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Driving Change: This Army Veteran Is On The Road To Reinventing Brakes

AJ Lewis, Army Veteran & Founder of Sphere Brake Defense

Tell us about you and your military background:

Hi, my name is AJ Lewis, and currently reside in Erie, PA. I enlisted right out of high school into the US Army down in North Carolina, then went on to dual track as an ROTC cadet at East Carolina University. I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant upon graduation and chose Field Artillery. I was assigned to B Battery, 1-113th FA out of Monroe, NC.

Over the course of two years, I went through rigorous military training in preparation to deploy to Operation Iraqi Freedom. While deployed I held numerous leadership roles from Company Intelligence Support Team Leader, Fire Direction Officer, Platoon Leader, and Unit Mobilization Officer.

Upon my return, I joined the Pennsylvania National Guard and ended my military career as a Stryker Infantry Commander. In total, I served 12 years in the military. While I was serving in the PAANG, I was also running numerous businesses at GE and pursuing a Master’s Degree in Project Management through Penn State University.

Tell us about your business:

I’m the founder and owner of Sphere Brake Defense. Our business is located in Erie, PA. The company was launched in 2016. At SBD, we’re laying the foundation of the sphere brake industry. Our patented sphere brake technology leverages hemispherical brake pads around a spherical brake surface. This allows the same brake force capability compared to disc and drum brakes, yet with a smaller brake effective diameter. That enables the unprecedented capability to change brake pads without wheel removal or tools. SBD currently works with US Army and Marine Corps vehicle programs through Operational Testing to include the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, Stryker, and Medium Tactical Vehicle.

Describe how you got the business started:

I invented the brake technology while I was in Kuwait ahead of our push into Iraq. I refined the concept and was able to secure a patent. The technology wasn’t originally developed for vehicles until I met a former auto executive, BJ Lechner, from the brake industry in Erie. He convinced me that we should pursue the auto industry with this new brake technology. I traveled to Chicago and Detroit to solicit feedback and interest. There was overwhelming interest in the idea, but I had to figure out how to take it to the next level.

It just so happened that Ben Franklin Technology Partners were located in the same office building. With a patent in provisional status, industry feedback, and a local champion for the technology, I was able to raise around $25,000. We took all of that investment to the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center located at Carnegie Mellon University. Millions of simulations were performed on the brake design comparing it to a disc brake. The results were impressive. I was able to go back to BFTP and raise an additional $25,000 to build prototypes. We manufactured two functional prototypes and tested those in Detroit at Link Engineering on dynos setup for an F150. Dyno results matched results from PSC. With a lot of data validating the brake system works, we secured interest from Volvo Truck. While performing a track demonstration at the Larson Transportation Institute, we were able to meet with several engineers from the Marine Corps. Their interest turned into our first Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant. We’ve been working with the Marine Corps since 2017.

Tell us why you wanted to become an entrepreneur:

I ended up launching the company out of necessity to survive. I was burning a 4 ended wick between my progression up the military ranks, GE ranks, education, and Sphere Brakes. I had to sit down with my wife and have difficult conversations which led to my decision to quit everything and go all-in on Sphere. I gave up 50% of my annual income, and all of my benefits, and we did have our firstborn on the way.

Describe how your military background prepared you for entrepreneurship:

Military experience had and still has a critical role to play in how I launched and run my company. Leadership, followership, attention to detail, and being decisive are all key skills required to be successful and navigate failure. One of the most important skills is being able to make a decision quickly, even if it turns out wrong. That way you move forward and inch closer to the finish line. What entrepreneurs fail to do often is make a decision. They over analyze or fear the unknown.

Tell us about some of your obstacles and challenges, and how you overcame them:

The majority of obstacles we had to overcome related to barriers to entry, regulations, standards, and egos. Brakes have to stop vehicles so people do not die. That’s a huge responsibility and it takes a long time to develop and test brakes to ensure they have a high reliability and confidence level before going on vehicles. To make things harder, we’re pursuing and executing government contracts. Beyond the technology piece, there are over 100 clauses and requirements companies must adhere to. New processes, new programs, and new controls must be put in place. That all costs time, money, and human talent. We’ve had to really build up an army of external support to facilitate our success across all business verticals. Folks to support accounting, reconciliation, marketing, business development, quality, etc.

Describe how you’re doing today and what the future looks like:

Today, we’re executing operational testing for the ACV with the intent to transition to limited production in 2024. We’re executing our Vision 2030 strategy as we lay the foundation of the sphere brake industry, making key investments in our lean, manufacturing, quality, innovation, and research processes. Over the next 12 to 18 months we’ll be expanding to other military vehicles, eventually transitioning to commercial vehicles and freight rail segments.

Share some advice with your fellow veteran entrepreneurs:

I could probably talk for a year about all of the lessons observed and learned launching and running SBD. Up front, trust your gut and be honest. Operate with the highest level of integrity you can and be a sponge. Surround yourself with smarter people than yourself. Stay humble and always be selling. If you’re looking at starting a business in defense, work with your APEX Accelerators. Partner with universities. A lot of universities offer many free resources and programs from prototyping, to marketing research, to financials. Read often. Learn and implement some EOS tools. Lastly, make a decision and move on!

 Where can we go to learn more: