Networking opens new doors for Commercialization Fellow
Written by Bonnie Sanborn, Communications Coordinator for the Center for Regional Economic Advancement at Cornell University.
The path to success is rarely clear-cut, and it often takes unexpected turns. This is especially true in entrepreneurship, where a single networking connection can suddenly open doors, or a crucial piece of feedback from a customer can lead to pivotal product developments.
For Mitchell Ishmael, Ph.D. ‘17, one key insight helped him make a shift in his research project that led to multiple opportunities. Having just graduated, Ishmael is now involved in not one, but two next-phase innovation programs: NEXUS-NY and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Innovation Crossroads.
Ishmael was one of six Engineering Ph.D.s accepted into Cornell Engineering’s Commercialization Fellowship in Spring 2016. The Fellowship, supported by Cornell Engineering alums, is designed to help engineering researchers learn to take technology from lab to market – a process that can be challenging for academics. The Fellowship was immediately attractive to Ishmael, who had been researching a unique energy-storage technology. The technology collects cheap electricity from off-peak hours and converts the electricity into heat, which can then be stored efficienty and inexpensively until it needs to be converted back into electricity. The ability to manage electric power in this manner is key to incorporating renewable energies such as wind and solar into the power grid, because those sources don’t produce a reliable flow of energy.
“I was excited,” says Ishmael about applying for the Fellowship. “Active Energy Storage could provide a much needed breakthrough in storage efficiency. But I didn’t know who would eventually buy it. I didn’t know what market problem this technology could actually solve.”
Ishmael saw the Fellowship as a way to determine if this was true by using the resources and support available in Cornell’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
In the course of the Fellowship, mentors helped Ishmael begin reaching out to connect with people who might help him better understand the potential of his technology. Tom Schryver, MBA ’02, helped all the Fellows conduct in-depth customer discovery and he worked closely with Ishmael to explore the potential markets for his technology.
While Ishmael’s initial target was utility companies, he quickly realized he wasn’t getting the right signals from that market. With the help of David Wildman, EMBA ’17, Ishmael identified data centers as a potential alternative target, and arranged a tour of a high-security data center in New York City. It was here that Ishmael realized he was on the right track. The hardware inside data centers produce heat, and it can be costly for operators to keep the hardware cool. But Ishmael saw an opportunity to apply his technology by collecting the waste heat and use it for storing electricity.
“It was great to see how Mitchell, by speaking with a variety of potential customers across multiple segments, locked on to data centers as a particularly attractive opportunity,” says Schryver. “This is exactly the kind of insight a quality customer discovery process is meant to elicit.”
Armed with the tools from Commercialization Fellows, Ishmael sought out more opportunities to develop his technology. He felt that several of the market opportunities he identified, including data centers, were promising enough to warrant further investigation.
Using skills he learned during the Fellowship, Ishmael and his partner – fourth year engineering Ph.D. Levon Atoyan – applied to NEXUS-NY, a clean energy seed incubator supported by NYSERDA. During Phase I of the program the duo and their NEXUS-NY mentors did further customer discovery to validate that this technology represented an opportunity worth pursuing. Phase II of the program will provide them with funding to build an initial prototype and de-risk some of the components.
Most recently, Ishmael was announced as part of the 2017 cohort for the Department of Energy’s Innovation Crossroads, a competitive early-stage program in energy development. As one of this year’s Innovators, Ishmael will have access to state-of-the-art facilities at Oak Ridge Labs, allowing himto take his technology to the next level of prototyping.
In any startup journey, there is an entire ecosystem at work supporting innovators. Ishmael’s decision to pivot was easy, because he had used the customer discovery process long enough to realize the inflection point when he saw it.
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