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.
Alongside 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 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.
Founded 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’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.