Building a Statewide Ecosystem for a World-Class Cleantech Economy

With Statewide support that includes a NYSERDA-funded cleantech incubator program, SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany is transforming New York State into a nexus of cleantech education, innovation and commercialization.

by Jodi Ackerman Frank

In 2010, five doctoral students wanted to commercialize a new battery technology they had collaborated on during their research studies at the Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (SUNY Poly CNSE) at SUNY Polytechnic Institute (SUNY Poly).

So, they put together a modest business plan, named their company Battery Energy Storage Systems Technologies (now BESSTECHLink opens in new window - close new window to return to this page.) and entered the college’s New York Business Plan Competition.

BESSTECH won the grand prize. Over the next few years, the cleantech startup honed its business plan as well as its technology that improves the performance of anodes in lithium-ion batteries. Then in 2012, BESSTECH secured the first-ever license agreement for a student-led spin-off technology from SUNY Poly CNSE.

Since then, the startup has received support from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and the National Science Foundation as well as a $300,000 private angel investment.

“Everything we have been able to tap into at SUNY Poly — from the technology resources to the opportunities to participate in programs such as the business competition as well as the support we still continue to receive — has paved the way to jumpstarting our cleantech company and helping to bring our unique technology to market,” said company co-founder and CEO Fernando Gómez-Baquero.

“BESSTECH’s journey — which started out as a group of students with an idea, testing that idea in a lab, and then a startup launch with the full support of SUNY Poly — is a testament to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s leadership in building an innovation-driven economic development model in which our research and academic institution plays a pivotal role,” said Pradeep Haldar, SUNY Poly CNSE vice president of entrepreneurship innovation and clean energy programs.

Gómez-Baquero and his colleagues have since graduated, but the company still has access to the cleanrooms, laboratories, and office space through the Incubators for Collaborating & Leveraging Energy And Nanotechnology (iCLEAN). The SUNY Poly-operated business incubator, also headed by Haldar, is one of six cleantech incubator programs funded by NYSERDA.

iCLEAN serves clean energy technology startups throughout the Tech Valley, a 19-county corridor that encompasses the Capital Region as well as the Hudson Valley and Mohawk Valley regions. Since iCLEAN opened its doors in 2010, companies across the Northeast and beyond have sought the diverse expertise, programs and services that SUNY Poly has to offer through its incubator program.

The Most Advanced in the World

iCLEAN was established by the Energy and Environmental Technology Applications Center (E2TAC) in collaboration with the Hudson Valley Center for Innovation (a Fishkill-based business incubator) and the NYSERDA-owned Saratoga Technology + Energy Park® (STEP®). E2TAC, an integral part of SUNY Poly, was created in 1998 as another way to expand SUNY Poly CNSE’s offerings to work with companies in the rapidly emerging energy and environmental industries.

To date, iCLEAN has worked with nearly 30 cleantech companies. It also has four “graduate” companies, startups that have been deemed successful but still use iCLEAN resources and/or space. Several of these startups, including BESSTECH, have been ignited by doctoral students who have completed graduate degree programs at SUNY Poly and are continuing to grow their companies with iCLEAN’s assistance.

Startups working with iCLEAN have access to SUNY Poly’s Albany NanoTech Complex, a $20 billion complex that attracts corporate partners from around the globe and offers students a one‐of‐a-kind academic experience. The complex houses the only fully integrated 300mm wafer computer chip pilot prototyping and demonstration line within 80,000 square feet of Class 1 cleanroom space.

More than 3,500 scientists, researchers, engineers, students, faculty and staff work onsite. The complex also serves as the headquarters or operational space to numerous global high-tech corporations, including IBM, AMD, GlobalFoundries, SEMATECH, Toshiba, Applied Materials, Tokyo Electron, ASML, and Novellus Systems, among others.

The four-story NanoFab Xtension (NFX), the Albany NanoTech Complex’s most recent expansion completed in 2013, added nearly 500,000 square feet of next-generation infrastructure (for a total of 1.3 million square feet) that includes 50,000 square feet of cleanroom space for manufacturing, two data centers and office and conference space.

The project expansion received attention from President Barack Obama, who visited the construction site in 2012 to highlight the region's high-tech initiatives. “This school and this community represent the future of our economy," Obama said in his remarks.

NFX is home to the $4.8 billion computer chip manufacturing research initiative that established the Global 450mm Consortium (G450C)Link opens in new window - close new window to return to this page.. Announced in 2011 by Governor Cuomo, the effort is largely funded by industry. Headquartered at the NFX facility, the consortium is composed of computer chip industry leaders dedicated to reducing infrastructure and other costs in next-generation wafer technology development.

“SUNY Poly is providing the groundwork to support a Statewide hub of innovation, entrepreneurship and business incubation,” said John B. Rhodes, President and CEO, NYSERDA. “iCLEAN is an important piece of this dynamic ecosystem that cleantech companies can tap into to grow their businesses in the Capital Region and across New York State.”

One early-stage startup that knows the advantages of the advanced nanotechnology facilities and research at SUNY Poly is ThermoAuraLink opens in new window - close new window to return to this page.. The iCLEAN member company designs and produces high-performance nanocrystalline thermoelectric wafers for device manufacturers.

The technology could lead to solid-state cooling systems, such as refrigerator and air conditioners that require no refrigerants and car seat warmers/coolers, and electricity generators powered by the heat waste from exhaust pipes. The technology could also be used one day to recover waste heat from power plants.

Because they convert heat directly into electricity, thermoelectrics have long been recognized as a potential clean energy source. However, they are largely inefficient because researchers have not found an easy way to increase the materials’ electrical conductivity without also increasing the thermal conductivity, which cancels any extra electric output gains. New nanostructured thermoelectric materials have led to some progress, but not on a scalable level — until now.

During his doctoral work at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., company cofounder Rutvik J. Mehta began exploring the idea of harnessing certain materials into thermoelectric nanoparticles using a microwave oven not much bigger than a standard household unit.

“We came up with a new manufacturing process that fabricates these nanomaterials in large amounts at very low cost,” Mehta said.

To build its nanocrystalline material, ThermoAura uses chalcogenides, a class of exotic semiconductors that contains small amounts of sulfur, among other elements. The sulfur increases the electric conductivity while the nanostructure keeps the thermal conductivity at an ideal low ratio.

“Being connected to iCLEAN and SUNY Poly means we have access to the tools, talent, and the high-tech hubs that are being created in Upstate New York. The value of that for our company is enormous,” said Mehta, whose company collaborates with SUNY Poly faculty in labs that support ThermoAura’s technology needs.

“Having the opportunities to access existing facilities to support our research has been paramount. As a new high-tech startup, we didn’t have the resources to build a high-tech infrastructure to support our work,” Mehta added.

But after three years, ThermoAura was ready to do just that. The company built a manufacturing plant in nearby Colonie. Once equipment testing and pilot runs are completed, ThermoAura will begin to produce the nanomaterials in ton quantities, using an industrial system of delivering microwave energy into flowing liquids on a continuous basis. The microwaves transform a solution of chemicals into the nanoparticles, which are then dried into a gray powder and heat-pressed into wafers.

A Global Spotlight on Solar Cell R&D

SUNY Poly continues to add new resources, infrastructure and capabilities to advance its innovation ecosystem, with a notable focus on solar energy.

Under a $100 million solar power initiative announced by Governor Cuomo in 2013, SUNY Poly is transforming a vacant Kodak cleanroom building in Rochester into a first-of-its-kind Photovoltaic Manufacturing and Technology Development Facility for crystalline silicon photovoltaics. The facility will include a 20,000-square-foot cleanroom, with $19 million worth of advanced tools and equipment obtained through the SUNY Poly acquisition of assets owned by SVTC Technologies (formerly known as the Silicon Valley Technology Center).

The U.S. Department of Energy is providing nearly $11 million through its SunShot InitiativeLink opens in new window - close new window to return to this page. to support procurement and installation of these tools and equipment, with investment from private industry partners expected to exceed $65 million to support the development and operation of the facility. SunShot was launched in 2011 to make large-scale photovoltaic solar energyLink opens in new window - close new window to return to this page. systems competitive with other forms of energy.

The photovoltaic manufacturing facility will enhance the capabilities and expertise of the Photovoltaic Manufacturing ConsortiumLink opens in new window - close new window to return to this page. (PVMC), which was chartered in 2011 also under SunShot. Headquartered at SUNY Poly’s Albany NanoTech Complex, the industry-led consortium was created to accelerate the development, commercialization, manufacturing, field testing and deployment of next-generation photovoltaic systems.

The consortium, led by SUNY Poly, SEMATECH and the University of Central Florida, is leading a national effort to reduce the cost of installed solar energy systems from $5 per watt to less than $1 per watt over the next 10 years.

Within the past year, NYSERDA has supported the PVMC through the State’s NY-Sun InitiativeLink opens in new window - close new window to return to this page. to bolster the consortium’s growth.

Since NY-Sun was launched in 2012, solar photovoltaic capacity of over 316 megawatts has been installed or is under development — more than was installed in the entire decade before the program was established.

In 2014, Governor Cuomo committed to pump an additional $1 billion into the initiative for solar-power projects, with the aim of 3,000 megawatts of solar energy installed across New York State. The funding will allow the State to expand photovoltaic deployment incentive programs, such as the PVMC, through a competitive performance-based bidding process.

“NYSERDA is proud to partner in the consortium’s efforts to develop, test and deploy innovative photovoltaic technologies,” Rhodes said. “The PVMC highlight's the State's commitment to reduce technology costs and build capability in the solar cell sector in New York State.”

SUNY Poly is also constructing the Buffalo High-Tech Manufacturing Innovation Hub at RiverBend in Western New York to enable advanced manufacturing at what will become a multibillion-dollar high-tech campus. The manufacturing site has already attracted top-tier solar energy company SolarCity, the nation's largest residential solar installer and financier. The company plans on moving large parts of its operations to the complex, with a targeted capacity of 1 gigawatt, enough energy to power 750,000 homes. The move potentially could generate up to 5,000 jobs.

To take advantage of SUNY Poly’s solar power resources and expertise, Magnolia SolarLink opens in new window - close new window to return to this page. also moved its operations to New York State. Established in 2008, the iCLEAN tenant company with seven employees is developing a new class of thin-film nanoengineered solar cell technology for the military and consumer markets. The startup, which uses numerous SUNY Poly labs, facilities and expertise, moved its R&D operations from just outside of Boston to the Albany NanoTech Complex in 2010.

“New York has provided us with the much-needed resources and funding to allow our company to grow,” said Yash Puri, Magnolia chief financial officer and executive vice president. “It’s not common for such a statewide approach in which all the elements — the research facilities, funding and business connections through incubators such as iCLEAN — come together in such a seamless way.”

In 2013, Magnolia teamed up with PVMC and SUNY Poly’s Solar Energy Development Center, with funding from NYSERDA, to develop thin-film solar cells made from copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS). The Halfmoon manufacturing center features a 100 kilowatt prototyping and demonstration line for thin-film solar cells.

CIGS is a promising new material for thin-film solar cells because it has the highest energy conversion efficiency of any thin film, at about 20 percent. Results, however, are notoriously inconsistent, and as a result, mass producing CIGS solar cells has been difficult.

To overcome this barrier, Magnolia deposits the CIGS material on stainless steel and titanium foil substrates for an efficiency of 13 percent. The company then lines the substrates with its patented antireflective coating, which enhances the cell efficiency up to 20 percent.

The nanostructured antireflective coating is essentially a “light-trapping” technology that collects more light in a wider variety of intensities at a larger number of angles than other photovoltaic technologies. Magnolia’s overall CIGS product also captures a larger part of the solar spectrum, including infrared and ultraviolet light.

As an emerging technology, thin-film photovoltaics are seen as a durable, cost-saving alternative to the prevalent rigid crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells. Although the silicon-based cells are currently the most efficient solar technology on the market, providing up to 25 percent efficiency, they are cumbersome and expensive to manufacture.

Thin-film solar cells are composed of flexible layers that are just one micron thick (versus 350 microns thick for each silicon-based layer), thus requiring less processing and fewer materials. They also can be used in a wider range of applications, from rooftops to portable devices such as cell phones and appliances, and even military backpacks, to provide power on the go.

Magnolia has received numerous grants over the last five years to continue its CIGS and other solar cell development projects, including $1.25 million from NYSERDA and $1.75 million from NASA and the U.S. Air Force.

“With our ongoing collaborations with SUNY Poly, as well as the support we’ve received from NYSERDA and the federal government, we are proving that flexible thin-film solar cells are a viable solution for various energy needs,” said Magnolia President and CEO Ashok Sood.

Advancing Clean Energy Through Nanotechnology

One reason cleantech startups, such as Magnolia, ThermoAura and BESSTECH, are attracted to SUNY Poly is because of its world-class resources and expertise in the ever-growing field of nanotechnology.

“The university has some of the best facilities in the world for those of us who specialize in nanotechnology applications and offers our scientists and engineers the most modern R&D equipment available,” Sood said.

Nanotechnology is about organizing molecules and atoms into nanometer-sized building blocks to construct new or enhanced materials and devices. The particles that make up nanomaterials are so small that they can behave differently than larger versions of the same materials, offering characteristics that can improve everyday products.

The challenge to researchers is finding innovative ways to manipulate nanomaterials by altering a material’s mechanical, optical, electrical and magnetic properties, creating, for example, copper that’s five times harder than its conventional form, ceramics that bend instead of break, as well as increased electrical conductivity in any number of materials.

Nanotechnology also is about efficiency. Thin-film solar cells built at the nanoscale level, for instance, can convert sunlight into electricity at a fraction of the cost and at a potentially higher efficiency than traditional solar cells.

“If we can manipulate a material at its most basic level, beginning with a single atom, we can create functionalities or properties that are unparalleled to any bulk material,” Haldar said. “We’re designing something from the ground up to fit a specific need as opposed to trying to make something out of an existing material that has limited capabilities from the start. This is what iCLEAN startups, such as BESSTECH, have done.”

BESSTECH, the company started by the five SUNY Poly doctoral students, is commercializing a “hyperbranched,” 3D nanostructure from a metal-silicon composite. The composite is used to make a novel anode that increases storage capacity, charging rate and lifetime of lithium-ion batteries.

In 2013, BESSTECH worked with Ceres Technologies on a development project to manufacture prototype anodes for high-end batteries used for laptops and other applications. Ceres is a solar cell equipment manufacturer in Saugerties, N.Y.

“The goal was to prove that our nanotechnology could be scaled up and fabricated using industrial CVD (chemical vapor deposition) tools, the same equipment that’s used to make solar cells and computer chips,” Gómez-Baquero said. “The project was successful, and we believe that in the future, anodes could be manufactured using equipment developed for the semiconductor industry.”

BESSTECH, which is now working with a manufacturer in Europe, has secured a number of industry customers to benchmark its technology.

“Having access to world-class education and training as students, along with the intellectual and technology resources at SUNY Poly CNSE, has given BESSTECH a tremendous advantage,” said Gómez-Baquero, a serial entrepreneur from Colombia who chose to continue his research studies and grow his business at SUNY Poly because of its nanotechnology focus.

Jack Bulmer, a SUNY Poly doctoral student, also applied to SUNY Poly CNSE because of his interests in nanotechnology. He and two other doctoral students founded the early-stage startup Goodlight, an iCLEAN tenant company based in the Wide-Band Gap Optronix Lab at the Albany campus. The company has developed a method to improve the performance of cheap LED material.

“Our entire process relies on material manipulation at the nanoscale,” Bulmer said. “The facilities and resources available at SUNY Poly are unique, and as a student, I was drawn to the opportunities that the university continues to offer us.” (Please see the company profile for more information on Goodlight.)

A Statewide Education Pipeline for Economic Growth

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The extensive innovation ecosystem that SUNY Poly continues to expand across the State includes the business mentorship and programs that attract students and introduce them to the world of high-tech entrepreneurship. One premier program that iCLEAN taps into is the New York Business Plan Competition for student entrepreneurs.

“It’s more than just a competition. It’s a life-changing experience that teaches students how to become better entrepreneurs,” said Haldar, noting that most accepted applicants go through a training program through their respective mentors that prepares them to present in front of a panel of judges, who include venture capitalists, angel investors, investment bankers and seasoned entrepreneurs.

The Statewide competition is the largest student competition of its kind in the Northeast and one of the biggest in the nation. Organized by SUNY Poly in partnership with the University at Albany School of Business and Syracuse University, the competition has grown from attracting a dozen startup teams that competed for about $30,000 in prizes to more than 500 teams competing this year for over $500,000 in cash and prizes.

“Before the 2010 New York Business Plan Competition, BESSTECH was no more than a group of smart students and a PowerPoint. Winning the competition was the precursor that transformed an idea into a company,” said Gómez-Baquero, whose company BESSTECH won the top prize the first year the competition took place, in 2010.

In 2014, Goodlight won first place in the Energy/Sustainability category.

“To go from an idea in a lab to presenting a product in front of a packed audience has been an incredible experience,” Bulmer said.

“These exciting research projects that begin in the lab become further developed in facilities across campus, and are then presented in a top-level competition as viable clean energy-based technologies by student entrepreneurs,” Haldar said. “This whole process is a good example of how SUNY Poly’s education pipeline serves as an integral part of the State’s mission to build a thriving ecosystem for cleantech economic growth.”

Vistex Composites: Updating Composite Manufacturing

Vistex CompositesLink opens in new window - close new window to return to this page., a NYSERDA-funded iCLEAN client company, has developed a system that could make the usual manufacturing practice of curing advanced composites obsolete. The startup, established in 2012, has developed Specialized Elastomeric Tooling (SET), a new manufacturing method that eliminates the energy and labor-intensive aspects of curing advanced composites.

Stronger and lighter than traditional materials, advanced composite materials are used in the latest high-performance products in everything from wind turbines and prosthetics to automobiles and boats. Composites are made of two main building blocks: a high-strength fiber such as carbon fiber and a binding material such as an epoxy. When exposed to high temperature and pressure during the curing process, these elements bind and harden into a durable lightweight material.

This curing process typically is done in autoclaves, large cylindrical pressure chambers that are energy and labor intensive (and therefore expensive to operate). The autoclave manufacturing process also creates a lot of waste.

Before a composite part is placed in an autoclave for curing, the sticky composite material is deposited on an aluminum mold, which is then wrapped in layers of plastic. The plastic, which serves as the top mold, is vacuum-sealed before the entire package goes in the autoclave. Once the process is complete, the plastic wrap and other waste are discarded.

Vistex’s SET system streamlines this process to reduce energy consumption by orders of magnitude. SET essentially simulates the autoclave process in a simplified manner. A composite material is pressed uniformly between a heated metal mold and a customized rubber-faced mold, which is created through 3D digital modeling. Off-the-shelf hydraulic bench-shop presses are used to compress the materials.

“Overall, the SET process provides a much simpler approach to achieve the autoclave conditions of uniform temperature and pressure, resulting in up to a 1,000-fold energy savings over an autoclave and eliminates the plastic waste after each use,” said Jaron Kuppers, Vistex co-founder and chief technology officer. “In addition, the time required to make a composite part in an autoclave is a few hours. This takes around 10 minutes on our SET system.”

In 2013, the SET process won the American Composites Manufacturers Association’s People’s Choice Award for the best composite product. The same year, Vistex entered into a strategic partnership with Kintz Plastics in Howes Cave, N.Y., where Vistex is co-located and produces various composite components for the sport and medical industries. The startup has received funding from NYSERDA and several federal government agencies. Products continually being prototyped and produced by Vistex so far include components for varied recreational products, medical parts for CT scanners, and electric automobile components.