NEXUS-NY Blog


Overcoming Hurdles On the Track of a Clean Energy Future

Survey of top 25 U.S. research universities uncovers missing links in technology transfer process

With $70 billion spent and approximately half of U.S. basic and applied research taking place at US research universities, one might guess that the inventors and founders have the necessary resources to succeed. But a recent survey conducted by NEXUS-NY’s clean energy proof-of-concept center reveals that this is not the case.

“We surveyed the top 25 research universities in the U.S. and found there is limited to no available proof-of-concept funding, a lack of business and entrepreneurial expertise, and poor understanding of customer-solution fit,” says Doug Buerkle, Executive Director of NEXUS-NY.

By answering if the technology can be translated into a product that solves a compelling problem, proving the technology works, and helping companies acquire a customer base to validate business interest, NEXUS-NY aims to help scientific founders overcome these hurdles.

“We’ve found it doesn’t take a lot of money to move the needle for a given tech when it accompanies the structure and support provided by NEXUS-NY. People are the key, and customer engagement can’t start too early. But it can be harmful if done improperly,” added Buerkle.

For the past three years NEXUS-NY has been focused on providing the money and resources to catalyze the commercialization of clean energy innovations discovered by New York researchers. In that time, the clean energy seed accelerator has helped form 18 companies; half of which have gone on to raise $16.4 million in additional funding. Four NEXUS-NY graduates have also achieved some initial customer revenue.

3 NEXUS-NY graduates speak about the obstacles of research-derived tech transfer in Upstate NY

During a panel discussion hosted by the Inaugural Licensing Executives Society (LES) Western New York Chapter, three cofounders of NEXUS-NY portfolio companies shared the unique challenges associated with commercializing research-derived innovations. The discussion included how these founders have pushed forward, and explored suggestions as to how regional communities can work more effectively to overcome existing hurdles.

Be transparent throughout the university tech transfer process

Dr. Ryne Raffaelle is the VP of Research at the Rochester Institute of Technology and cofounder of Cellec Technologies.

Cellec Technologies uses patented carbon nanotube (CNT) technologies to increase the performance of high-end lithium ion batteries by 40% for defense and intelligence applications.

Given his position as VP of Research with RIT, spinning out a company that he would be associated with would probably set a new record in terms of possible of conflict of interests.

A core challenge for us was Cellec’s collaboration with RIT’s Battery Prototyping Center. Although this state funded center exists to support the emerging battery industry, it falls within my organizational responsibilities at the university. There was only one way to avoid conflict of interest – tell everyone, and make sure there is plenty of independent oversight,” says Dr. Raffaelle.

In addition to startup founders working with their university, Ryne also suggests working together as a region. RIT has been an NSF I-Corps site for many years, having recently teamed up with Cornell and the University of Rochester on a successful NSF I-Corps node proposal. This new node will provide another resource for scientists who hope to develop technologies, products and processes that benefit society. Ryne believes getting involved with collaborative programs like I-Corps is a great way to harness resources from outside a founder’s university and learn from others.

Universities can help the transition by waiting for profitability

Dr. Jon Owejan is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at SUNY Alfred State and the cofounder of Phase Innovations.

Phase Innovations is developing a low-cost, advanced air conditioning system without chemical refrigerants, and which uses less energy than conventional systems.

Jon feels, to help catalyze commercialization of research startups, universities should treat tech transfer as licensing agreements that don’t kick in until the company is making money.

“Inventors of research-based technology are highly trained individuals. They could go elsewhere and make significant salaries. Instead they are committed to building something, and that commitment should be valued as part of a partnership with the universities,” says Dr. Owejan.

Jon recognizes that universities are not nonprofits, and just as they charge other companies and government agencies to use their facilities, founders should be prepared to negotiate a percentage of their business as part of this process.

Funding people is the key to moving technology forward

Dr. Gabriel Rodríguez-Calero is the cofounder of Ecolectro, a polymer company derived from Cornell University.

Ecolectro has developed structurally robust and highly conductive polymer membranes for a range of applications, including electrolysis and fuel cell systems, which are produced for less cost and promise double durability.

After finishing his PhD, Gabriel decided to start a company based on a polymer technology developed at the Energy Materials Center at Cornell University. During this time he began postdoc research at a half time capacity, until he realized the full scope of challenges in growing a business.

“I needed to be full time to find ways to move the business quickly, and to find a ready supply of resources. This includes having the necessary funds to produce enough product samples to meet market demands and pay partners – but even so, these funds are often available for technology development, not for people,” says Dr. Rodríguez-Calero.

Nasir Ali is the cofounder of nonprofit Upstate Venture Connect and an angel investor with the Seed Capital Fund of CNY. He says while certain grants may only focus on funding the technology, venture capitalists and investors will fund an inventor’s salary because they are investing in people. “What percentage of your raise goes into having a roof over a founder’s head is directly related to being able to develop the product to the next level,” says Ali.

NEXUS-NY prepares for another year of taking university research to market

Interviews are being conducted for NEXUS-NY’s 2017 Cohort, and participants will be announced soon. Sign up for NEXUS-NY newsletters to stay informed on the latest clean energy technologies in Upstate NY, solving big problems for real customers.

Two NEXUS-NY Graduates Win 76West Clean Energy Competition

Micatu Inc (NEXUS-NY Cohort 1) received the $1 million grand prize in the 76West Clean Energy Competition. Six winners out of 175 applicants were awarded funding to help develop clean energy technologies, grow their businesses, create jobs and advance New York’s clean energy economy.

Micatu makes an optical sensor that gives highly accurate voltage readings so utilities can reduce energy use, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. CEO Michael Oshetski says this is a win for the entire region as Micatu plans to create more high-paying jobs for Upstate NY.
ChromaNanoTech Wins 76West Clean Energy CompetitionChromaNanoTech (NEXUS-NY Cohort 2) was awarded a $250,000 prize. Based in Binghamton, NY with research derived from Binghamton University, ChromaNanoTech produces a dye that keeps windows transparent, but blocks ultraviolet radiation so buildings stay cooler and air conditioning loads are reduced. Dr. Bill Bernier accepted the prize on behalf of his team.

Other clean energy startups who won prizes include Charge CCV (C4V), Besstech, DatArcs and Global Thermostat.

Applications for 76West Round 2 are open. The deadline to apply is March 13, 2017.

 

Ducted Turbines International – Producing Twice the Energy of Traditional Wind Turbines

As part of the NEXUS-NY clean energy accelerator, university researchers and pre-revenue clean energy businesses have been working towards commercializing their novel technologies. Backed by education, finances and business support provided by the NEXUS-NY program, Ducted Turbines International (DTI) found a solution that reduces the time it currently takes to return the high capital cost investment of existing small wind technologies.

Ducted Turbines InternationalCompany: Ducted Turbines International

Website: ductedturbinesinternational.com

Description: Ducted Turbines International (DTI) is a wind turbine company working to provide the lowest cost per kWh in the small turbine market (<10kW). Its wind turbine encompasses two patent pending technologies and produces twice the energy of an open bladed, traditional wind turbine of the same diameter. This solution reduces the payback period by half the time, and provides customers with a quality product designed to last more than 10 years in the field.

Location: Clarkson University | Potsdam, NY

Founding Team: Dr. Ken Visser (President and CEO, Founder); Paul Pavone (VP Product Commercialization, Founder)

NEXUS-NY Research: Thanks to the NEXUS-NY program, DTI made great technical progress on their technology and towards commercialization. Their optimized ducted wind turbine uses a specially designed aft rotor systems to accelerate the wind and increase the power output of the turbine rotor.

DTI’s first key technology is in the rotor design, which creates a proper twist of the blade to perform more efficiently than an open blade rotor in the presence of a duct. DTI’s second key technology lies in the rotor location. Ducted turbines have traditionally placed the rotor at the throat of the duct, the location of the highest velocity. DTI discovered that if the rotor is moved farther into the duct, the power output of the turbine increases dramatically.

Based on these patent pending technologies, DTI plans to concentrate on microgrids and backup tower systems for critical facilities on a smaller scale.

“Our customer discovery confirmed that it is the cost per kWh is a key driver in the business. Our approach will allow customers to generate more energy per unit cost. Our target is to cut the ROI for their money by half”, says Ken Visser.

DTI also made exciting connections with industry experts including NEXUS-NY advisor David Dussault of P1 Industries, who manufactured the turbine blades for their prototype. And they partnered with the NYS Science and Technology Law Center at Syracuse University to handle their IP landscape as they look to patent their technology.

“The small wind wind turbine market is set to expand tremendously. 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 an optimized integrated design approach. The rotor blades and duct need to be designed synergistically. It’s not easy, but it is doable.  This will then open up more markets by enabling increase energy harvesting at even lower wind speeds, reducing one’s overall costs,” added Visser.

Next Steps: After graduating the NEXUS-NY clean energy accelerator, Ducted Turbines International has recently completed a series of very successful wind tunnel tests at the University of Waterloo in Canada. This turbine test rig provided the data needed to validate the Computation Fluid Dynamic (CFD) modeling. DTI will soon be releasing the results of these tests, which will help them move forward to commercialization. DTI is also pursuing a NYSERDA ACE grant for alternative energies. This grant could yield up to $1 million in funding over three years.

Contact: 315.268.7687 | kvisser@clarkson.edu

Phase Innovations – Advanced, Low Cost Air Conditioning System

Over the past year, several university researchers and pre-revenue companies have been working diligently with NEXUS-NY to accelerate the commercialization of their early-stage, clean-energy technologies. Now with the educational, financial and business support of the NEXUS-NY clean energy seed accelerator, Phase Innovations will continue commercializing their membrane heat pump (MHP) technology. Researchers with Phase Innovations have worked to test many different materials and designs for the development of their advanced prototype. These materials are showing improved performance and cost, and their air conditioning technology has been identified as very promising by the Department of Energy.

Phase Innovations - SUNY AlfredCompany: Phase Innovations

Website: phaseinnovations.com

Description: Phase Innovations is developing a low-cost, advanced air conditioning system without chemical refrigerants that uses less energy than conventional systems. The company’s technology is based on water permeable membrane modules that enable precise control of temperature and humidity in any climate. Capacity is easily scaled between residential and commercial applications. The unique, patent pending design offers customers the option to use low temperature waste heat, as opposed to electricity to drive the cooling process. The two-ton cooling module for Phase Innovation’s initial customer validation prototype is anticipated to occupy a footprint of about one cubic meter.

Location: SUNY Alfred State, 10 Upper College Dr, Alfred, NY 14802

Founding Team: Nathan DeMario, Cofounder; Matt Lawrence, Cofounder; Jon Owejan, Cofounder; Tanya Waite; Business Advisor; Steve Wood, IP Advisor

NEXUS-NY Research: Like most other teams, Phase Innovations consists primarily of technical people with backgrounds in research, engineering, and design. This experience is an exercise of technology transfer – a process that involves not only technical expertise, but also requires business acumen and clear communication with the many different parties to bring the technology to market.

It has been challenging, but developing these skills makes us all much better at what we do. As one of our team members says, ‘What is the point of research if we don’t find a way to make breakthroughs like this available to everyone?’ This experience has tremendous benefit to all involved, and without this opportunity, many technologies, like those developed through the NEXUS NY program, are destined to live only in a lab or journal article. – Jon Owejan, Cofounder, Phase Innovations

Phase Innovations: Cofounders Nathan DeMario and Jon OwejanNext Steps: After graduating the NEXUS-NY clean energy accelerator, Phase Innovations will move forward with product validation and market development.

“Product validation is, obviously, the most exciting thing for a new company like ours,” says Owejan. “To see something go from the idea stage to the prototype stage is very satisfying.”

Additionally, validation and optimization are well suited to the skill set of the Phase Innovations’ technical team, whereas Jon says market development, however, is new to most of the team.

“The customer discovery process helped us establish dialog with many interested parties, so we have a very clear picture of customer expectations. But as you might expect, we are apprehensive of getting the product out to customers.  Will they like it?  Will it truly be the answer for a persistent customer problem?  We won’t know until we actually install the system at a customer’s business.  It’s going to be a very exciting next few months,” says Owejan.

Contact: 585.905.8140 | jowejan@phaseinnovations.com