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SBIR Pulse: 2016 Tibbetts Awards Special Edition (Q&A with Tanvas, Inc. CEO, Greg Topel)

Post Date:
February 07, 2017
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Each year, the government’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) programs makes Tibbetts Awards to a select group of U.S. entrepreneurial companies who exemplify the best in the spirit and intent of the programs. The 2016 Tibbetts Award Ceremony was held on January 10, 2017, in the Indian Treaty Room of the White House’s Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The ceremony featured remarks by the SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet and showcased 37 small businesses who have demonstrated strong commercial success with the development of their technologies in areas such as health, energy, defense, and education. To highlight a few of these companies and learn more about how “America’s Seed Fund” is driving innovation and societal impact, SBIR Pulse is publishing a special series focusing on Tibbetts awardees.

SBIR Pulse Interview #15: A Q&A with Tanvas, Inc. (formerly known as Tangible Haptics, LLC) CEO, Greg Topel

Despite advances in graphics, sound and vibration, today’s touchscreen is a still just a lifeless window to the digital world. TanvasTouch technology exemplifies the mission of the SBIR program because it is a true technological innovation that makes touch possible on any display or flat surface. Tanvas’ surface haptics let OEMs and developers create infinite dynamic textures that simulate touch and create a new dimension of interaction, physically feeling what they see.


SBIR Pulse: Congratulations on winning a 2016 SBIR Tibbetts Award! What does this mean for Tanvas?
Topel: We are so honored to receive this award. The recognition boosts our incredible drive to bring the sense of touch to all touchscreen devices. To be recognized among other innovative companies is a testament to the hard work our team has contributed and motivates us to continue our journey to make this new touch dimension a reality for everyone who interacts with a touch-enabled device.

SBIR Pulse: Can you describe how and why Tanvas got started?
Topel: Tanvas was spun out of Northwestern University’s Neuroscience and Robotics Lab. The technology is based on 10 years of research on surface haptics by co-founders Ed Colgate and Michael Peshkin. For the past few years, we've been quietly perfecting this technology which is an evolution of the industry standard vibrotactile solutions on the market today. TanvasTouch made its widespread debut at CES 2017.

SBIR Pulse: How did the award/s from the SBIR program help support the growth of Tanvas?
Topel: The NSF Phase I grant in 2012 was instrumental in keeping the company alive until we received seed investment in 2013 and continues to support the company.  Tanvas has more than doubled its headcount in a year’s time and remains one of Chicago’s hottest tech startups. We have added mechanical engineers, haptics experts, the company’s first multisensory designer, and more than doubled the software team as well as added experienced product leadership to guide development and launch efforts.

SBIR Pulse: What have been the keys to Tanvas gaining adoption and commercial traction in the marketplace?
Topel: Formally debuting the technology at CES 2017 helped increase exposure and garner attention from leading technology publications. TanvasTouch made WIRED’s top 10 sharpest design list and was awarded Best in Show by The Verge, among other accolades including the IHS Innovation award for the automotive category. Prior to CES, Tanvas put its technology out into the world at various hackathons where students were given the opportunity to build the sense of touch into their apps.

SBIR Pulse: Looking ahead, what do you think the future holds for Tanvas?
Topel: By increasing awareness among the broad ecosystem of creators, builders and makers, we are inspiring others to evangelize surface haptics and help move this new technology to the mainstream in creative and innovative ways. This ability to add a realistic sense of touch and unlimited effects on any touch-enabled screen will one day be ubiquitous. Tanvas aims to be the company to make touch a reality for everyone.


The responses to this interview were provided by Greg Topel, CEO of Tanvas, Inc. You can follow Tanvas on Twitter at @TanvasLabs.

The interview was produced by Shannon Rhoten, Presidential Management Fellow (Detailee) in the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce and Edward Metz, Program Manager of the SBIR program at the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

About SBIR Pulse

SBIR Pulse provides interviews with individuals from the different corners of the high-tech, start-up ecosystem. The intent is to share various perspectives on how SBIR impacts small businesses, drives innovation, and leads to technological solutions. For more editions of SBIR Pulse, see here.

The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs are collectively the largest single source of early-stage capital for innovative small companies in the United States. Via these programs, the federal government invests over 2 billion dollars in early stage and high growth American entrepreneurial firms to develop and commercialize technologies that strengthen our nation's defense, improve the health of our citizens, and enhance education. For more information on the program across the 11 Federal agencies that operate programs, please visit For timely updates and resources follow us on Twitter @SBIRgov (link is external) to stay connected!

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