NEXUS-NY Proof-of-Concept Yields Powerful Insights
Proof-of-concept demonstrates that an idea is feasible
Demonstrating proof-of-concept is one of the first steps in the innovation process, when new possibilities for products, services or processes are identified and prototyped.
Aiming to catalyze and accelerate clean energy startups in New York State, NEXUS-NY helps move research-derived innovations from labs to the marketplace. 10 New Clean Energy Companies were chosen to participate in our latest proof-of-concept accelerator.
Each team selected has now completed phase one of the NEXUS-NY program, having spent the last several months developing and testing numerous business hypotheses through interactions with potential customers and industry participants. The desired outcome is to validate whether a viable and scalable business model exists, and to decide whether and how best to pursue their commercialization objectives.
In this three-part series on proof-of-concept, we’ll learn from several of the teams selected to move forward into NEXUS-NY Phase 2. Here’s how Verdimine, RemWell and Capro-X are using proof-of-concept to commercialize their technology.
Verdimine Gains Industry Validation by Focusing on the End User
Geneseo-based startup Verdimine is a specialty green chemical company focused on the sustainable production of imines (or aryl aldimines), that have high-value commercial applications in industries including pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, plastics manufacturing and OLEDs.
“It’s a process for making imines,” explained Caroline Wilson, Verdimine’s entrepreneurial lead in the NEXUS-NY program. “Our patented process uses a renewable, biodegradable solvent, while optimizing reaction parameters such as speed and temperature.”
“In addition to the health implications, toxic waste is time consuming to remove and energy intensive,” added Wilson. Verdimine’s biodegradable solvent is 100 times faster, with an average cost savings of 70%.
The process was invented by Dr. Jacqueline Bennett, Associate Professor of Chemistry at SUNY Oneonta, while she was pregnant and looking for green alternatives to toxic solvents and the waste their use produces in the lab. Verdimine is now run by a team of students participating in the Alber’s VentureWorks Program at SUNY Geneseo. The students are supported by Dr. Bennett (CSO); Eric Helms, SUNY Geneseo Associate Professor of Chemistry (CTO); and serial entrepreneur Dr. Joseph Marasco (CEO).
Dr. Marasco is an established veteran of the fine chemical industry. He has been CEO/President of four life-science firms, three of which he co-founded, with two exits and another currently pending public offering. “With 30 years of developing new business in the life science and fine chemicals industry, it’s exciting to assist Verdimine in taking flight as a specialty green chemical company,” said Dr. Marasco, whose connections have already proved invaluable in NEXUS-NY.
In phase one of the NEXUS-NY clean energy accelerator, Verdmine focused on gaining industry validation by narrowing in on the end user of imines. “Our business model has now been redefined, with speciality chemical companies being the target audience Verdmine aims to sell our molecules,” said Wilson. Throughout this process, Verdimine received feedback from a global pharmaceutical company that creates a large market generic drug. “We learned that while cost-savings is the driving factor among potential customers, when all things are equal, companies will go with the greener process,” she added.
Prior to being selected for the NEXUS-NY program, Verdmine entered into an exclusive license agreement with the Research Foundation for the State University of New York. The NYS Science + Technology Center at Syracuse Law School assisted in this process.
In phase two, Verdimine aims to purchase chemicals and equipment, and begin creating samples for customers. “Kodak is our manufacturing partner of choice to help us bring Verdimine to commercial scale. They have expressed interest, and we feel this partnership would be another win for Upstate NY.” Verdimine is also looking for partnerships and customers interested in their innovative chemical process.
RemWell Ventures Forward by Addressing Customer Problems
Advances in research often yield new insights that are translated into practical applications, and new products and services frequently arise from those insights. In order to address the risk associated with drinking water contaminated with an emerging class of chemical contaminants, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), RemWell proposes a specialized reactor for treating contaminated groundwater that operates on site and underground where the contamination occurs. This approach avoids expensive pumping of water out of the groundwater and use of carbon or other media to remove PFAS from water, which later must be incinerated.
During phase 1 of the NEXUS-NY clean energy accelerator, RemWell focused on connecting with customers. The goal was to make sure the proposal RemWell is suggesting addresses their customers’ problems.
“One thing we learned during customer discovery was that, aside from cost and effectiveness, our customers need independent field validation of new technologies before they’ll come to the table and discuss adopting it to treat their sites,” said Fiona Laramay, RemWell Entrepreneurial Lead and a PhD student in Environmental Science and Engineering at Clarkson University. Laramay hopes the doors opened during this process will help bring RemWell’s tech to market in a way that is more effective.
In phase 2 of NEXUS-NY, the RemWell team plans on building a field scale reactor, which even at full scale is small enough to fit on a table. The reactor will be built in the lab as a simulation. Clarkson University has also provided RemWell with a small field site. Laramay says RemWell will use the data to secure key customers.
RemWell is currently working with Clarkson University to transfer the technology. The team is also building out a supply chain. Once all the necessary components are gathered, RemWell will begin creating a working product.
Capro-X Uses Proof-of-Concept to Discover Unforeseen Industry Disruptions
It’s all hands on deck when dairy producers need to get rid of acid whey waste, the byproduct from making Greek yogurt. For every gallon of Greek yogurt made, more than double the volume of acid whey is produced and must be discarded, but it’s too concentrated to be dumped into the sewer.
Dairy producers had resorted to dumping acid whey waste onto farmland, but, there is concern over nutrient runoff resulted in state regulations.
Capro-X has developed a treatment solution called WheyAway. This is a drop-off system that converts organic molecules like lactose sugar into bio-oils, which are sustainable, natural, and upgradeable to biofuels.
Right now, removing whey waste properly requires trucking it out of production facilities, but some municipal wastewater treatment plants aren’t equipped to accept the whey regularly. This results in dairy producers having to expend additional resources to dispose of the whey properly.
“I spoke to an executive for a leading dairy producer in NYS. He told me that the cost of whey waste removal can increase significantly based on labor and logistics, especially when executive management needs to get involved,” said Dr. Juan Guzman, Technical Lead of Capro-X. “In fact, Cornell University has a center that helps farmers deal with environmental management concerns including the handling of acid whey waste.”
Dr. Guzman wants to take this one step further, by helping dairy producers convert a cost into a revenue stream. According to Dr. Guzman, Capro-X bio-oils are alternatives to unsustainable palm oil chemicals, and can be upgraded to biodiesel and even jet fuel.. He believes dairy producers would gain a lot of value from byproducts they discard(at a cost) today.
During Phase 2 of the NEXUS-NY proof-of-concept program, Capro-X will continue to optimize their process in the Southern Tier. The team aims to increase the amount of bio-oil produced from each gallon of acid whey, and ultimately build and install a pilot system for a customers by the end of the year. “A leading dairy producer in NYS is interested in installing the WheyAway on site as soon as we are ready to go,” said Dr. Guzman.
These six teams will now venture on to de-risk their technology by building prototypes while continuing to engage customers and develop their go-to market plans. Some teams will form companies during this phase, and those companies will continue to seek third party validation of their technologies and business models.
“Depending on company progress and availability of funds, NEXUS-NY may choose to offer seed-stage equity investments in one or two companies graduating from the program,” explained Buerkle. “These funds are typically invested through convertible debt instruments, alongside another lead investor,” he added.
Last month SelfArray, a graduate of the 2017 NEXUS-NY program received a seed investment from NextCorps, in partnership with venture capital firm, Excell Partners. NEXUS-NY is a program of NextCorps.