PowerBridgeNY: Bridging Clean Energy Innovations with Commercial Success

The NYSERDA-funded Proof-of-Concept Center provides a pathway between advanced research in the lab and commercializing scalable clean-energy solutions for a sustainable future.

 by Jodi Ackerman Frank

Universities across New York State offer a wealth of talent for technological innovation. With their research facilities and ability to test new products, they are valuable resources to help New York become a leader in fostering companies that develop and commercialize clean energy technology.

To build on that expertise, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) has provided funding to develop Proof-of-Concept Centers (POCC) at Columbia University and New York University Tandon School of Engineering (NYU Tandon), which have joined forces to create the PowerBridgeNY POCC. Together with a third POCC, NEXUS-NY, led by High Tech Rochester, they move clean-energy ideas from the laboratory to market.

“Proof of Concept Centers such as PowerBridgeNY are critical to the success of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision strategy to build a clean, resilient and affordable energy system for all New Yorkers,” said John B. Rhodes, President and CEO, NYSERDA. “They bring together researchers, scientists and financiers to help grow the clean tech economy and support the state’s Clean Energy Standard, a nation-leading mandate to supply half of the State’s electricity needs from renewable energy resources by 2030.”

PowerBridgeNY’s mission is to identify promising early-stage technologies and invest in the work needed to advance these technologies toward technical validation. The program provides support to selected project teams for all aspects of company formation. This includes assessing the competitive landscape, developing a business plan, team and partnership building, and securing funds for prototyping and in-field testing studies.

“Our program is about the beginning stages of commercializing a technology — taking something that has been shown to work in a lab and helping our innovators understand customer needs to make that first viable prototype,” said PowerBridgeNY Director Jim Aloise.

Teams that have participated in the PowerBridgeNY program include one that is working to recycle wind blades into new products for the construction industry. Another team is developing a weather-driven energy forecasting system to predict energy demands for buildings throughout a community. A third team is engineering microorganisms to create chemicals for liquid fuels and other industry products. 

From Research to Product Formation

While there is much research, innovation and business development on creating and commercializing renewable energy technologies and systems, there is a growing concern on how to address the inevitability of end-of-life equipment that will eventually be added to the waste stream.

Ardavan Yazdanbakhsh has found a way to address this issue in one major renewable energy industry — wind power. Yazdanbakhsh is an assistant professor of civil engineering at City College of New York (CCNY) at the City University of New York.

Most industrial-size wind turbine blades are made from fiber reinforced polymer (FRP) composite materials. The material is as strong as steel at a fraction of the weight and lasts longer than many traditional materials. Still, an FRP wind blade has a service life of about 20 years.

Yazdanbakhsh has developed an innovative, inexpensive approach to recycle wind blades into new products for the construction industry.

In summer 2015, a team of Yazdanbakhsh’s colleagues took part in the PowerBridgeNY Pitch Day at The New York Academy of Sciences in New York City. Eight teams pitched their technology ideas to a panel of judges for a chance to receive funding and other support in hopes of turning their projects into commercial successes.

The original business goal of Yazdanbakhsh’s team was to incorporate the FRP in decorative concrete. But through the customer discovery process, which included interviewing interior designers and architects, the team decided that the stiff competition with hundreds of other producers of such concrete products was not worth the risk.

“The pace over the first five months was incredible. Usually in academic research, we move somewhat slower. But through the customer discovery process, we adjusted to focus on different aspects of the problem and found our market,” said Larry Bank, associate provost for research at CCNY who serves as a team advisor. Bank is also a certified engineer who has worked in industry and specializes in advanced composite materials and their application in civil engineering construction.

“Without the PowerBridgeNY incentive, we would not have made any of the progress that has led us to where we are now,” Bank added.

The team now has two customer segments: any company or entity that needs to get rid of FRP waste, and aggregate suppliers and producers of concrete.

“Our long-term vision is focused on wind farms,” Yazdanbakhsh said. “As wind turbines continue to be built in New York and across the country, there will be the increasing need to dispose of FRP waste.”

 For some states, the timing of such a recycling technology could not be more pertinent.

“End of life for FRP wind blades in New York could come as soon as 2020. In California, some of these blades have already reached their working limits,” Yazdanbakhsh said. “Right now in New York State, about 6,000 wind blades are turning. Each blade weighs several tons and is between130-220 feet long.”

Most FRP waste (either production or end-of-life waste) is landfilled, according to Yazdanbakhsh. “There have been efforts to recycle FRP waste by grinding it into powder and then using it as a filler to produce new FRP materials. But the methods are expensive and have been slow to emerge as a viable option,” he said.

Yazdanbakhsh has developed an approach that is based on cutting FRP into larger pieces, about an inch in diameter, and then using them as partial or full replacement of crushed stone aggregate in concrete used for roads and buildings. His team also may cut the plastic waste into longer rods for concrete and other masonry reinforcement. Steel bars are currently used for this purpose.

“By cutting FRP into larger pieces, we will use less energy compared to grinding it into powder, and this can be performed onsite,” Yazdanbakhsh said. “As a concrete aggregate, FRP is about 25 percent lighter than crushed stone. In addition, FRP-incorporated concrete is recyclable and can be processed into concrete aggregate.”

Turning Innovation Into a Business Plan

PowerBridgeNY provides support for technical validation and company formation at six partner institutions located in the New York City metropolitan area. In addition to Columbia University and NYU Tandon, these institutions include Brookhaven National Laboratory, Stony Brook University, Cornell Tech and City University of New York (CUNY).

PowerBridgeNY has developed a curriculum that incorporates a “lean startup” methodology adapted from the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps (“I” for “innovation”) program. I-Corps, an accelerated version of the Lean LaunchPad model developed by Steve Blank at Stanford University, is largely based on the customer validation through an immersive environment in which participants learn the true value of the customer discovery process.

The PowerBridgeNY model is delivered in partnership with the New York City Regional Innovation I-Corps Node (NYCRIN), an interactive consortium of the top research universities in the Northeast led by CUNY, NYU and Columbia University that focuses on innovation and entrepreneurship.

The teams accepted into the yearlong program are composed of at least three members. Two of these members, chosen by the team, include a technologist, who is typically the principal investigator developing the technology in a lab, and an entrepreneurial lead, who can be a graduate student with an interest in entrepreneurship. PowerBridgeNY then chooses an experienced entrepreneur to mentor the team. Teams are awarded up to $150,000 for technology validation purposes and up to $50,000 of additional funding to establish a company and for marketing tools.

“Bridging cleantech innovation with entrepreneurial spirit is a key nexus for the energy industry,” said Kristin Barbato, vice president of customer energy solutions at the New York Power Authority who served as one of the judges during the PowerBridgeNY Pitch Day. “It’s terrific to engage with these New York City schools that bring talented students, energy research and partnerships with market insiders to enable success for PowerBridgeNY startups.”

Numerous program stages and steps make up the application process, including a pre-proposal stage. During this stage, accepted applicants become familiarized with various components of the program, such as reaching out to potential customers and receiving written constructive feedback from a panel of judges that they are expected to incorporate into their full proposal application.

“We take them through the first steps of the program even before they are fully accepted,” Aloise said. “Once they’ve been invited to complete a full proposal, they then go through a boot camp, which introduces them to the LaunchPad Business Model Canvas so they can get an idea of what might work for them.”

Customer Validation – “You Have to Talk to People”

John Gonzalez and his PowerBridgeNY team are working on a weather-driven energy forecasting system to predict energy demands. Gonzalez, professor of mechanical engineering at CCNY who is the team’s principal investigator, spent the early part of his career working with building-integrated photovoltaics to study how renewables might mitigate climate change.

“That grounded us in learning more about the city environment,” Gonzalez said, referring to the urban heat island phenomenon that has been the center of his research over the last 10 years.

Urban heat islands are metropolitan areas that are much warmer — up to 20 degrees Fahrenheit in some places — than their surrounding localities. They have resulted in part because of traditional building materials, such as stone, brick and steel. These materials absorb much more heat energy from the sun than trees and the natural ground do, and then they emit this excess heat back into the outside environment during the cooler hours at night. The height of a building and its heating and cooling systems also play a role.

By taking into account how buildings affect urban weather, Gonzalez’s research team has developed a technology that integrates a weather forecasting system with a building-energy model to predict energy demand as a way to help ease electricity shortages and costs.

“Our technology is based on measuring the interaction between a building’s energy and the external weather for a more accurate weather forecast,” Gonzalez said. “Without including the actual buildings in the equation, predicting weather in an urban environment is not very precise.”

Stephen Neufeld, a CCNY electrical engineering student who serves as the team’s entrepreneurial lead, has been heavily involved in the customer discovery process of the PowerBridgeNY program to figure out the potential markets, such as the utility industry and multi-apartment complex owners, for the team’s technology.

“Prior to being involved in this team, I had a completely different paradigm on how I would start a business,” said Neufeld who has a background in financial services. “I felt that I needed to have everything defined on paper before anything could happen. But now I realize that the most important part of launching a startup is to get out there and talk to people to make sure that what we are creating matches where they see value.”

“It’s not so much pitching your technology as it understanding what people are experiencing day-to-day and seeing where they have their challenges and how our technology can help with that,” Neufeld added.

Gonzalez’s weather-driven energy forecasting system germinated through a decade-long collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency that studies the conditions of the oceans and the atmosphere. His research team is part of the NOAA-supported Coastal Urban Environmental Research Group at CUNY that conducts climate research in coastal urban areas in New York and California, among other places.

The technology is based on a sophisticated code that includes imported data related to the characteristics of the buildings in a neighborhood or city, including height, the number of windows and the materials from which the buildings are made. The team has already collected extensive data for Manhattan, its biggest case study so far.

“We’re able to use our technology to show the energy demand of a particular building. This is key. Without building sensors or other onsite hardware, we’re able to run our models and simulate what the demand is going to be for a particular building in Manhattan days in advance,” said

The patented technology could help commercial building owners and managers prepare more accurately for the hottest days of the year. For example, over the last few years, blocks of ice have been used to supplement New York City’s air conditioning needs in commercial buildings. Large ice-making tanks, placed in basements or on rooftops, produce ice at night when daily electricity prices are at their lowest. The ice chills the circulated air throughout the buildings.

The weather-driven energy forecasting system could also help utilities more effectively meet peak demand to avoid area blackouts during any season by helping them to better estimate when idle power plants need to be switched on during intense heatwaves or severe cold snaps.

“The goal has been to provide better understanding and tools to predict the climate and the weather in very complex urban settings. One thing led to another, and now we have a valuable technology, which is focused on energy savings,” Gonzalez said. “PowerBridgeNY has provided a perfect setting to explore the potential for commercializing our technology.”

Adapting to Industry Need

Columbia University faculty members Alan West and Scott Banta, who work in the Department of Chemical Engineering, entered the PowerBridgeNY program to accelerate a new technology in biofuel development. As a result, they established Ironic Chemicals, an early-stage startup that is engineering microorganisms to create chemicals for liquid fuels and other industry products.

The technology is part of an emerging field of electrofuels, which are based on converting electricity, carbon dioxide and water into liquid fuels that could be 10 times more efficient than existing biofuels, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a federal agency that funds new fields of high-impact energy research, which support Banta and West’s research.

At the core of Ironic Chemicals’ technology are bacteria called Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans (A. ferrooxidans). These bacteria directly oxidize iron or sulfur to obtain their energy to survive. They also use carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air as their source of life-giving carbon.

Ironic Chemicals researchers engineer the bacteria to divert some of this carbon from CO2 into chemicals or fuels. The engineered organisms reside in a bioreactor and are continuously fed reduced iron, which the bacteria can readily consume. The oxidized iron is reduced in an electrochemical reactor powered by electricity. The goal is to eventually use electricity from a renewable energy source, such as solar power.

So far, Ironic Chemicals has engineered the bacteria to produce isobutyric acid and heptadecane that could be used to make biofuels. This is the first time that the iron-eating bacteria have been engineered to produce two separate chemicals.

In addition to the energy market, West and Banta have since begun to explore a potentially new market, which they discovered when their mentor, Miriam Eaves, suggested that the team reach out to the mining industry. West and Banda were reluctant at first, but knowing that they had to ramp up their customer discovery connections, they agreed to make some phone calls.

“It seemed like a good idea to understand the discovery process better, and slowly it occurred to us that reaching out to the mining industry was really good advice,” said Banta, professor in Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The team initially approached the mining industry to explore how A. ferrooxidans are used in mining processes, as these bacteria thrive in deep caves and during existing mining operations.

Banta and West didn’t consider that the industry itself might be interested in using their engineered cell technology for applications, such as biomining in which microorganisms are used in place of toxic chemicals to leach out residual metals.

“I think it’s a great vision to take a core technology and head toward a commercialization path,” said Miriam Eaves, principal of The Cargile Group, a business development and strategic marketing consultancy in New York City. “The earlier you can begin to conduct your market research, which certainly incorporates the customer discovery process, the earlier you can determine a real market need. One of the biggest challenges in starting a new business is defining your unique value proposition.”

Banta and West have since secured another grant from ARPA-E to work with a mining industry partner to also explore the possibility of using their approach to cogenerate biofuels in metals mining.

“The irony is that the first commercial use of our technology may turn out to be in the mining industry,” said West, the Samuel Ruben-Peter G. Viele Professor of Electrochemistry.

The two faculty members see the customer discovery process as the most important aspect of the PowerBridgeNY program.

“It even has an impact on how I manage my research group now,” West said. “It’s really embracing the idea of conducting the research to fit a particular need much more quickly or moving on to a new aspect of the research or developing a new technology altogether.”

“We knew nothing about the mining industry when we first entered PowerBridgeNY,” Banta said. “As professors, we understand our day job in working on research that has potential value to society. But being a part of PowerBridgeNY has taught us in an organized and structured way how to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset to expand our technology approach by encouraging us to ask a lot more questions to a lot more people.”