps to cover the spaces between walls.

While writing the dissertation, Cueto formed Smart Walls Construction to commercialize the concept, with a potential market he estimates at $2.6 billion. He won a university business-pitch contest in January 2015 that earned the company $8,000 in seed financing, but struggled to find additional financing. Cueto says in a university statement that the National Science Foundation grant, “allows the company to have a real prototype to be tested and shown to potential clients and investors.”

The NSF funding supports further research, including simulations, leading to a detailed design of the system’s mechanisms, particularly for a geometric configuration and optimal mix of materials to achieve a high strength-to-weight ratio. The additional R&D will result in a working prototype system for lab and field testing. Lab tests are expected to test the system’s ability to handle lateral and vertical loads, as well as physical impacts. Field tests will determine how well the system works in different kinds of soil, and under simulated flooding conditions.

Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, grants are allocated by U.S. research agencies to small businesses for innovative science-based ideas with commercial potential. At National Science Foundation, early-stage grants of up to $225,000 support R&D to establish technical and commercial feasibility. Companies can then apply for second-stage funding of up to $750,000 for product development.

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