Two Cornell University research technologies participating in NEXUS-NY Cohort 3, together
NEXUS-NY is piloting a new way to test the commercial potential of university research without scientists fully participating in the rigorous process of its clean energy seed accelerator.
New in 2016, two researchers from Cornell University will spend a few hours a week providing scientific advisory support to entrepreneurs recruited by NEXUS-NY. This experiment has resulted in a combined team, which is exploring two innovations, both as stand-alone technologies and by looking at potential synergies between the two.
“There were a couple of things that made Cornell standout for this pilot program,” said Doug Buerkle, NEXUS-NY Founding Executive Director. “First, Cornell is a leading research institution when it comes to energy innovation. The second was due to the flexibility and willingness of Cornell’s researchers and administrators to look at novel ways of partnering to commercialize its technologies.”
NEXUS-NY assists New York’s energy researchers by providing financial, educational, and business support. Participants work through a structured and rigorous process, guided by experienced mentors in order to translate their research derived innovations into solutions that solve big problems for real customers, ideally through the formation of startup companies.
The first technology is a high-density photobioreactor that optimizes light and CO2 delivery for efficient generation of algae. Developed by David Erickson, Associate Professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University, the technology delivers sunlight efficiently through low-cost, plastic, waveguides. This process increases efficiency and decreases water and energy use as compared to conventional algae reactors.
The second technology is a hybrid organic/inorganic nanofluid. Invented by Tobais Hanrath, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Cornell University, the technology has combined capabilities of CO2 capture and photocatalytic CO2 conversion.
While it’s not yet clear if these technologies make more sense together or if they should be commercialized alone, Erickson and Hanrath have decided to explore all combinations, recognizing potential synergies for pursuing future university research and commercialization options.
“Right now we’re working together on a combined approach and testing with as much rigor as possible before we explore separate approaches for the university research,” explained Jason Salfi, NEXUS-NY EIR. “Everything we’re doing now can be applied to the technologies separately.”
Salfi, the entrepreneurial lead for this joint Cornell University research team, says they’re first looking at a method to convert CO2 into methanol. “We’ve managed to take two unique technologies with separate applications and combine them together in a way that might actually have scable promise,” said Salfi. “The great thing is we’re already starting to get some interest from equipment manufacturers that may be interested in incorporating our conversion technology. Essentially, we’re hoping to create a better economic value proposition by upcycling carbon dioxide.”
Historically NEXUS-NY was not able to access some of the best technologies because principal investigators for those technologies often don’t have the time or interest to participate in its full commercialization process. NEXUS-NY requires researchers to meet frequently with potential customers and industry participants in order to seek problem-solution fit and to inform their go-to-market strategies. This is a time intensive part of the program.
“By bringing experienced entrepreneurs into contact with innovative scientists, we think we may be able to enhance our program by creating more frequent and more successful commercialization outcomes,” explained Buerkle. “We’re piloting the approach this year. We’ll track it carefully and determine how to move forward in the future. We believe it is an interesting approach and are excited to see how it goes.”
At the onset of this process, Cornell suggested several potential technologies for the program. When working through the NEXUS-NY screening process, Buerkle interviewed Hanrath who indicated his technology required a type of photobioreactor, which sounded similar to what David Erickson had built under a separate ARPA-E project. When Buerkle found out the two had never spoken, he made the introduction.
With the technology in place, it was time to team the scientific advisors up with experienced entrepreneurs to propel business development.
NEXUS-NY is affiliated with High Tech Rochester (HTR), a nonprofit whose mission is to catalyze entrepreneurship and innovation-based economic development. HTR runs a statewide Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) program for NYSERDA, which provided NEXUS-NY with a vetted pool of energy entrepreneurs.
“Over the past two years, we’ve created close relationships with a subset of these entrepreneurs, allowing us to select people we know and trust,” said Buerkle.
NEXUS-NY introduced several of these entrepreneurs to Erickson and Hanrath, who ultimately selected Clayton Poppe and Jason Salfi as entrepreneurial leads.
“I applaud NEXUS-NY for moving forward with this experiment; I think it could be a big part of their program moving forward,” said Salfi. “We recently added four Johnson school MBAs as well as a few scientists from the Hanrath and Erickson groups to our team; as a result, we’ve built a diverse team of MBAs, PIs, scientists and entrepreneurs, including Clayton and myself,” said Salfi. “In only 6 weeks, this talented crew is working very well together. It’s a real testament to the talent NEXUS-NY is attracting to its program.”