PORTAL: Fostering innovation, collaboration to power the future

Internships are valuable experiences for students, especially those who have the opportunity to work with United Protective Technologies, a colocated University R&D partner in UNC Charlotte’s PORTAL building.

“My experience with UPT helps fill the gap between learning technical knowledge from classes and implementing it in a real-world setting,” said Anna Centofanti ’24. A native of Shelby, North Carolina, she recently graduated from the William States Lee College of Engineering with a degree in  systems engineering and a minor in mathematics.

UPT, founded in 2002, licensed space in PORTAL starting in 2022, and to date, the company has hired nine student interns with some subsequently becoming full time. Former faculty member Peter Schmidt is UPT’s lead research engineer; he joined the company to help guide UPT’s partnership with UNC Charlotte.

“Brent Barbee, UPT’s founder and chief technology officer, is an avid proponent of collaborating with Charlotte,” said Schmidt. “Being in PORTAL gives us access to state-of-the-art analytical equipment along with experienced faculty who are experts in operating specialized research tools.”

That is a key selling point that Greg Needham, executive director of Charlotte’s Office of Research Partnerships, expresses to prospective PORTAL companies interested in working with the University. The office serves as the single point of contact between the University, industry and government to stimulate research and innovation and create jobs.

“UNC Charlotte is your lab; that’s our pitch when we meet with research and development executives across the state and U.S.,” he said. “Virtually everything a company needs, from a startup to a Fortune 500, is concentrated on our 1,000-acre campus — world-class lab space and equipment, experienced faculty researchers and close proximity to students for current and future workforce development.”

UPT: Bringing solutions to the surface

Headquartered in Locust, North Carolina, UPT is a leader in nanocomposite coating technologies, serving the U.S. government and private industry.

“These coatings exhibit increased mechanical, electrical, magnetic and optical properties and have successfully improved wear resistance, decreased friction, enhanced corrosion resistance and boosted hardness and other performance characteristics,” said Schmidt.

He noted UPT has a proven record of transitioning R&D programs into production, primarily at its headquarters. PORTAL houses the company’s R&D efforts, and one of his major duties is to mentor student interns working on various research projects.

“Charlotte provides students with an excellent education, and UPT offers them outstanding opportunities to work on cutting-edge research projects, often in collaboration with faculty,” said Schmidt. “My colleague David Harris and I have 35-plus years of industry experience, so we are resources for our interns. As they work on projects, if they are going down the wrong path, we can stop them and explain why they should try a different approach.”

Madeline Umscheid ’24, originally from Kansas City, Kansas, appreciates how her UPT internship enabled her to explore aspects of her major, systems engineering, prior to graduation. During her college search, she discovered UNC Charlotte was one of a few universities to offer a major in systems engineering. “I’ve been able to use my knowledge of quality and process engineering and data science to make an impact on projects nearing completion.”

Proximity promotes partnerships

“Companies that come to PORTAL find access to equipment and students beneficial, but there is also great value in being part of the academic community,” said Schmidt. “Once you engage with this community of scholars, you experience how energizing and unique it is. You network with faculty and other colocated companies and learn about projects in progress and discover new opportunities to collaborate”

From its inception, UPT has received grant funding from the federal Small Business Innovation Research program, a competitive awards-based initiative to enable small companies to explore innovative research and bring it to market.

An early UPT contract involved developing a protective window film for military helicopters, and during the intervening years, additional SBIR grants and other federal funding, have provided support to research and develop more revolutionary coatings and surface finishes. Examples include:

  • Working with an Army Blackhawk helicopter blade in PORTAL, UPT researchers are investigating how erosion affects its performance. SchmidIt said it costs $250,000 to replace one rotor blade, so the U.S. Army would prefer to repair the blade before it fails. UPT has developed technologies to mitigate and monitor the erosion, leading to a military standard test for erosion of surfaces at subsonic speeds. It is now working with the U.S. Air Force to study erosion at supersonic or hypersonic speeds 
  • UPT works closely with Ed Morse, director of the UNC Charlotte Center for Precision Metrology, to validate the performance of its coatings on multiple projects. The company also is working with Wes Williams, associate professor of engineering technology, on a Department of Energy grant to develop a novel power take-off system to convert ocean wave motions into electricity
  • A student intern is assisting with LEAP or lightweight expeditionary adaptive power. The goal is to produce a portable generator to recharge batteries that not only is easier for military personnel to carry, but it can operate on conventional gasoline using UPT’s novel coating (Continuous Operation Induced Lubrication). This nanocomposite coating converts a portion of the fuel into a lubricious tribofilm to allow engine operation equal or better than fueled with a mixture of gasoline and oil

“UPT has engaged in a substantial amount of collaborative activity within its two years in PORTAL,” noted Needham, adding the company anticipates expanding its interaction with Charlotte.


The Partnership Outreach and Research for Accelerated Learning building opened in 2014 with 47,000 square feet of office space, of which 10,000 square feet is secured space. Colocated companies have access to the University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Small Business Technology and Development Center, Office of Research Commercialization Development, Office of Research Partnerships and other campus amenities.

“We align Charlotte’s vast research capabilities and expertise with the needs of industry, creating mutually beneficial partnerships that advance important science, solve industry-relevant R&D challenges and provide channels for the commercialization of new technologies of high value and societal impact,,” said Needham.

graphic about PORTAL first 10 years

Photo: UPT lead research engineer Peter Schmidt, third from right, mentors Charlotte student interns; he is pictured with Anna Centofanti ’24, Mike Nikitin ’23, Madeline Umscheid ’24, Andrew McGowan, a mechanical engineering major scheduled to graduate in 2025; John Luke ’22; and David Koffi, a graduate student in applied energy and electromechanical engineering. UPT has hired a number of student interns as full-time employees.