Justine Blank is the co-founder and vice president at Engineering Products of Ohio LLC, or EPI - a high-tech startup in Youngstown, Ohio. EPI recently won a $150,000 U.S. Air Force Agility Prime Phase I award to advance her technology for U.S. Air Force application. Blank participated in the Department of the Air Force Academic Partnership Engagement Experiment, or APEX. The program provides small businesses, startups and academics free navigation, team matchmaking and consulting on Department of the Air Force Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) proposals.
Blank started out in manufacturing almost thirty years ago. She began in the engineering & automation field with the emergence of barcoding and then made the natural migration to Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) which is the sole focus of her new company EPI. While she does not possess a formal education in science and engineering, her years of experience in RF manufacturing and automation have developed Blank into a subject matter expert in the field of RFID, which she said, “has been an awesome journey.”
When describing her transition to her current field, Blank said, “My formal background was technical writing and programming which led to the hardware side of things. I love to see stuff manufactured, and throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work with hundreds of different manufacturing companies. It's like I have a new job every day because, when we visit manufacturers of food or sterilizing products, for example, we get to see different types of automation and new technology and learn about how all of it works.”
Through her interest in science and manufacturing as well as her drive to learn, Blank developed into an expert in her field, notwithstanding her initial training, and now leads her company in RFID integration, serving a nationwide customer base.
“I learned about the effects of radio frequency energy on metals and liquids on the job,” Blank said. “In a nutshell, the waves come through and hit an object, and if that object is metal, the molecules bounce around like a ping pong ball, and if radio frequency energy hits water, it dissipates. My learning process was trial and error, involving a lot of observation and application, but it proved to me that we can really learn anything if we set our minds on it.”
In 2020, Blank connected with APEX through her company’s longtime relationship with the Ohio Aerospace Institute, which informed EPI of SBIR/STTR programs from which EPI might benefit.
“We knew that what we're doing in the commercial world can greatly benefit the government, but the bridge to get there was unknown by us”, Blank said.
Blank sat through several STTR seminars provided by the Ohio Aerospace Institute. She was then encouraged to move forward with the APEX program and submit a proposal for a Phase I Agility Prime award.
“We're really good at what we do, but we were very bad at navigating this process, so, APEX walked us through it,” said Blank. “Without APEX’s help, we wouldn’t be where we are today – with a $150,000 award to apply our technology in the defense market.”
Blank and her team won the award on the first try. According to Blank, “We had three weeks to write a 25-page slide deck on our proposal to the Department of the Air Force and how we can solve a problem for them. I was assigned an APEX consultant who has experience with winning SBIR/STTR awards for their own business, and they helped us write our winning proposal. It was our first try, and we're so fortunate that we got our first Phase I out of our first application!”
EPI will supply RFID technology to products within the Department of the Air Force.
Looking back on how far she’s come, from technical writing to science-based innovation to winning a highly competitive STTR award, Blank says it all came down to having a growth mindset.
“Believing in my ability to learn anything connected me with the right people on my journey. If you want to do something, immerse yourself in the subject or technology and learn, learn, learn! You can really do anything you put your mind to.”
APEX cultivates innovation by expanding the American research enterprise for the U.S. Air Force by engaging, connecting, and enabling innovators across academia, industry and the Department of Defense. APEX utilizes data analytics to identify transformational operational defense solutions in academia, industry, and government sectors; provides process navigation services for academic teams and small businesses; and enhances cross-sector engagement by providing direct connections to the technology needs of multiple DoD programs.