HTR Demo Day Featured NEXUS-NY’s AMBIS Technologies and American Fuel Cell
A premier showcase of entrepreneurial talent, ten startups shared company successes and stories about how High Tech Rochester programs helped advance their success.
Innovate. Incubate. Grow. Helping Entrepreneurs Build Successful Companies
High Tech Rochester (HTR) is a nonprofit whose mission is to catalyze entrepreneurship and innovation-based economic development throughout the Finger Lakes region.
During the HTR Demo Day 2016, a handful of promising startups associated with High Tech Rochester showed of their services and products to an auditorium of ecosystem supporters at Hatch Recital Hall at the Eastman School of Music. In his introductory remarks, Jim Senall, President of High Tech Rochester, said HTR and its affiliate programs have assisted over 850 startups and small manufacturing firms over the past five years.
“We know that startups and new businesses are what really create the most net new jobs in our country, so we know that to create jobs longer term you should be creating more startup companies in the shorter term,” said Senall.
Senall continued to say, while startups aren’t always visible to the public, there are many good things happening within our community and at HTR.
HTR provides a full suite of services, including technology commercialization for very early stage companies, business incubation for high growth potential startups and growth services for existing manufacturing companies seeking to improve their top and bottom line performance.
“High Tech Rochester helps bring many of the innovations that come out of the area universities from the inventive mind of our community,” said Mike Riedlinger, HTR Program Manager of Technology Commercialization. “So based on their ideas and their views of things that could be, we can help them craft new business opportunities that really enrich all of the economy for the area.
One of the standout programs under the HTR umbrella is the NEXUS-NY clean energy proof-of-concept center lead by Doug Buerkle.
Buerkle explained how the audience had a chance to hear from two NEXUS-NY graduates. Both AMBIS CEO Mae-ling Lokko and American Fuel Cell CEO, Dan O’Connell presented updates. Buerkle said both are doing very well.
“The goal of NEXUS-NY is for companies to demonstrate that their technology works, that they also sort out their business models and that they work towards 3rd party validation. In Dan’s case he has attracted an MOU (memorandum of understanding) from a leading customer. His samples are in that customer’s hand and they are currently testing them, so we are hoping he’s going to have a large purchase order here in the next few months,” added Buerkle. “Mae-ling is also doing fantastic. She announced today that she has installed her system in a leading architecture firm in NYC, and her first commercial customer in Ghana is placing orders and starting to build those units.”
AMBIS Technologies Pivots to High Premium Product
AMBIS s a building technology company that upcycles materials from agriculture in order to condition our air. The startup does this by leveraging one of the world’s most underutilized material resources – waste from the bio industry.
AMBIS Technologies CEO Mae-ling Lokko explained during High Tech Rochester Demo Day that today’s building consume 40% of all our world’s energy – ahead of transport and industry. These buildings spend over half of that energy to condition air. This means that 20% of all our energy goes into heating, cooling, drying and pumping air through hundreds of miles within our buildings. Using AMBIS Technologies’ building panels and systems, air is dehumidified and filtered de-centrally, providing a more elegant and more energy efficient solution.
Since graduating from the HTR NEXUS-NY program, Lokko announced, “AMBIS Technologies has pivoted from a commodity fiberboard product into a high value premium product that is able to offer air mediation, acoustic performance, and all the while looking pretty cool.”
She continued to explain how the NEXUS program became a critical platform for her company to identify partners and tap into the extensive mentorship and business expertise of the program, which have all added to a strong foundation for her company to grow and pivot many times. By maintaining these relationships after graduating from NEXUS-NY, AMBIS continues to develop, eliminating a lot of potential materials and applications, as well as sharpening their value proposition.
“Today our business model reflects the strength of the Upstate New York ecosystem that we built and accessed through NEXUS,” said Lokko. “Over the next year, AMBIS looks to raise about $250,000 to build a prototype for our base catalogue, and deploy within critical building testbeds throughout the world in order to demonstrate our value proposition – all the while doing so with beautiful clean materials that can impact building energy consumption.”
The AMBIS team has also continued to grow. Nina Wilson recently came onboard as a co-founder and CTO of the Troy, NY-based startup.
“What we’re really looking to do at this stage is to embed maximum performance into panels and approach a distributed modular all-in-one system framework through which to employ technology transfer and really increase the value proposition for the building systems,” added Wilson.
In addition to installing a 100 sq ft wall packing system at CASE in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Office in New York City with funding from High Tech Rochester’s NEXUS program, this August AMBIS will deploy their system in a testbed in Ghana. Working with the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Architecture, Science and Ecology (CASE) in conjunction with ongoing work with a leading private foundation, this testbed aims to test the system’s air remediation performance within a Net Zero testbed. AMBIS has also secured project with a first client, and the team is deploying their systems in commercial, high-end luxury applications in early 2017.
“We really wish to thank Doug Buerkle, Allison Yacci and Mike Riedlinger, as well as Jim Senall and the High Tech Rochester team who have opened up their extensive network over the past year and half. They helped us realize the first of many steps in fulfilling our company’s mission,” said Lokko.
Harnessing Local Resources to Make Rochester the MEA Manufacturer of the World
American Fuel Cell is the premier supplier of individually tailored Membrane Electrodes Assemblies (MEA) for multiple fuel cell applications. Noted for bringing high tech fuel cell jobs to Rochester, NY, the clean energy startup aims to power the future by creating cheaper, more efficient and more practical cells.
“How a fuel cell works is pretty simple,” explained American Fuel Cell CEO Daniel O’Connell. “As long as you have hydrogen on one side of the membrane and you have air, which is oxygen, on the other side, it makes clean, efficient electricity, and that’s a really good thing. When you make that electricity the only byproduct is heat and water. So our goal is to bring fuel cell jobs to Rochester leveraging local resources.”
O’Connell and American Fuel Cell co-founder David Wetter, both worked at General Motors’ Honeoye Falls fuel cell vehicle lab until GM moved its fuel cell research work to its Michigan powertrain facility. O’Connell shared at HTR Demo Day that when GM closed its research facility, they thought a majority of the people who were working there would move to Michigan.
“What they didn’t understand is that Rochester is a great place to live and work, and we have great quality of life here. So it turns out that only a small percentage of those people decided to move to Michigan, said O’Connell. “What that means is we have a wealth of fuel cell expertise, a supplier network, and some really excellent resources right here in Rochester. To me that’s an amazing opportunity for all those resources to be utilized.”
It’s for these reasons both O’Connell and Wetter committed to staying in the Finger Lakes region and now operate American Fuel Cell out of the Kodak Eastman Business Park to best leverage local fuel cell resources to grow their company and create high paying technology jobs in the Rochester area.
“We graduated from the NEXUS program where we really learned how to become a business,” said O’Connell. “We started out as a couple of guys with a great idea, and ended up as a company with nearly a dozen folks working for us getting ready to go into volume manufacturing at the Kodak Eastman Business Park,” said O’Connell.
American Fuel Cell is focused on two markets – mobility (forklifts), and backup cell tower applications. According to O’Connell, this market is expected to double within the next two years to $375m. O’Connell said American Fuel Cell is making great progress and wants a piece of that pie. Already the startup has sold parts to the navy, and they have secured an MOU with their first big customer for thousands of units. Due to this activity, American Fuel Cell is ramping up production to make these units within the November timeframe, and they are looking to add more staff to their team in order to ensure success.
“We couldn’t have made this progress alone. From the NEXUS-NY program we did some outreach to our customers and they were consistent in their message. They told us we needed to get the cost down of the membrane electrode assemblies inside the fuel cell. So that’s our product, and that’s what we’re focused on,” explained O’Connell.
Today, American Fuel Cell has a sellable product with a proprietary “secret sauce” formulation, and low cost manufacturing utilizing the thin film roll coating capability at Kodak. This product is not only ready for the forklift and backup cell tower application markets, but also puts American Fuel Cell in position to enter into the “other electric vehicle” market.
O’Connell says right now there is a lot of focus being placed on battery operated vehicles, including where they’re headed and how that market is going to expand. But he tells us that the fuel cell vehicle industry is also something to watch. Toyota is already in production with a fuel cell vehicle, which makes clean, efficient energy. O’Connell says fuel cell vehicles have some advantages because they have a fast refill time and extended range compared to a battery vehicle.
O’Connell closed his High Tech Rochester Demo Day presentation by telling a “what if” story:
“There were 85 million vehicles sold last year in the world. What if just a little over 1% of those vehicles turn out to be fuel cell vehicles. That’s 1 million fuel cell vehicles a year. Each fuel cell vehicle uses around 350 membrane electrode assemblies. Do the math, and that comes out to a million MEAs a day! So I ask you, why wouldn’t we want to manufacture those MEAs here in Rochester? Why wouldn’t American Fuel Cell want to go after that market? And why wouldn’t we leverage the Kodak equipment to make Rochester the MEA manufacturing capital of the world?”
By working with NYSERDA, American Fuel Cell received a grant to help ramp up its production. The company has also acquired great resources with the NEXUS-NY program to build strong relationships with RIT, Cornell and SUNY Alfred State for some of their testing. The company is now looking to raise enough money to complete existing orders and prepare themselves, and Rochester, to power the future.
What’s Next for High Tech Rochester?
With a new innovation district forming in downtown Rochester, Jim Senall said he’s excited about High Tech Rochester being the anchor.
By 2017, Senall said HTR will have a new downtown accelerator at the Sibley building, which is being redeveloped as a mixed-use facility. RIT Center of Urban Entrepreneurship is next door, and multiple other buildings within that close geography will support the lifestyle that new entrepreneurs want to have.
In the interim, HTR will be opening up its own temporary space in downtown Rochester this Fall. HTR is looking for some pioneers – entrepreneurs in the community that want to help build an amazing facility in downtown. HTR has a $3 million capital campaign to raise for the cause. The fundraising is underway with about $1.5 million raised already.
Senall requests that if you’ve had success and you want to give back either as a mentor or supporter, to contact High Tech Rochester on how you can get more involved.