The answers to producing sustainable energy are brewing in university labs around the country, and Northwestern University is ready with startup ventures to take new technologies to market.
Competing with 13 other student teams from Midwest universities, three Northwestern groups are vying for $100,000 in capital to get their startup clean technology companies off the ground.
The teams are composed of business students, law students and science students who are paired with industry mentors. On Feb. 29, they will pitch business models to a panel of judges, including venture capitalists and business leaders, who will then decide which team moves on to the national competition in Washington, D.C. in May.
The presentation will open to the public on March 1 at the Spertus Center, 610 S. Michigan Ave.
The Clean Energy Trust in Chicago is sponsoring the annual event, expected to sell out again this year, said Amy Francetic, executive director of the organization. The trust has a separate competition for small clean-tech companies.
“We really want to fill the pipeline with new technology and new entrepreneurs who will be the next fundable companies,” Francetic said. “That’s one of the prime places to harvest—the universities. Having read many, if not all of the student applications, the judges will be blown away.”
Members of the three Northwestern teams here share the secrets of their clean energy technologies and how they plan to build sustainable businesses.
NuMat Technologies team members Chris Wilmer, Ben Hernandez, Omar Farha and Tabrez Ebrahim have been exploring the multiple applications of their technology that can use nanoparticles to possibly generate clean coal. All are Northwestern students except Farha, who is a research associate professor in chemistry at the university.
The technology could also offer the potential to store natural gas in cars and trucks without having to highly compress it. Compressed natural gas solutions are an alternative to gasoline, but the compression process requires a large amount of energy and expensive infrastructure.
If your group wins the competition so you can market your product, how will it change the industry?
(Wilmer) If we manage to create a product that will store natural gas on vehicles, that would mean the U.S. wouldn’t have to import foreign oil. It would mean that cars would be emitting fewer greenhouse gases and people would pay less money at the pump.
What other possible applications do your nanoparticles (which form versatile metal-organic frameworks – MOFs) hold?
(Hernandez) You can tailor these MOF designs to capture carbon dioxide particles in power plants. You can really have clean coal and clean power. There are a lot of different things we’re exploring and really trying to sort out and find out what is the most compelling value proposition.
Chris Bentley is part of the Northwestern group called Bagpipe Technologies, a team working with researchers at Argonne National Laboratory to create nanoparticles from plastic waste. He said the U.S. uses 100 billion plastic grocery bags each year.
Scientists use extreme heat and pressure to break down plastic waste into a variety of carbon particles. Potentially, the particles could be used to build anodes—an important component in batteries— and improve battery stability and longevity, Bentley said.
Why was your team interested in the Clean Energy Challenge?
The Clean Energy Challenge came along at the right time and it’s just a fantastic opportunity. Chicago may not have the reputation for startups as, say, Boston or Silicon Valley. But with all the great laboratories, universities and motivated people in clean tech, there's no reason why it shouldn't. Even if we don’t win the funding, we still have met so many great people within this space and that is invaluable in itself.
What has been the best part about the competition so far?
The competition has barely started in earnest, but the best part is it’s really a great boost for us as an early stage company. It’s an incredible boon to be able to talk to all the mentors in this program. We’ve got this fantastic network of knowledgeable people in the clean tech space who are helping us really kick this idea into overdrive.
The third Northwestern team, SiNode, is commercializing technology that also holds promise to boost the power and capacity of lithium-ion batteries by up to 10 times. Lithium-ion batteries power most cell phones and laptops, team member Nishit Mehta said.
What does your technology do and how might it impact the industry?
By keeping the battery size the same, our technology increases the energy capacity and allows the battery to charge faster. The technology performance is being validated by a third party right now. If we successfully bring this to the market, you can imagine the revolution that would come in the industries that use lithium-ion batteries. Electric cars could run for longer distances without needing to be recharged, and then could be charged in fewer hours. Portable electronic devices could be smaller, operate for multiple days, or be able to support more energy-intensive functions.
What does the process look like to prepare for the competition?
What was needed was a basic idea of what we wanted to do, a business model, know what risks are involved and what steps you can take to mitigate them. Now we have to deep dive into the different aspects, build a comprehensive business plan and present it to the (venture capitalists). This involves identifying specific customer segments, talking to potential customers, freezing out value proposition, identifying the risks involved and taking steps to mitigate them. It is an exhilarating ride right now.