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February 22, 2023 | Tom Ballard

Active Energy Systems rebrands as Shift Thermal, moves to larger space in Oak Ridge

The alum of both ORNL's "Innovation Crossroads" and UT's Spark Innovation Center now has seven full-time employees and three demonstration projects underway or pending.

The team at Shift Thermal began 2023 on a set of high notes.

Formerly known as Active Energy Systems but now doing business as Shift Thermal, Co-Founders Mitch Ishmael and Levon Atoyan have graduated as a resident member of the Spark Innovation Center at the University of Tennessee Research Park into much larger commercial space in Oak Ridge.

In many respects, the new location brings the two back to their original roots as members of the inaugural cohort of the “Innovation Crossroads” (IC) program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. They also were tenants at the Fairview Technology Center, operated by The Development Corporation of Knox County, that is just across the Solway Bridge in deep Northwest Knox County.

Now, with their latest prototype that represents a 100x improvement from their first iteration, they have brought the company’s patented IHEX technology to commercial scale, including partnerships with multinational HVAC firms to realize the two Co-Founders’ vision. IHEX stands for icephobic heat exchange, a process that allows water to freeze without sticking to a cold surface.

The IHEX Module solves the problem that other ice thermal energy storage systems face by eliminating the insulative ice layer and passively shedding slurry from the surface.

“Our IHEX module is perfectly suited for both air conditioning and process cooling applications, capable of storage temperatures from 0 to -15°C (32 to 5°F),” Shift Thermal explains on its website. As a result, the technology can reduce cooling costs by up to 70 percent, while minimizing the strain on the rest of a customer’s cooling system and offering a modular approach that serves the needs of companies with different requirements.

Ishmael, who is a native Knoxvillian, and Atoyan met while they were pursuing their Ph.Ds. at Cornell University. Both shared a passion to help solve for the missing link in the world’s sustainable energy future: energy storage. Ishmael, who serves as Chief Technology Officer, started with the IC program in 2017, with Atoyan, the start-up’s Chief Executive Officer, following about six months later.

By the time Cohort 1 ended, the Co-Founders had built a proof of concept version and were focused on their next iteration. They have also secured a significant amount of external funding including: (1) $1 million from a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant; (2) another $1 million from a Department of Energy SBIR; (3) a $900,000 award from the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority; (4) $300,000 in funding through the State of Tennessee’s program that matches SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer awards; and (5) private funding totaling $600,000 (see April 2022 article here.)

Shift Thermal now has seven full-time employees and filed a second Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) application for its heat exchanger technology.

As they move forward toward full commercialization, Atoyan and Ishmael have three demonstration projects underway or pending. One is with the National Renewable Laboratory which Atoyan says “will validate the IHEX Module for the industry.”

Now entering their sixth year of the start-up world, we asked the Co-Founders about the journey. Ishmael said that he has learned a lot about manufacturing, adding, “It’s taken longer (than I anticipated) for sure. Atoyan explained that he “never understood why but now I do.”

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