Tonawanda News

January 23, 2013

Tonawanda man to receive tech honor from Obama

By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — TOWN OF TONAWANDA — Norman R. McCombs is set to receive the nation’s highest technology award from President Barack Obama in the White House in just over a week. But despite all the attention he’s getting from the billion dollar industry he spawned, he remains a humble town resident. 

“I just was at the right place at the right time,” said McCombs, who has 40 U.S. patents to his name. “I got help from a lot of people.” 

McCombs, 75, developed a new way to separate gases in the 1960s called Pressure Swing Adsorption while doing research at Linde Division of Union Carbide, Praxair’s predecessor.

Although the technology has been used for safety in many different industries, including fish farming and paper manufacturing, McCombs’ claim to fame is his creation of the first PSA system for use by patients. 

McCombs created portable and wearable oxygen systems for those suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema. 

The device uses an electrical outlet or a battery and delivers oxygen through a mask, extending the lives of those with COPD, a leading cause of death worldwide. 

“There was no eureka moment, there were a lot of eureka moments,” McCombs said of his invention. “Idea moments, when they happen — it’s just a coincidence. It’s like the guy who created super glue ... he didn’t know he was creating it.” 

Although the first portable device he created weighed more than 200 pounds, McCombs worked to make one that is small and safe enough that the Federal Aviation Administration approved it for travel, making it possible for COPD sufferers to fly safely. It’s just 1.8 pounds. 

Now, thanks to McCombs’ work, there are 1.2 million oxygen concentrators in the U.S. alone, helping millions of individuals and saving billions in health care costs per year. 

“Before that, it cost about $500 a month for government or insurance to have in-home oxygen concentrators,” McCombs said.

As a thanks to all he has done, Obama will present the National Medal of Technology and Innovation to McCombs at the ceremony Feb. 1. 

A White House statement recognized McCombs and the other winners, saying they

“represent the ingenuity and imagination that has long made this nation great -- and they remind us of the enormous impact a few good ideas can have when these creative qualities are unleashed in an entrepreneurial environment.”

McCombs joined Amherst-based Air Sep Corp. in 1990 after selling his business Xorbox Corp. He now serves as the senior vice president of research and development.

The company employs 380 people and is the world’s largest producer of oxygen concentrators — including high profile clients like the Buffalo Bills. 

The company’s success comes from the passion displayed by McCombs and his team for their work. He may be a businessman, but he’s a scientist first. 

“So often people try to get into a business, make money and then leave,” McCombs said. “But I love what I do. This is my vocation and my avocation.” 

McCombs’ professional success becomes even more impressive when one considers his personal story — one of rags to riches. He said he grew up in a “shack” his father built in Amherst, which was then only fields. 

“I was lucky to learn how to read and write,” McCombs said. “It was difficult. My father started a dairy, which went bankrupt during the depression. So it was tough.” 

He met his wife, Grace, at Amherst High School, before attending the University of Buffalo. 

“I saw her first in the hallway in 1954, we both remember that,” he said. “We were walking, and I saw this beautiful little girl, and she turned and looked at me, too. Unfortunately, she happened to be going with my good friend at the time. But by the next May, she was going with me.”

They married in 1960, and McCombs said his wife picked out a home in the town, where they still live.

And everyday at lunch time, McCombs drives the 2.8 miles home to have lunch with his high school sweetheart. 

“We love Tonawanda, and we’ve never been sorry for sticking around,” he said. 

His wife, his two closest friends and his 12-year-old neighbor will accompany McCombs to the ceremony. 

“He is like a grandson to me,” McCombs said. “I’ve known him since I held him after he was born ... and he’s so excited, he’s making such a big deal about it.”

Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150