Take Five: Phoenix rises in Fitchburg
As devotees of Green mythology know, a phoenix is an ancient bird that cyclically regenerates and obtains new life by rising from the ashes of its predecessor. That’s probably not a precise analogy to what’s happening at the Madison-based Phoenix LLC (formerly Phoenix Nuclear), but there is plenty of new business development to demonstrate that the company is rising on its own terms.
Phoenix LLC, now located in Monona, makes neutron and proton generators used in the health, defense, and energy fields. Company officials recently held a groundbreaking for a new 10,000-square-foot neutron-imaging center in Fitchburg and also will build a new 50,000-square-foot corporate headquarters on the same site. By investing in these new facilities, Phoenix will be able to tap into new industrial markets that, due to cost, have been inaccessible. In this Take Five interview, President Evan Sengbusch talks about what lies ahead for this growing firm.
IB: When we talked recently, you indicated that the new facilities you’re building in Fitchburg would enable you to have access to markets that were previously inaccessible to you. Are you talking about industry markets, geographic markets, or both?
Sengbusch: Really, industry markets more than geographical. I may have mentioned this at the [Oct. 30] groundbreaking, but it’s this notion of reducing the barrier of entry for people who aren’t neutron users today but could be in the future. Getting them to commit upfront to a multimillion-dollar machine is a pretty tall order if they still don’t fully understand the benefits that neutrons can provide them. However, getting them to send us some test components to demonstrate why this is valuable to their business, for a much smaller initial investment, really opens up the pool of prospective customers.
IB: Can you be more specific about the new industries you could tap into?
Sengbusch: Automotive would be a good example. Right now, we’re focused on the aerospace industry, which is central to many of the current uses of nuclear applications, but neutrons have only been used when you absolutely need neutrons. There isn’t any other way to do it, and the reason for that is that it’s been difficult to get access to neutrons, and they are very expensive. We are now making them cheaper and more accessible for other industries where safety is still important, but it’s not quite as critical as it is for aerospace. I use automotive as an example. It might start to make sense to use neutrons as an inspection technique to ensure safer vehicles or components on vehicles.
Another specific industry that I would point to as one we’re particularly excited about is the growing use of additively manufactured components. We’re moving toward a point where a lot of large, metal components could be 3D printed, and often those components will have some internal structure to them. How do you verify whether the internal structure that you’ve printed is built as you’ve designed it? Now you’ve got the challenge of seeing through a bunch of metal to verify the internal structure, which is a very hard thing to do for X-Rays but it might be something that neutrons can do. As the use of additive manufacturing expands, the potential areas of use for neutrons for inspection also expands.
Energy production is another one. I’ve talked about aerospace turbine blades. Well, people who make turbine blades for electric generators have the same types of issues. Composite materials that can be used in wind turbine blades, for instance, is another potential application, so energy generation would be another sector that might be an opportunity for Phoenix.
IB: Phoenix already is hiring, but when your new production facility and your new headquarters are completed, how much could your workforce grow?
Sengbusch: It’s probably somewhere between 50 and 100 percent growth over the next five years. As I look back at our recent projections, by 2022, when we’ll be fully up and running with both of those facilities, we anticipate adding another 50 people to our current headcount.
IB: What types of occupations will you need to fill?
Sengbusch: Mostly engineering. There will be some technician level, manufacturing roles, as well. Right now, the majority of folks who work at Phoenix are engineers with some type of scientific or technical background. We anticipate that will continue. We of course will flesh out other administrative functions — sales, etc. — but Phoenix is a pretty technical place to work and most of the positions that we’ll fill over the years will be focused on people with technical backgrounds.
IB: With the labor shortage, are you confident that you can find enough of them?
Sengbusch: Eventually, yes. We’ve been pretty fortunate in terms of our ability to tap into our local network thus far, but it does feel like we’re getting to the point where we’ve stretched that to its limit. We’ve started to expand our reach in terms of where we recruit nationally, and we’ve seen that in some of our more recent hires. They’ve actually come from the coasts or outside of the local network, and that’s going to be an increasing issue as we continue to grow and look for more specialized roles, but we’ve been able to manage it thus far.
IB: Have you been able lure transplanted Wisconsinites who have gone out to the coasts after graduation? A lot of them want to return to the Midwest, especially once they start raising a family.
Sengbusch: We’ve had a few like that, and we’ve actually gotten some folks to relocate here, including some who were native Californians. For those who are particularly interested in next generation fusion or nuclear technologies, Phoenix is a pretty unique opportunity in terms of a good place to work for somebody who has that particular skill set. We’re starting to build enough of a reputation and brand, if you will, that we can actually find talent that may not have any ties to the Midwest.
IB: Will your Fitchburg site accommodate future expansion?
Sengbusch: It will, yes. The new headquarters building, right now it’s approximately 50,000 square feet for that site. We intend to design that facility to be expandable up to 100,000 square feet. There should be a built-in ability to double our capacity if needed.
See related story.
Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.