Dan Preston has never lived in the Tri-Cities.
But that didn’t stop the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce from honoring him with its 2012 Alumnus of Distinction Award for work related to Hanford that led to the patents behind the OnStar system employed in GM vehicles.
Preston is, for the record, an Oregon State University graduate, Bainbridge Island resident and relentless entrepreneur and inventor whose company, ClaroVia Holdings, holds more than 200 patents, including one that undergirds OnStar.
The chamber invited Phil Ohl, another successful engineer, to host Preston when he visited for the awards program.
Ohl grew up in Spokane, the son of an Air Force officer. He and his wife moved to the Tri-Cities for a Hanford post in the mid-1980s after collecting degrees from Washington State University. He’d left his Westinghouse job to venture out on his own and eventually sold Vista Engineering to Veolia.
He launched a new career as an investor and travel writer.
The Ohls and the Prestons met for dinner at Meadow Springs and the resulting partnership continues to pay dividends for the Tri-City economy.
“We hit it off,” Ohl said.
One of the most notable examples is the quarterly “Shark Lunch,” hosted by Ohl and held by invitation to give investors a chance to scrutinize local investment opportunities.
One of the biggest investments to emerge from the lunch was a $500,000 Fuse Fund-led round in STARS Technology, the Richland company founded in 2016 to commercialize chemical processes developed at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
STARS executives presented at a March 2022 Shark Lunch and won over Ohl and Preston.
STARS was seeking capital to pursue a pilot of its hydrogen-at-the-pump technology with Southern California Gas Co. at a SunLine Transit fueling station in Thousand Palms, California.
Ohl and Preston participated in the round and in helping STARS position itself to succeed if the pilot succeeds.
The next Shark Lunch is March 8. Attendance is by invitation, but those who are interested in participating can request one from Ohl at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ohl warns the program is a cold-blooded exercise in capitalism.
“There’s nothing altruistic about it,” Ohl said.
Preston sees the Tri-Cities as rich territory. His work on Hanford contracts introduced him to the intellectual and physical landscape. It left an impression.
“I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the Tri-Cities,” he said.
He is seeking local partners to commercialize two sets of patents he thinks have commercial potential. The first is focused on mining technology. The other is focused on blockchain technology – though not crypto.
“We would place the technology in the Tri-Cities,” Preston said. “You’ve got everything. Smart people. Great demographics.”
Preston pledged to provide the existing patents and to develop any new ones. He wants partners who look beyond the technology to the “what can this do” factor.
“At 72, I can’t bring it together. It is time for younger guys to do it,” he said.
The mining technology stems from detectors WSU engineering students developed through an internship program he supports in Olympia. The idea is to give students real world success that can help them enter the professional world.
He tasked the aspiring engineers to figure out how to log all the rocks coming out of a 10,000-foot tunnel then being bored in the Los Angeles area.
The students figured it out and deployed the equipment to monitor the debris from the tunnel operations as it moved on a conveyor belt. When the equipment encountered unexpected rock, data from the “Digital Geologist” resolved questions about who would pay the high cost to repair the boring equipment.
“There’s a business in there and a service that goes with it,” he said. The technology has a name, AxialAi, for Artificial Intelligence.
Gary Spanner, who retired as economic development manager for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said the partnership between Ohl and Preston validates the premise of the Distinguished Alumnus program.
By bringing successful people with Tri-City connections back to the community, they might invest. And they have, he said.
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