UB alumnus receives award from President Obama
Published: Thursday, January 31, 2013
Updated: Thursday, January 31, 2013 18:01
As a kid, Norman McCombs didn’t worry about being picked last for teams.
He worried he would grow up without learning to read or write.
On Friday, the UB alum is receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in Washington, D.C., from United States President Barack Obama. It is the highest honor a U.S. president can award a citizen for technological accomplishments. McCombs is the fifth UB alum to receive the award.
Obama is recognizing McCombs – the senior vice president of research and development at AirSep Corp. – for creating a medical oxygen concentrator used by people who have difficulty breathing due to chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases like cancer.
The invention gives them their lives back, McCombs said.
The LifeStyle Portable Oxygen Concentrator separates oxygen from the air and puts it in a portable container, eliminating the need for deliveries and refills of oxygen cylinders (tanks).
Currently, 1.2 to 1.3 million of his concentrators are operating in the United States, according to McCombs.
McCombs was the youngest of four children. He was born in his parents’ house in Amherst, a couple miles away from North Campus.
“I was born in the shadow of the University at Buffalo,” McCombs said.
He remembers when the town was an open field and his life was “like camping out,” with no running water, sewers or electricity.
The 75-year-old refers to 1940s Amherst as “Appalachia.” The lack of primary schools along with the town’s small population convinced him his academic future was bleak.
Today, he’s an inspiration for students and faculty, according to UB President Satish Tripathi.
UB honored McCombs last year by building Grace Plaza, named for his wife at his request, outside of Davis Hall to celebrate his patronage of his alma mater and his work as a consultant in the creation of the biomedical engineering program.
“He’s a local man with global impact,” Tripathi said. “It’s a fascinating story – not only as a story for UB, [McCombs] himself, Western New York or New York, but really for the world – to see how a person can really make a difference.”
McCombs’ concentrator meets consumers’ medical needs without interrupting their lives. They can go to stores and travel on planes worry-free. The pump runs on batteries and is rechargeable, allowing users to plug it into the wall when supplies are running low.
“That’s the thing about great inventions – they’re simple [concepts],” said Alexander Cartwright, vice president for research at UB.
The concentrator was easily implemented and works well because it does exactly what the user needs, Cartwright said. That’s how McCombs said he does business – he gives the consumer a product or service that is tailored to his or her needs.
McCombs began making oxygen concentrators, which used containerized oxygen, for Midas muffler shops. When he pitched his product, he was met with resistance and was forced to “guarantee like crazy” and lease out the devices on a month-to-month basis. The shops bought them as soon as they realized they were effective and less costly than oxygen tanks.
McCombs, who raised and trained English bulldogs with his wife, then tailored the device for his veterinarian’s operating room. He created a recovery kennel, which incubated dogs coming out of surgery for little electrical cost. From this, W.R. Grace, a large chemical company, partnered with the engineer to make the oxygen concentrator a medical device for humans.
He left the company in 1986 to join AirSep Corp., which continues to produce his oxygen concentrator.
McCombs has created several companies, including his former restaurant, Truffles. He believes he subconsciously created the gourmet restaurant to fulfill his father’s goal of owning a restaurant, which he would have called “Mac’s Place” after his nickname used among friends.
McCombs and his wife had the restaurant as a hobby for 10 years. They still run into old customers who are more interested in talking to Grace – who ran the front of the house, he said. McCombs was always quiet and preferred to work in the back, much like he did at the engineering companies. He felt he belonged in the lab.
Labs have been his workspace for 56 years. He didn’t have the normal undergraduate experience and never knew his graduating class; he went to night school to make ends meet. He gained his medical knowledge through training and research rather than a formal academic program. Now, he is furthering Western New York’s reputation of having leaders in medicine and engineering, according to Tripathi.
The renowned innovator never imagined being in the position he finds himself in now. When he received the email regarding his nomination for the award, he thought it was spam until he saw the government letterhead.
“I’m an entrepreneur, but I just happen to have this skill set,” he said.
McCombs, who refers to retirement as “the R-word,” doesn’t see himself leaving the industry any time soon. He’s just as invigorated by technology as he was in his childhood. He said he’s not old enough to golf yet, anyway.