Phase 1: Seeking Problem-solution Fit Through Customer Discovery
Over the course of the last several months, NEXUS-NY participants have been working on their interim “business opportunities presentations.” In a closed session for a few members of the NEXUS-NY community, each team debuted their progress in Rochester, NY.
NEXUS-NY is a clean energy proof-of-concept center sponsored by NYSERDA, charged with moving innovative energy technologies from research labs into the market. Operating under a seed accelerator business model, participants strive to complete three primary objections:
- Seek problem-solution fit as informed by customer and industry interaction
- De-risk their technology by building early prototypes
- Work towards third party validation of customer discovery and prototypes
The past 10 weeks of Phase 1 has been dedicated to customer discovery, and their final presentations reflected the current views of their business opportunities, which is different from pitches startup founders traditionally give to investors.
During this milestone, researchers and entrepreneurs were tasked with answering several key questions surrounding market opportunity, plans for commercialization and if there is a large energy benefit.
“The teams have been working hard and showing tremendous progress,” said Doug Buerkle, NEXUS-NY Executive Founding Director. “In addition to identifying if their market opportunity is of sufficient size, they have been focusing on if their envisioned product or service is sufficiently differentiated, compelling and protectable.”
— NEXUS-NY (@NEXUSNY) April 13, 2016
In front of a room full of peers, mentors and NEXUS-NY community members, the teams also revealed if significant progress can be made over the coming five months as they seek approval to enter into Phase 2 of the program, which concentrates on de-risking and third party validation.
Entrepreneurial Lead Adrian Cosma presented for BioEnergySP. He and Technical Lead, Jose Lozano, a Cornell PhD of Biology and Ecological Physiology and current Lab Director at the Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Facility, have invented novel 4th generation compartment free Microbial Fuel Cells. This game-changing industrial equipment Electroactive Attached Growth (EAG) technology saves energy for wastewater treatment. Based on the customer discovery process, the duo was excited to reveal a perfect problem-solution fit.
“After speaking to more than 75 potential customers as part of the NEXUS-NY customer discovery process we came across Stone Brewing in California. This facility cannot grow to meet demands due to limited in-house wastewater capacity, limited municipal capacity and local laws. With our technology they will be able to increase production,” explained Cosma.
Cosma and Lozano have also spoken with leaders at Frank E. VanLare, the largest wastewater treatment facility in Rochester, NY.
“With our patent pending EAG units, BioEnergySP can save VanLare tons of money per year in energy reductions,” added Cosma.
Nine new research teams total from across New York State took part in phase 1 of NEXUS-NY’s 2016 cohort, including a few universities that have previously not participated in the program before. These teams include researchers from Clarkson University, University at Buffalo and SUNY Alfred State.
Parham Rohani is a Chemical and Biological Engineering PhD candidate at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He has developed a proprietary water-reactive nanomaterial that can split water and generate hydrogen gas from water at room temperature, on-demand, for mobile electricity generation using fuel cells.
“We turn water into fuel,” said Rohani. “We pelletize our nanomaterial and package it in a cartridge. The cartridge connects to a hydrogen generation device to generate hydrogen gas from water. We and our partners will design the hydrogen generation device based on their requirements. The device can provide hydrogen gas for any off-the-shelf fuel cell. ”
Rohani says his innovation offers customers great value given a high specific energy density source of power with longer runtime. He announced to the judges a potential business opportunity with a gross rate of over 50%. If Rohani moves to the next phase of the NEXUS-NY accelerator, he plans on continuing to validate the technology, work with manufacturing partners, file new provisional patents and begin the material production development phase.
— NEXUS-NY (@NEXUSNY) April 13, 2016
Representing research out of Clarkson University, Ken Visser, Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering and Director of the Center of Sustainable Energy Systems at Clarkson, is working on an optimized ducted wind turbine that uses a slotted duct system to augment the wind flow and increase the efficiency of the turbine rotor. Over the course of the last several months, Visser has reported 70% energy extraction and improvement over open rotors of the same size.
Recognizing the high capital costs associated with using a turbine to run your home (roughly a 10kw machine at $55,000), Visser says it could take 10-30 years for homeowners to receive a return on investment. This is why the team has decided to establish a two-prong affect that caters to manufacturers and installers.
“Based on our customer discovery, it’s the cost per kWh that drives the business. Our new approach will allow manufacturers and installers to save money installing our turbine technology,” explained Visser. “The $80 million wind turbine market is set to explode. There is a new leasing model that has jumped into the industry. The market needs a less expensive and more efficient turbine. We can deliver this by focusing our attention on the IP, which is centered around moving the rotor. This will open up more markets by offering the same power at lower wind speeds, which reduces the overall costs.”
Visser says the technology has already turned the heads of several manufacturers interested in taking advantage of the cost savings. Moving forward, they will look to validate the technology and build a working prototype.
This was also our first look at how NEXUS-NY’s pilot program with Cornell University is progressing. The team of scientific researchers, entrepreneurs and students from the Johnson School of Management have been exploring if two Cornell technologies make sense together by looking at a method to convert CO2 into methanol.
“We have gathered lots of feedback that still needs to be researched in the lab based on potential synergies,” said Cornell Entrepreneurial Lead Jason Salfi. “The great news is we have identified many partners excited to take this technology to market throughout the NEXUS-NY customer discovery process.”
Additional entrepreneurs and scientists in the 2016 NEXUS-NY program include researchers from Binghamton University, SUNY-ESF, Rochester Institute of Technology and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Each team will know by mid-May if they will advance into phase 2 of the clean energy seed accelerator.
“Phase 2 is designed to be a little less rigorous,” said Doug Buerkle. “We encourage the teams to get back in the lab and deep dive into the information gathered during the customer discovery process to determine which of them might be potential sources of third party validation.”
NEXUS-NY will continue to provide each team financial support in phase 2 ($40-50,000 on average), as well as couple the researchers with various partners including the Syracuse Technology Commercialization Law Program and Excell Partners, which will assist with investor due diligence.
At the end of the program, the teams will be in position to pitch their novel technologies to investors at demo days in New York City and Rochester, NY. These events are scheduled for early-mid October.