Drive a few blocks beyond the edge of downtown Anchorage along Ninth Avenue and you'll hit a dead end. But there on the corner, hidden inside a nondescript boxy white warehouse, six employees of a small business owned by a village corporation from an Alaskan fishing community are gliding into the future. Although what's quietly happening there may be under the radar in the business world, it's a big enough deal to attract a personal visit from the U.S. Small Business Administration's top officials Tuesday.
At first glance what's going on inside ANT LLC's (formerly Alaska Native Technologies, LLC) manufacturing plant could be a disturbing sight: a neat row of dark-colored torpedo-like devices waiting for deployment. But it's a deceptive image. The invention has more in common with hospital syringes, scuba divers and dolphins than it does weaponry. What appears to resemble a missile is actually an underwater acoustic "glider" designed to silently navigate coastal water -- an unmanned vehicle that can monitor the marine boundary line. The torpedo-like design is intentional, to ease use by the military with existing equipment.
The SBA and ANT's parent organization, the Native Village of Eyak, consider the gliders a success story. Government research grants helped fund the glider's invention and subsequent prototypes. ANT, as a Native-owned business, is helping Eyak reap the intended benefits for which federally-mandated contracting preferences for Native-owned companies were designed. (An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the Native Village of Eyak was established under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. It was not, unlike a separate entity -- Eyak Corporation -- which was.)
ANT describes itself as "a tribally-owned information technology firm that specializes in design, develop, service and maintenance activities in support of our nation's defense," and since its creation in 2005, it has brought in about $20 million according Paul Greeno, the company's president.
The gliders and other projects are allowing the village of Eyak -- which was "shafted on Exxon," according to Eyak tribal president and ANT chairman Bob Henrichs -- to offer community benefits to its impoverished members. Unlike larger regional corporations, Eyak doesn't pay dividends, but it does offer aid in other ways. Last year, it was able to offer $60,000 in educational scholarships, and it works to hire young interns and provide services to the elderly. Still, rebounding from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill has been a long journey, Henrichs said.
"We were sitting in pretty good shape until the guy hit the rock," he said, adding that several of his friends committed suicide after the spill. "Everything went to hell after that."
For Henrichs, the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico renews those wounds, exacerbated by the fact that BP has already been forced to set aside money up front to pay damage claims, unlike the long battle many Alaskans fought against Exxon for financial restitution, which ultimately came in after some plaintiffs had died and at amounts that many found laughable.
Still, Henrichs is proud that ANT -- one of only seven tribally-owned small businesses in the state of Alaska (the larger regional corporations in the state own 172 small businesses) -- is solving some of the daily struggles of his village's economic situation on its own. "If we waited for the for-profit ANCSA corporations to come in and help us we'd die of old age," he said.
As new applications for the gliders are discovered, ANT is hoping its 8(a) contracting status, which offers special privileges to Native-owned companies, will help improve its bottom line. The company, with offices in Alaska, Rhode Island, Washington state and Virginia, has also started branching out into other types of government services, he said. It's developing a specialized antenna for use on planes, and is dabbling in centralized alarm systems for military campuses, headquartered from a regional monitoring center, to detect intruders.
So far, 20 ANT gliders have rattled off of its assembly line. Eighteen went to the Office of Naval Research. One sits in the Anchorage Museum, and the other is the hands of smaller research project. Initially, manufacturing and testing was done in Washington's Puget Sound, but the water wasn't deep enough to conduct adequate test flights. Alaska's Prince William Sound is a better fit.
The gliders operate on the concept of neutral buoyancy, which occurs when the weight of an object is adjusted so that it neither floats nor sinks. Scuba divers do this using a combination of air and weights, allowing them to select varying depths at which to swim. The glider does this through a large piston that can both suck water in and push it out. Water pulled in increases density and causes sinking. Water pushed out will lighten the load and causes a rise to the surface. Since the glider has tail fins, the "see saw" action also propels it forward. Its brains -- a GPS unit for direction and computer chips that direct a piston engine -- are remote controlled.
Initially designed to aid the U.S. Coast Guard in catching trespassing Russian and Japanese fishing vessels, the gliders are equipped with acoustics capable of sensing sound signatures. The signatures of the foreign ships are unique, allowing the glider to correctly identify their presence. But as the project evolved, new uses emerged. The glider can also detect mines, marine mammals and swimmers, distinguish temperature variances, and avoid objects. The Navy likes the gliders because "they can get into bad guys' waters without being detected," said Greeno, who thinks the gliders could also one day help unlock important ocean mysteries.
Imagine what we'd learn if the gliders were given a mission to follow king crab throughout their underwater journeys, or salmon, he asked. It's conceivable the gliders can be programmed to search for the acoustic signature of those species and track their moves.
While the gliders are designed and assembled in Anchorage, the machined parts come from places as close as Wasilla and as far away as Switzerland. Water jet fittings come from Palmer, and the hydraulic pump is made in France, home to the only company in the world that manufactures that particular pump, according to Greeno and the device's designer, Anchorage engineer Joe Imlach.
If the gliders take off in popularity with government agencies, ANT will have to deal with the consequences of a rocketing growth spurt. It's one thing to manufacture 20, but if the Navy were to say "give us 1,000," the order will exceed the capabilities of the small Anchorage plant. The SBA refers to such commercial opportunities as a phase three development in the business growth process -- the point at which a company must either expand on its own or look for partners capable of managing the increased volume. The glider's first two development phases were funded outside the 8(a) program, but Greeno is pursuing new orders under the 8(a) designation mainly, he says, to speed up the procurement process.
In recent testimony, military buyers of goods and services have praised the ease and speed with which they are able to work with tribally owned firms. Under SBA rules, five percent of all federal contracts must go to native-owned small businesses. Able to award contracts of unlimited value without competition to such firms, procurement officers are able to push projects through with expediency.
ANT believes its gliders, which are marketed for use with the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security and in oceanography, are better than similar contraptions on the market, including some operating as part of the oil spill response in the Gulf of Mexico. The ANT design, Greeno explains, is more adaptable in variable currents and in the changing salt content of water found in coastal regions where currents intersect. He's hoping the design will get noticed, expanding beyond the Navy and perhaps catching the attention of NASA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"We are currently beating the streets for more orders," he said.
Contact Jill Burke at email@example.com.