Alumnus Brian Jurczyk chosen for 2019 Advocate Award
Dr. Brian E. Jurczyk, co-founder and President/Chief Executive Officer of Champaign, Illinois-based Starfire Industries, LLC, is the 2019 winner of the NPRE Advocate Award.
Jurczyk, BS 95 Aerospace Engineering, MS 97 NPRE, PhD 01 NPRE, MBA 01, and his partner, fellow NPRE alumnus Robert Stubbers, founded Starfire in the University of Illinois Research Park soon after they each earned their doctoral degrees. Starfire specializes in ultra-compact particle accelerators for nuclear applications in imaging, geophysics, security and non-destructive evaluation, and pulsed power and microwave plasma sources for advanced thin-film deposition and etching for specialty nuclear coatings, semiconductor and material science applications. The company sells products on six continents.
Jurczyk is co-inventor on more than 10 patents related to these technologies. He holds the distinction of being the first doctoral candidate to obtain both his PhD and MBA degrees at the same time at the University of Illinois. Jurczyk received the Innovation Celebration “Entrepreneurial Excellence in Management Award,” and was named to Central Illinois Business’ “40-under-40.” For six years, he chaired the CEO Roundtable, a quarterly executive networking forum serving the greater Champaign-Urbana tech ecosystem.
Jurczyk mentors startups and emerging small businesses through their formation and early-stage growth phases. He is a limited partner in two venture capital funds making strategic investments in the Midwest and has been a member of the Urbana-Champaign Angel Network (UCAN).
In 2009, Jurczyk joined the industrial advisory board for the Center for Lasers and Plasmas for Advanced Manufacturing (CLPAM) Industry/University Cooperative Research Center (I/UCRC). He serves as an Adjunct Engineering Research Professor in NPRE, providing mentorship for both undergraduate and graduate STEM students and serving on thesis committees.
Jurczyk has been a member of the NPRE Constituent Alumni and Industry Advisory Board since its inception, and Starfire Industries has provided internships, full-time and sabbatical opportunities for several NPRE alumni and faculty over the years.
Thoughts from Brian
Of the achievements throughout your career, please elaborate on the ones that have given you the most satisfaction and why?
The most recent example is when I went to a conference in Europe. I was watching a program manager from CERN on stage and he presented to the world conformal coating of complex 3D surfaces for superconducting RF accelerator cavities that will upgrade the LHC collider in France/Switzerland using HiPIMS+KICK from our company’s IMPULSE product—and they are incredibly optimistic about the future with this new capability. As a small business owner, there is nothing more satisfying than going to a conference and watching someone else excitedly use this thing that you helped bring to life… and then turns around to help enable the future…
FYI, our IMPULSE HiPIMS technology has applications for accident tolerant fuels, fuel pellet coatings, fusion materials protection and advanced detectors for radiation detection. You will hear a theme from me…. Nuclear, materials, plasmas, interaction with matter. NPRE.
What have been the most useful lessons you have taken from your time as an NPRE student, and who helped you to learn them?
The laws of physics are the same whether you are an electrical engineer, a physicist, an aerospace engineer, a material scientist, a mechanical person, etc. It could be i, -i, j, -j… it is the same thing. It is just nomenclature, different words for the same thing and rules of thumb, laws, constants and approaches that lead to job security for those degrees. Associate with people that are not constrained by nomenclature and seek the fundamental truth. Only then… can you combine knowledge from multiple fields to innovate and create new.
I learned that myself, as an aerospace engineer transferring into NPRE for grad school… suddenly confronted with new terms, formulations and approaches for what are all just the same laws of conservation. Thank you, (NPRE Emeritus Prof.) Roy Axford, for introducing me to Emmy Noether. Brilliant!
What have been the most useful lessons you have learned during your career?
Understand the problem of your customer’s customer. Look through them to the end solution and end challenge… and then work backwards to anticipate what is needed and what is coming. This has been the key to Starfire success.
Since the 1980s, Total Quality Management brought Waterfall Product Development that has absolutely crushed US leadership in manufacturing and destroyed the US competitive base. What do I mean by this? The waterfall model is a linear sequential model in which you establish requirements for the product from the customer, do a detailed design that meets that requirement, verify and validate and then build it… and hope it all work together at the end. This model assumes that the customer has perfect knowledge and that they have communicated to you exactly what they want/need and that the requirements are not going to change. In reality, no one has perfect knowledge and when a slight change is introduced and upsets the entire process and introduces huge risks, delays and technological problems because your product was segmented into 10 different DOEs and tested independently that does not work when it all comes together with all the risk in the end.
U.S. dominance in software and internet engineering in Silicon Valley was due mostly to agile development and manufacturing approaches were built in from where the beginning is: the customer does not know fully what they want, the requirements are always going to change, we need to get the customer early prototypes and minimum viable products so they can USE it and find out what they really wanted after all. Starfire is agile, we look past our customer and we work with them to help them figure out what they really need. We become an extension of their team in order to solve the problem. We have succeeded where others have failed because of this approach.
I look at SpaceX and see this… every Falcon 9 they build is different. It incorporates the next set of changes into the next released stable build. NO TWO THINGS ARE THE SAME… and THAT IS OKAY if your system and culture is based on the agile philosophy that change is the requirement. With this agile philosophy, they have moved 5-10 times quicker and over the course of two years they went from a minor launcher to dominating the industry and putting the Russians out of business and outcompeting the Chinese national launch provider.
Who have been your inspirations, particularly in NPRE?
(NPRE Emeritus Prof.) George Miley (my thesis advisor) was NOT afraid to talk to ANYONE that would walk in his door with a “new theory” or “off-the-wall” idea. I got my PhD during the heyday of Cold Fusion. I watched George walk through the fire to treat everyone with respect and listen to their ideas. He was not afraid to experiment, test it out, challenge the conventional wisdom, and give it a go. It cost him politically and it strained relationships—but in the end he showed everyone that it takes perseverance to find the truth and to challenge the standard model. Entire fields of science and engineering have been created because someone had the courage to go against the grain and try something out. I am not afraid to question because of George.
My officemates in graduate school were Blair Bromley (co-winner of the 2019 Advocate Award) and Robert Stubbers. Both asked questions and attacked problems from different angles to build understanding. Robert Stubbers showed me that you can build it and learn. Blair Bromley showed me you can model it and learn. You gain both ways and this build understanding and challenges your assumptions and precepts. Robert is a true MacGyver. He has shown me that you must build it to truly understand it. And building it yourself… is the key to keeping costs down! He has invented countless inventions and he has shown me that we really need a time dilator or to move to Venus to get more hours in the day.
Sixteen years ago, I developed a great friendship with (NPRE Prof.) David Ruzic when I joined CPMI as a post-doctoral researcher. David had a passion for plasmas that could inspire excitement and enthusiasm in people and give them hope. He was not afraid to talk to ANYONE to understand their problem and to figure out a solution—often developing lasting relationships with companies and industrial partners that have benefited NPRE 100-fold. David did a sabbatical leave from NPRE in 2009, joined Starfire for nine months, and formed a good team with us visualizing the physics (Dave), making the business case for it (Brian) and showing it could be done (Robert). David is on his next sabbatical actually using equipment developed by Starfire, on an idea he co-invented and Starfire patented, at a customer site that makes the lithographic technology used by Intel, Samsung, TSMC and Global Foundries for printing low-node semiconductors. His work-hard, play-hard lifestyle (and special IPA that we had brewed at Triptych with this name) continues to be an inspiration.
What advice can you offer current students?
For undergraduates: The University works for you. You pay the salaries, infrastructure and upkeep of the place. This means that the professors are ethically, morally and contractually bound to help you with your education. Think of them as the contractors on the foundation for your dream home. You get to review the plans, ask questions, be on the job site often, hold them accountable and expect excellence. Any if they did not get it done right, you tell them to go back and fix it. Translation: Illinois is a TIER 1 research intuition with a world-class faculty, equipment and capabilities. You are paying to be here. You get to use it. $M SEM machines, check, $M accelerators, check, $M DNA sequencers, check, $M supercomputers, check.
My eye-opening lesson was the day I graduated… I now needed to PAY to use an engineering workstation to do computational code simulations. As an undergrad… entire floors in a building could be parallelized and codes ran. The day I wanted to do graduate research or access as a private outside person… $100k for a year and lots of paperwork. SO, I expect you undergrads to get involved in 2-3 research groups, work on projects with professors and teams, get published, get involved in a business startup competition, do co-ops and internships that are facilitated through faculty relationships, do independent study BECAUSE YOU CAN. $20k per year in tuition is a heck of a lot cheaper than $100k later as an industrial company offering a research project to a student. IDEAS GROW when you are in undergrad. The university is your incubator.
Do you have any comments on or predictions for the future of your industry?
Nuclear is experiencing an amazing renaissance. There is a HUGE investment in fission, new concepts and startup company/VC investment for small modular, low regulation, advanced fuel concepts. Fusion is crazy! There are at least 10 companies with >$10M in VC (venture capital) investment (TAE is over $500M) for advanced plasma systems development… and more is on the way. It is led by materials and cross-over technologies that are challenging the status quo. The future is very bright. Energy is the driver for all civilization. You cannot go wrong with an NPRE degree. On the medical/radiological side, there is awesome investment in detector and AI/ML (artificial intelligence/markup language) that is opening the door for medical advances. I see more big data and AI decision changing the way we do business. Companies use AI to harvest data and find new regimes and plasma modes for operation. Fission core optimization with ML. Radiographic reconstruction and medical imaging is amazing. Detectors and radiation measurement are the feeds for this innovation. At the heart of all of this is material science and information. The field is cross-disciplinary.
Are there any other comments that you would like to make or insights you would care to share?
As I travel the world, I see many opportunities to be an advocate for Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering…bringing potential partnerships, companies, research opportunities, infrastructure, internships, full-time positions, etc. to the department. The NPRE focus to give its undergraduates full, rich and diverse experience… so the undergrads have internships, have foreign exchange to participate in the worldwide nuclear renaissance and plasma material interaction experience… is important. I look forward to continuing to work on this legacy.
In accepting the NPRE Advocate Award, Brian talks about entrepreneurship, the holistic nature of NPRE, and how the department works for its students.