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Paul Lockhart of NoviSphere: “Never be afraid to fail”

Never be afraid to fail. If one chooses to not do something because they might fail, most of life’s interesting twists and turns may never happen, leading to regrets later in life. I want my “regrets” bag to be light and small. I want to give back to youth by writing an adventure story that […]

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Never be afraid to fail. If one chooses to not do something because they might fail, most of life’s interesting twists and turns may never happen, leading to regrets later in life. I want my “regrets” bag to be light and small. I want to give back to youth by writing an adventure story that will capture their imaginations. I may not succeed, but the desire is there, and my regret for not trying would be more painful that making the effort and finding out that I fly airplanes better than I write.


As a part of our series about cutting-edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewingPaul Lockhart.

NoviSphere™ CEO Paul Lockhart was most recently Director of Engineering for PEMDAS Technologies. Previously, he was Senior Vice President of Vencore, where he oversaw Vencore’s operations supporting NASA, NOAA and the Department of Defense.

During his tenure in this role, annual revenue of the Space Systems and Services Business Unit grew from $65 million in 2008 to $275 million in 2015. Paul also served as an astronaut in the Senior Executive Service at NASA and is a veteran of two Space Shuttle missions. In 2007, he retired from the United States Air Force after 25 years, having served as a fighter and test pilot. Paul holds a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas, Austin.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Most good stories involve good people, and so it is with me. I met a fellow veteran at a conference for veteran-owned small businesses, and it was clear we both wanted to help service members in need. My new peer was founder of an architecture and engineering firm to support VA hospitals and needed someone to help launch his business. Our original intent (and still our long-term focus) was to develop and deliver rarified air environments for a range of applications and industries. With my background in space exploration and the incumbent high requirements for uncontaminated clean breathing air in the space station and space suits, it was a good match. For me, it was a new challenge and a way to give back for all the opportunities I have had in my careers. Little did we both know that a secondary business line, developed around a prototype pathogen-elimination device (the NoviSphere PE 254), would become the cornerstone of our new company, NoviSphere, just as the pandemic struck. Bringing this system to fruition became our immediate priority due the urgent need for the technology. I am truly fortunate, as the work our outstanding team is doing at NoviSphere can not only help our veterans in hospitals around the U.S., but can also contribute to America’s fight against the terrible viral scourge.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

The U.S. Air Force and NASA put me in places with some of the most interesting people. It is hard to settle on one. One such story involves a crippled spy satellite that the U.S. Navy shot out of its orbit to ensure it would not re-enter the earth’s atmosphere and break-up overpopulated territory. As an astronaut, I was brought up on special military orders to deploy and recover any of the satellites’ dangerous parts that survived re-entry if the Navy’s attempt to destroy on orbit failed. Sitting at the end of a runway listening to the Navy countdown, not knowing if I would be traveling to some other part of the world to perform damage control, was very exciting. Ultimately, we didn’t have to go anywhere because the Navy hit the bullseye. Go Navy!

More recently, I supported the testing and verification of new atmospheric sensors on unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) in Barrow, Alaska. These drones were being evaluated to see if they could track whales for our National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Alaska is so beautiful!

As a test pilot, I had the opportunity to test many of America’s most advanced weapons for our combat aircraft. This was at the start of precision munitions, those using GPS for guidance. I was proud to know that I was the first to employ some of these systems from the F-16 fighter and that my work made our combat aircrews during Operation Iraqi Freedom safer. Watching operations start in March of 2003, knowing that these pilots were using the techniques I developed, was very satisfying.

Of course, my missions at NASA are at the top of my list of the most exciting things to have happened in my career. Seeing the earth from that perspective in space is a unique experience. The word I use to describe the view of our vibrant, colorful earth suspended against the black velvet of space is “majestic.” We humans truly do inhabit a most beautiful place in our solar system.

Can you tell us about the cutting-edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

NoviSphere is at the leading edge of helping people closely monitor and control the environmental space in which they live, learn and work. Our innovative efforts exploit proven technologies and physical processes, so they force multiply their impact on the problem at hand. For example, NoviSphere is bringing ultra-violet (UV) light, a known pathogen eradicator, to the battle against COVID-19; however, we are adapting these products to meet the specific needs of the user, using adaptations such as high-volume flow rate to purify the air in a room every 15 minutes. The next level of service is to “force multiply” these capabilities by integrating these products into a self-monitoring system of air purity devices with feedback to the owner/operator. The key is to make the feedback relevant to the situation at hand. That means to deliver actionable information to the user so that well-informed decisions can be made. These are the first steps to autonomous functioning of a living or working space.

Why is this important? It lets those at the end of the process, the people doing the work that keeps our society functioning, focus on their real tasks at hand, such as performing medical operations, operating the giant distribution warehouses that deliver goods to our homes, or performing the music you and I enjoy at community venues. Plus, we will live and work with the security of knowing that pathogen scourges such as COVID-19 are not a threat. Everyday stress will not disappear, but the fear that pathogens are hanging in the air ready to pounce can be eliminated. Moreover, continuous operation of the NoviSphere PE 254 may assist in addressing seasonal airborne illnesses, such as colds and flu, and aid in improving employee productivity, reducing absenteeism and lowering companies’ medical costs.

How do you think this might change the world?

In the 1980s, the world was introduced to the Global Positioning System (GPS). It first came to the forefront as a military aid to positioning, navigation and timing. However, the benefits to civilian society for knowing where something was located at a given time and what its speed and direction were soon became overwhelmingly obvious. Now GPS is a daily aid to everything we do, from navigating between point A and point B to locating ATMs for accessing cash. Our youth today would have a hard time learning to use paper maps and turn-by-turn directions. I know — I tried to convince my daughters to try it, and they coyly returned to their phones and apps. I think we are beginning down the road to not just tracking the localized environment (call it a micro-environment if you wish), but actually “shaping” the environment to optimize human activity. Clearly, it is to our benefit to eliminate pathogens and other harmful organisms, but the trade space for doing much more is clearly there. Relative humidity, ion concentrations, dust, aerosols, and other airborne and surface particulates will be measured, controlled and monitored to maximize human capabilities, whatever that may be in the future. It is the nexus of sensor technologies, new innovations and big data analytics that will allow us to better the atmosphere we humans breathe at home, at work and play. NoviSphere will be at the tip of the spear in developing these capabilities.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

An excellent question. All advancements, innovations or inventions have peripheral consequences. Some of these are attributed to misuse by we humans; many are by-products of how society adopts them into their daily work and personal lives. If people use these products as intended with judicious prudence, then negative impacts can be minimized and unexpected, positive outcomes can be embraced. As with any networked system, cyber security becomes important and must be accounted for. Concurrently, I am most excited about the unknown positive impacts that will come from more closely monitoring and controlling our local micro-environments. Perhaps a by-product will be decline of some types of diseases. We will have to wait to see!

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

As I noted earlier, NoviSphere was developing our pathogen eradicator long before COVID-19 struck. We initially developed the system for the medical industry to lessen/eliminate health-acquired infections (HAIs) — which our internal testing confirmed it could do. When the pandemic hit, we felt obligated to test it on coronaviruses, which pushed out our launch of the product. We knew the key was to expose the pathogen to the UV light for the maximum time and intensity, at the appropriate wavelength. We designed to these criteria. However, we also knew we needed to test the device under laboratory conditions. We found the ideal team and test equipment at the University of Minnesota. It was during this testing that we began to understand our device was fully effective at every fan speed we selected. Suddenly, we realized that we could operate our PE 254 (for Pathogen Eradicator, 254nm wavelength) at speeds high enough to purify the air in a large office within 15 minutes. That means the air is scrubbed free of pathogens four times an hour. Furthermore, since we reached maximum air flow of the testing apparatus, which was totally unexpected, we are still determining the top-end speed effectiveness of our PE 254. We plan to investigate this further to better understand how much faster we can pull the air through the PE 254 and still achieve the requisite pathogen-removal efficiency. This means, of course, more air changes per hour and even higher levels of assurance of controlling viral contaminants for human safety.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

Our NoviSphere team desires to be a “trusted agent” with the public in matters regarding air purification and rarified environments. Thus, we must build a level of trust up and down the chain of stakeholders that operate, work or live in places that demand the strictest levels of clean environments. I am confident the market will turn to NoviSphere to provide clean room and rarified air technologies through demonstrated quality, service and support. Our best marketing will be customer testaments and personal outreach.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

As a company, our experience runs deep — from my background in space systems, to our chief operating officer Joe Cestari’s three-decade operational experience in developing laboratory and semiconductor clean environments, to our director of marketing and business development Cindy Egnarski’s proven track record in the food and service industries. Between us, there is not much we haven’t experienced in bringing innovative, technological products through quality design and development and then to the customer.

NoviSphere also has an excellent team of partners with proven experience in getting the right exposure to the right potential customers. We are well positioned to succeed.

The key is the approach we are taking. We are not about just developing a product, putting a price point on it and then doing cold calls to generate interest. Our goal is to be a thought leader in this new paradigm on micro and rarified air environments. Thus, our path is to seek the voice of those knee-deep in this COVID-19 crisis, asking them what their problem is, how it can be solved and how a product should be engineered to meet their needs. The next variants of our PE-254 will evolve from these discussions. Then, since our field will be human safety and health, our goal is to build in quality from the front end through repeatable testing and the application of known systems-engineering processes. Finally, we want to be part of the entire life-cycle of a suite of modular, layered products and services designed to deliver the rarified, pathogen-free environments our society needs to get back to a “normal, COVID-19 free” work and lifestyle. And if another pandemic threatens, having our technology in place will provide risk mitigation and peace of mind. We would rather be a bit slow to market with a product that can be counted upon to build trust, than to rush and ship out something that we think will work, but without the test data and consumer feedback to prove it.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are many, and while it is hard to single out one individual without concern for not recognizing others, I can point to my graduate professor in aerospace engineering at the University of Texas. Dr. Wallace Fowler took a gamble on me to earn a master’s degree in aerospace engineering without ever having completed any undergraduate courses in this field. To say his reputation was at risk is an understatement. He also knew I was to be commissioned into the Air Force within two years and so had little time to waste. He constructed a master’s research project that focused on the Space Shuttle, knowing that I wanted to apply to NASA in the future. Then, he gave me a background in operational, not theoretical, engineering — the very foundation I needed to succeed as a test pilot. Finally, and I learned this much later, he was the behind-the-scenes champion for many of my awards. In short, Dr. Wallace took me under his wing and laid out the milestones I needed to enter the Air Force and eventually NASA and succeed. The work I did on my master’s thesis contributed to my on-orbit flying of the Space Shuttle.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

This is such a simple question, yet it sits at the heart of who we are individually and what I want our team at NoviSphere to embrace as a culture. What legacy do we want to leave behind? How do we want to be purposeful and contribute to our lives and to others?

There are always the expected and very worthy ways to bring goodness to the world — one can volunteer, donate to charities, and tend to the needy and sick. These are important direct actions that help those impacted by disasters and their resulting life circumstances.

However, there are also indirect ways to bring “goodness” to one’s circle of family, friends and associates. One way I choose to leave a better mark for the world is to conduct myself in the manner that others (particularly the younger generation) expect of an adult — especially someone that has had the good fortune to be an astronaut and the CEO of a technology company. I try to exhibit a level of integrity that generates trust between me and young children. I want them to know they must aim to comport themselves with courage and conviction. I know we can achieve this level at NoviSphere, as well, with our customers, to become the “trusted agent.”

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

I am not sure I can add much to the sage wisdom of men and women who have found their path in life and been successful in their business and private lives. However, the following ideas keep recurring in each endeavor I undertake:

  • Never be afraid to fail. If one chooses to not do something because they might fail, most of life’s interesting twists and turns may never happen, leading to regrets later in life. I want my “regrets” bag to be light and small. I want to give back to youth by writing an adventure story that will capture their imaginations. I may not succeed, but the desire is there, and my regret for not trying would be more painful that making the effort and finding out that I fly airplanes better than I write.
  • Persistence underpins success. Many times, the willingness to stay with a project or undertaking is all it takes to be standing at the end as the winner, as others fall away for a variety of reasons. I was not selected by NASA the first time I applied as an astronaut, nor the second. It took a third try, and a personal visit to Johnson Space Center to make sure my application was in order, before I hit the mark. How about this for persistence: There was a member of my 1996 class of astronauts who applied more than 10 times before he was selected. That is persistence.
  • Perform risk analysis based on reason and not emotions. We humans bias our view of the world extensively through lenses that are shaped by our culture and opinions. To be successful, one must step out of that context and understand each situation based on the facts as best they can be discerned. Piloting high-performance test aircraft and flying the space shuttle were dangerous; however, no mission or flight was ever accomplished without first understanding the incumbent risks. I learned how to value the risks undertaken and to undertake those that delivered the result I or my team desired without endangering life or resources beyond some limit.
  • Surround yourself with quality individuals, committed to success. There is no going it alone in any life endeavor. Your greatest success comes from the partnerships you establish, and the leadership provided, either by yourself or someone on that team. Continually seek out those that demand excellence of themselves and for the project to which you are joined. My life has been a wonderful story of high-achieving teams — my Air Force squadrons, my crewmembers on my space shuttle flights, the public and private companies I later joined to serve NASA and the Department of Defense, and now NoviSphere. My desire is to build NoviSphere with individuals on a mission to serve the public good by delivering products that improve our living and work environments.
  • Serve with gratitude. We are each the recipient of the support and well wishes of our friends, colleagues, and family. While these relationships aren’t always without friction or disagreement, I believe we are best served by focusing on the positive aspects of our work and life. My association with NoviSphere has introduced me to a completely new circle of experts, business peers and customer sets. I am in a constant learning cycle with these committed individuals, and I am grateful for their patience and service as we build NoviSphere to be a recognized leader in pure and rarified environments.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

My career as a military officer and then an astronaut provided me the great honor of serving our nation and its people. The personal satisfaction I experienced has contributed to my growth as a person, to my maturity as an adult and to my confidence that I tried to make positive impacts with my actions.

I desire our youth to have the same understanding of serving the greater good. It does not have to be through the military, but it should be part of a broader national initiative that confers respectability and known sacrifices so that each “member of graduate” can look the others in the eye and know they have done their part. I envision a mandatory national service for our country that could encompass many facets of life and its needs and that, once completed, would provide our youth the confidence and self-satisfaction needed as they transition to adulthood. Others have proposed such a program, and while I don’t have any specifics regarding how such a national service would be administered, I believe it would serve our nation well for binding our youth to their country’s past and future.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

This one is easy, but it is more of a story than a quote. As I considered joining the military to provide a path to becoming an astronaut, the Air Force officer in charge of the ROTC unit at Texas Tech University asked me a very important question: “How committed are you to becoming a space shuttle pilot?” My response was, “Sir, I want to fly the shuttle so desperately that I would clean the toilets on the shuttle should that be the only way to do so.” Many years later, I learned that the pilot on the space shuttle is responsible for the waste control system (aka, the space toilet), so I achieved what I desired — to be the pilot AND to be responsible for this very important onboard system.

The lesson from this is what I tell youth when I talk about achieving their goals — they must commit themselves fully to have the best chance of success. I describe how I changed my thinking from, “I want to be an astronaut” to “I will be an astronaut.” That mindset is the foundation for any success, whether big or small.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them

NoviSphere is poised to be the only provider of comprehensive, high-quality, turnkey solutions and services that deliver clean, pure and, if needed, rarified air environments to people wherever they live, work or play. NoviSphere delivers modular, industry-standard clean working spaces where our customers need them, be it in deployed locations for our military, or in America’s most important pharmaceutical laboratories. Our products — such as our NoviSphere PE 254 — also monitor, clean and track the air we breathe, enabling coronavirus-free spaces that deliver confidence, reduce risk and improve health, allowing Americans to get back to work and their day-to-day lives.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

NoviSphere

Paul Lockhart — personal social media (optional)

@PaulLockhart113 — Twitter

@VirtusAdventures — Facebook

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