NEXUS-NY Blog


NEXUS-NY helps research-derived innovations find commercial success

NEXUS-NY works with scientists who want to actively explore the commercial potential of their research-derived, energy innovations.

We improve the likelihood of commercial success through our financial & business support and by providing a structured commercialization process. Since its inception, NEXUS-NY has worked with 39 business discovery teams (mostly university-based pre-ventures and the occasional pre-seed company). To date, we’ve helped launch 19 startup companies, 12 have raised more than $18.1M in follow-on funding. 5 of our alumni have achieved the most important early milestone – the sale of products to paying customers!

Scientific innovation has the potential to significantly improve the human condition. Unfortunately, most research-derived innovations languish due to inadequate resources and insufficient commercialization expertise. What if there was a better way to rigorously test the commercial potential of scientific innovations and to accelerate the most promising ones? At NEXUS-NY, we work with Sciencepreneurs to do just that.

NEXUS-NY Sciencepreneurs share or aspire towards several common traits:

–        They recognize commercialization is a full contact sport. They are willing to get out of their labs to actively engage, and learn from potential customers and industry participants.

–        They enjoy learning about problems just as much as they like developing solutions.

–        They recognize that commercial solutions require more than just “better technology.” Customers are seeking solutions which directly address significant business drivers without adding disproportionate business risk and without unduly affecting upstream or downstream processes.

–        They invent cool things which promise a step function improvement as compared to existing and other emerging solutions. They endeavor to understand the technology and IP landscapes and can easily cite their unique and compelling advantage(s).

–        They recognize the inherent biases which accompany scientific discovery (see confirmation bias). They actively look for and listen for reasons why their innovation might not achieve commercial success.

–        They know we all have personal limitations and blind spots. They actively and enthusiastically engage those with complementary skills.

–        They are good story-tellers. They enjoy talking about their technology and can explain their science and its benefits to technical and non-technical audiences alike.

Over the past few years we’ve learned a lot about how, and how not, to accelerate the commercialization of research-derived innovations. In this series of blog posts, I will highlight our key findings so as to help scientists determine whether to join us; and in hope that other organizations might benefit from our successes and mistakes.

From Customer Discovery to De-Risking Technology – It’s Time for NEXUS-NY Phase 2

After three months of intense preparation, the NEXUS-NY midterms mark a milestone in our program.

At the beginning of 2017, nine innovative early-stage technologies were selected to join NEXUS-NY’s proof-of-concept center based on their potential to make an impact, and solve big energy and environmental problems. These teams entered into a structured process for testing the commercial potential of their innovations, guided by a network of business advisors and supported by early-stage funding for prototyping and customer development.

Now it’s time to assess how much each team has accomplished, and determine who will move forward into Phase 2 of our clean energy accelerator. Panelists comprised of industry experts helped answer this question by judging team pitches and providing feedback during our midterm presentations.

“I’m always blown away by how much progress these very early stage NEXUS teams are able to make in a few short months. By getting out and talking with potential customers early on, the insights they gain are remarkable, and significantly accelerate their path to market – with products and services that solve real problems,” said Jim Senall, President of High Tech Rochester.

NEXUS-NY Cohort 4 Midterm JudgesAlongside Jim on the judges’ panel was entrepreneur Dorrance Lamb, Tim Wilson, Chairman of Rochester Angel Network, and Jeff Peterson, Program Manager with NYSERDA. “This years cohort is no different. From next gen combined heat and power, to photovoltaics, to LED displays, the technologies and markets are different, but the process and results are the same. I look forward to seeing even further advancement after Phase 2 has completed,” added Senall.

In Phase 2 each team will receive up to $75,000 for further prototyping, IP services, investor due diligence reporting, entity formation and travel, along with help securing additional grants and investments.

Let’s take a closer look at a few of the teams advancing forward with NEXUS-NY!

A novel way to generate heat and reduce energy.

From refrigerators and sump pumps, to cell phones and computers, when your power goes out, Firepower saves the day.

Firepower - Syracuse University - Ryan Milcarek Firepower is a novel fuel cell-assisted, resilient heating and power technology derived from Syracuse University. Dr. Jeongmin Ahn, director of the Combustion and Energy Research Lab, originally developed part of the concept with his colleague Dr. Khalifa. It’s a way to create a self-powered, grid-independent and self-contained furnace made possible by having a fuel cell that operates directly in a flame.

“This is completely different than anything else in the industry. We’re addressing a problem that furnace manufacturers have never been able to address before.” said Ryan Milcarek, Entrepreneur Lead of Firepower. “Using this technology, your furnace generates heat and electricity enabling it to power itself and give homeowners a choice of what else to power.”

Ryan was working with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Industrial Assessment Center program and interested in HVAC. When he came across the patent at Syracuse University, he liked the idea of a furnace and a fuel cell, so he decided to do his PhD on the technology.

“Heat is a need, and we need power for that heat. But when the power goes out, we have no heat,” explained Milcarek. “Last winter when my power went out and I had a 10-month-old in the house, I was concerned.”

After graduating, Ryan stayed with the project because he believes in its commercial potential. In addition to providing an alternative source of power, Ryan says the technology is a  low-cost system that reduces NOx emissions and saves energy. “In all, Firepower is tackling a $1.8 billion industry,” he added.

Firepower has also received a significant amount of funding to take its early-stage technology and do something with it. This includes an AMTEC grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, and a NYSERDA PON 2606 for single cell testing. NEXUS-NY and the Syracuse Center of Excellence have further supported Firepower, and Ryan was the recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Syracuse University’s tech transfer office is now working with Ryan to help the Firepower team license the technology so they can form a company and further accelerate their commercialization efforts. The NYS Science and Technology Law Center at Syracuse University is also assisting with IP and market assessment

With a nondisclosure agreement already in place with a large component manufacturer that is ready to sell their technology, Ryan says the next step is for Firepower to develop an actual furnace. “We already have a working prototype, now we need to prove the electrical efficiency, and test some materials.”

Ryan believes Firepower is two years away from commercialization.

Opening a new market with affordable, flexible and lightweight solar panels.

Lux Semiconductors - SUNY PolyFounded by two PhD students in their research lab at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, Lux Semiconductors is drastically reducing the cost of lightweight and flexible solar cells.

Shane McMahon and Graeme Housser met while working in the same research group, one dedicated to clean energy technologies. Familiar with thin film solar, the two partnered together to combine their technical and industry knowledge to create a high quality product not found on the market today.

“The solar industry is growing at an average rate of 60% year over year, and all of this growth is based on standard silicon solar panels. These panels are great, but they can’t be installed everywhere that people want to put them, because of their shape and weight,” said Graeme. “So we are developing a new technology to produce lightweight, flexible solar cells, and importantly without sacrificing performance or affordability.”

Having interviewed over 60 potential customers in Phase 1 of the NEXUS-NY program about their flexible and lightweight solar cells, Shane and Graeme feel confident they’re on the right track.

“Ensuring that our technology has product-market fit is what the customer discovery process is all about. Through constant interaction with potential customers, we’ve been able to identify new ways to direct the development of our technology that will deliver the most value to our future customers,” said Shane.

“We were a little naive when we first started, we wanted to take on the entire solar industry,” added Graeme. “We quickly learned that we need to focus on a niche application first, and then scale from there.”

Shane and Graeme have found three major markets in the solar industry that Lux Semiconductors could target. The first is portable power applications, where solar packs are used for extended military deployments, emergency responders, and outdoor enthusiasts. The second is building and vehicle-integrated solar panels, such as awnings, solar canopies, carports, trucks with overnight cabins, small boats, and RVs. And the third is commercial and industrial weight-constrained rooftops, where nearly 40% of all malls, big-box retailers, and industrial warehouses across the U.S. have weight-constrained roofs.

“Portable power looks like a solid entry market. It’s lower scale with high margins, but not as big as integrated buildings or industrial rooftops,” said Graeme. “It’s our plan to scale up to those other larger markets over time.”

Now accepted into NEXUS-NY Phase 2, Lux Semiconductors will focus on creating high quality,  thin film substrates that are used as the underlying materials for solar cells.

“We are planning to purchase additional equipment to fabricate our unique substrate materials, which we expect to be nearly 100 times cheaper per unit area than today’s industry standard wafer version,” said Shane.

Lux Semiconductors already has several partners who are interested in testing their samples in their devices.

Quick and easy assembly of small LED chips into a grid array.

SelfArray - RPI - Mark DurniakSelfArray’s novel system utilizes diamagnetic levitation for the self assembly of LED’s for displays. This assembly process is not only quick and easy, it helps enable digital billboards, which are more energy efficiency, brighter, and with higher contrast.

SelfArray was developed by electrical engineering professor James Lu in the Lighting Enabled Systems & Applications (LESA) Engineering Research Center at RPI. The company was incorporated in 2015, and after receiving NSF SBIR funding last year, Dr. Mark Durniak was added to the team as a full-time principal engineer.

“Dr. Lu had been following my research. So when I graduated we connected about bringing his technology to market,” said Mark.

SelfArray CEO Clint Ballinger heard about NEXUS-NY during an information session at RPI. The team has spent the last several months working on customer discovery and prototyping.

“Originally developed for lighting panels, we learned through market research that, though our technology could deliver very high resolution for TV sized displays, competing with the LCD market wouldn’t be wise, said Mark. “We now believe the technology is better suited for large-scale indoor digital displays.”

SelfArray is on track to complete Phase 1 of their National Science Foundation (NSF) deliverable, which includes a low resolution display. Mark said this is a good first step, but the industry wants to see something more in line with products today.

“When you walk into the Apple store you see a 1mm pitch display in the back,” explained Mark. “With our novel system utilizing diamagnetic levitation, we can assembly those large displays in minutes rather than weeks.”

SelfArray’s go to market strategy involves selling directly to top display makers. They are now working with an LED supplier to join forces with a display maker and further test their technology. Mark anticipates the company will be generating revenue as early as 2018, with a product launch scheduled for 2019.

With funding from NEXUS-NY Phase 2, SelfArray will push forward with these objectives. They are also seeking to raise an additional $1 million from individual investors.

Several Other Teams Move Forward to NEXUS-NY Phase 2

Among them include:

Active Energy Systems (Cornell University)
Thermo-mechanical energy storage system for data centers. AES utilizes waste heat and phase change materials to enable high round trip efficiencies at low cost.

Printed Photovoltaics (Rochester Institute of Technology)
Lightweight, moldable, printed solar cells for indoor applications. Printed PV enables extended life of wireless IoT devices.

Sunny Clean Water (University at Buffalo)
Nanomaterial and system that enables rapid water evaporation for two key applications: water desalination and purification; and increased throughput of salt recovery in mines.

Continue to follow the progress of these passionate inventors and entrepreneurs. Sign up for NEXUS-NY newsletters to receive special invites to industry events, including Demo Day this fall in Rochester, NY.

Dimensional Energy Wins 2017 Venture Showcase

Dimensional Energy takes first place at CU Energy Symposium Venture Forum pitch event in the early-stage category

It’s 4 a.m. and Jason Salfi is behind the wheel en route to NYC to participate in Columbia University’s Energy Symposium. The event featured early and mid-stage companies, including Dimensional Energy, a Cornell research-derived startup that Jason serves as CEO.

“It was a fun day of adventure,” said Jason. “Filled with solid speakers and impressive pitches.”

Dimensional Energy has created an artificial photosynthesis process that converts waste carbon dioxide from power plant emissions into useful fuels and feedstocks of high values. Jason says, think of the process as operating a horizontal chimney:

“We’re creating a platform technology that will allow companies to divert large scale emissions from going into the atmosphere, utilizing what would otherwise be waste (CO2 and other GHGs) by running them through our reactor.”

Dimensional Energy will use the prize money from the Energy Symposium Venture Forum for fundraising related travel, and advanced graphics to best represent how their technology works. Jason says this is part of their big picture communications strategy.

Fully understanding customer requirements

Jason believes Dimension Energy stood out at the Energy Symposium because their technology is a bigger picture look at an untapped opportunity, whereas a lot of other pitches were early-stage, with many assumptions based on how they were going to take over the respective markets.

“Our pitch was more generalized. It laid out an open roadmap for how we’re going to go to market, who we’re talking to, and how a decision process is going to be formalized,” said Jason.

Most importantly, Jason shared how Dimensional Energy fits into the plans of a much bigger industry. These factors (market size and growth potential) echo what each team learns during the NEXUS-NY discovery process.

The power of a solid team

Jason credits the early success of Dimensional Energy to a core team of experts from different disciplines that bring together two departments of Cornell University and fellow NEXUS peer Clayton Poppe.

In 2016, NEXUS-NY piloted a new way to test the commercial potential of university research. David Erickson, Associate Professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell, paired his technology with that of Tobias Hanrath, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

These principal inventors, along with a diverse team of scientists, entrepreneurs and MBA students from the Johnson Business School at Cornell, have proven the experiment successful.

Learn More: NEXUS-NY Pilots New University Research Opportunity

The ability to capture resources can make or break your startup

In a podcast produced by the New York Academy of Sciences, NEXUS-NY Executive Director Doug Buerkle said, “The thing that differentiates a successful startup from a failed startup is the ability to capture resources….and the way you get resources is if you’re able to tell your story in a compelling way.”

Dimensional Energy first captured the attention of Columbia Energy Symposium organizers during NEXUS-NY’s Demo Day in NYC last year. Jason believes it’s these kind of networking opportunities made possible by NEXUS-NY that are positioning Dimensional Energy front and center of this budding industry.

“The feedback from the judges at the Energy Symposium was positive. They could understand what Dimensional Energy was doing at a higher level,” added Jason. “Our presentation was relatable. It included slides with key takeaways and 40-point font. NEXUS-NY helped shape the way we communicate our technology, and we’ve had success as a result.”

Jason says over the last several months his team has been introduced to a whole new slew of industry partners ranging in size from small researchers from across U.S. and Canada, to corporations like Shell. “NEXUS-NY was the catalyst to getting a broad introduction to these resources, as well as assisting us gain an understanding of the carbon dioxide utilization market, and the needs to be met.”

Dimensional Energy preps for round 3 of Carbon XPrize Competition

Around the time NEXUS-NY’s 2016 accelerator was ending, Dimensional Energy started engaging deeper with the XPRIZE Foundation, which hosts a competition that awards $20 million to the team that designs the best solution for converting carbon into something that can be sold to offset the cost to capture it.

Having already moved into phase two, Jason says the team is currently building a Highlight Reactor as they prepare to compete in the next and final round of the Carbon XPrize Competition. Jason says the prototype will be available soon to test in the lab with a simulator.

“Through a partnership with Cornell’s Combined Heat and Power (CHP) Plant, a 30 mw facility, we’ll pipe emissions into our reactor and see what we get out the other end.”

Dimensional Energy will continue to refine their prototype, and have the results validated by a third party standards XPrize team. This process will determine if Dimensional Energy moves forward to round three, and unlocks $500,000 in funding.

“If we can scale quickly enough and prove out the efficiency of our reactor, it will make sense and align with industry partners to raise the money for the installation,” added Jason.

In total, the XPrize Competition will award $20 million in prize money, with the two winning teams each receiving $7.5 million.

Watch Dimensional Energy’s Promotion Video

Stay current on NEXUS-NY portfolio companies, our 2017 teams, industry events and more. Sign up for NEXUS-NY newsletters.

NEXUS-NY Portfolio Companies Raise Millions in Funding

NEXUS-NY portfolio companies continue to attract attention after graduating our clean energy proof-of-concept accelerator.

These clean energy companies have ventured on to raise millions in funding. We caught up with a few of our talented founders to get the latest on their successes.

Molecular Glasses closes $200,000 seed round; Wins 2nd grant from the Department of Energy for OLED testing 

2016 was a big year for Molecular Glasses Founder, Mike Molaire. His team moved into the Eastman Business Park and incorporated their business, which develops organic light-emitting diode (OLED) materials that work like semiconductors. These materials can be used to manufacture lower-cost and higher-performance TVs, smartphones, tablets and lighting devices.

While participating in the NEXUS-NY accelerator Mike began discussing funding opportunities with Rochester-based venture capital firm, Excell Partners. At the end of the program, executives at Excell expressed an interest in working with Molecular Glasses, and began the due diligence process.

Mike’s goal was to raise $400,000. With Excell’s investment requiring 50% matching from other investors, Mike first had to raise $200,000 from individual investors, friends and family. Excell recently started a new MWBE fund sponsored by NY state to support women and minority-owned businesses. Eligibility for that fund requires MWBE certification.

“With Excell’s assistance, we were able to complete this process successfully,” said Molaire. “At the end of December 2016 we secured a $100,000 match and were able to close on the first $200,000. We are now working toward closing the next $200,000 by the end of March. We have a $50,000 match already committed.”

Molecular Glasses will use its first round of seed funding to support patent activities and manage day-to-day operations. Currently, Molecular Glasses has five pending U.S. and twelve international patent applications. Mike says this is an important part of the company’s strategy.

“Our IP is very strong, and needs to be protected both nationally and internationally,” he added. Most of the people we are dealing with in this space are international companies from the far east, Europe, Japan and China. It’s important we maintain our patents.”

Last year Molecular Glasses was also awarded a grant from the Department of Energy, which helped the company fund its benchmark work. OLEDWorks in Rochester produced the 90 OLED devices under contract with the DOE. Mike says having his materials tested in a DOE certified laboratory provided credibility to the benchmark results, specifically 6 to 15x improvement in device lifetime.

“We took full advantage of this resource,” said Molaire. “We’re now working with OLED chemical suppliers, device manufacturers and independent nonprofit centers in Europe and Asia under nondisclosure agreements to continue this process.”

Mike continues to explore various grant options that will assist in the development of the technology. He says it will be exciting to supply these companies with samples so they can conduct their own tests using his materials. Mike believes this process to will be completed within the next 3-4 months.

American Fuel Cell Closes First Seed Round

Together with the support of High Tech Rochester, Excell Partners and independent investors from the Finger Lakes region, American Fuel Cell has closed its first seed round.

American Fuel Cell (AFC) is a premier supplier of individually tailored Membrane electrode Assemblies (MEA) for multiple Fuel Cell Applications. Through uniquely tailored chemical formulations, system level optimization expertise and high speed, thin film manufacturing machinery, AFC is producing high quality, low cost MEAs specific to any fuel cell application.

AFC Cofounder and CEO Dan O’Connell says the seed funding will be used to bring on additional resources and gear up for volume production. This includes acquiring new capital assets and purchase of raw materials. AFC is also looking for Process and Quality engineering talent, as well as those skilled at final assembly.

“The support American Fuel Cell is getting from the area is amazing. Between High Tech Rochester, Excell Partners, Greater Rochester Enterprise, NYSERDA, M&T Bank, Pathstone, SUNY Alfred State and RIT, we’re leveraging academia, industry, and state resources to expand our industry connections and take huge strides in extending our testing capability,” said O’Connell. “We consider ourselves very fortunate to be tapped into the local startup scene and bringing R&D/Manufacturing jobs back to NY state.”

In addition to closing this seed round, AFC has numerous funding opportunities in the pipeline that will accelerate research into the next generation MEA technology.

Ecolectro wins $150,000 with the Grants for Growth initiative 

Gabriel Rodriguez-Calero first heard about Grants for Growth from the Cornell network. As a co-Founder and CEO of Ecolectro, his mission is to advance his business by putting Ecolectro’s materials into the hands of customers early on in the material design process.

“Before applying to a funding source, I like to learn more about the objectives of each program,” explained Rodriguez-Calero. “If there are milestones associated with the program, if the funds can be used for manufacturing and business development, and how the funding can help Ecolectro reach more clients and potential customers.”

Gabriel says Grants for Growth was a perfect fit for what he’s aiming to accomplish. Ecolectro has developed structurally robust and highly conductive polymer membranes for a large range of applications, including hydrogen generators and fuel cell systems. Having already received $12,500 from the Grants for Growth program, Ecolectro was able to do material characterization and better understand the physical properties of their materials. The research also allowed the Ecolectro team to fine tune their value proposition for potential clients. Ecolectro has now moved on to Track 2 of the Grants for Growth program.

“We get a certain amount first, and as we hit milestones we unlock additional amounts of funding,” added Rodriguez-Calero.

In 2017, Ecolectro is busy making materials and doing evaluation work with customers, as well as reaching out to more clients. This process involves talking to clients and finding more potential synergy with system integrators that can use Ecolecto’s materials in their devices.

Ecolectro has recently opened an investment round. The team remains busy shipping samples and working through collaborative efforts with customers. Gabriel says Ecolectro is receiving a lot of customer interest.

“I love doing this. It’s pretty great,” he said. “I came to the university (Cornell) to work on things that had applications beyond pure research. That’s exactly what we are doing at Ecolectro!”

Other NEXUS-NY portfolio companies making big strides include:

  • Lionano recently closed its Series A;
  • Micatu won $1 million in the 76West Clean Competition, and ChromaNanoTech received a $250,000 prize;
  • Conamix received seed funding from Excell Partners, with the help of High Tech Rochester;
  • AMBIS Technologies partnered with CASE-RPI and the Mmofra Foundation in Ghana for a pilot testbed project;
  • And Dimensional Energy took home first place at Columbia University’s Energy Symposium 2017 Venture Showcase

Since the start of our clean energy accelerator, NEXUS-NY has worked with 30 participants, engagements from which 18 startup companies have been formed. With our help, numerous university licenses have been received, and each of the NEXUS-NY portfolio companies have completed, or are in the process of completing, successful pilot/customer evaluations.

We’re now working with 9 new NEXUS-NY portfolio companies in our 2017 cohort. Here’s a look at the next generation clean energy talent from across New York.

Stay updated on clean energy news, events and funding opportunities. Sign up for NEXUS-NY newsletters. You can also follow us on Twitter and LinkedIN.