(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of several articles spotlighting the entrepreneurs participating in the inaugural “Spark Cleantech Accelerator” hosted by the Spark Innovation Center at the University of Tennessee Research Park. The entrepreneurs behind each start-up will pitch their companies during a “Demo Day” event Wednesday morning in Knoxville. The public is invited. To register, click here.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
When Ed Chan had the opportunity to participate in the inaugural cohort of the “Spark Cleantech Accelerator” at the University of Tennessee Research Park (UTRP), he jumped at the opportunity, and the program has not disappointed the resident of Cincinnati.
“This one is by far the best I have attended,” the longtime corporate executive says. “The content is not that different, but the networking and connections are so great. The networking here is so different.”
Chan talked about the “gray hairs” – Tom Rogers, UTRP President and Chief Executive Officer, John Bruck, Director of the Spark Innovation Center, and Ira Weiss, a Chattanooga-based mentor and connector – and the network they have built in their respective careers.
“It’s not just ‘I know someone,’ but it is actually making those connections,” he explains. “Their networks are deep, broad and respected.”
Like the two UTRP “connectors” Chan cited for their help, he is also a somewhat seasoned in both the existing business and start-up worlds. Chan spent 16 years with three large corporations – E.I. DuPont de Nemours, James River Corporation, and International Paper – before beginning his entrepreneurial journey. Since then, he’s been involved in many senior executive roles at a variety of companies before launching Groundstar LLC not quite four years ago.
Chan (pictured here) describes the Cincinnati-based enterprise as holding company for three early-stage subsidiaries connected through patented technology and advanced materials platforms. In the near term, Groundstar is building prototypes of intelligent store shelves to enable omnichannel item-level inventory management and to provide the ultimate consumer shopping convenience. In the mid-term, the company is creating geoscale, circular economy solutions for carbon capture, climate adaptation and carbon negative technologies. Finally, the company is developing advanced materials and on-demand additive manufacturing of ultra-lightweight composites in the aerospace, automotive, industrial goods and building products verticals.
It is that mid-term initiative – carbon capture using graphene – that is the focus of his activities during the “Spark Cleantech Accelerator.” For the native of Hong Kong who came to the U.S. in 1969 and could not speak any English, his concerns these days are about the urgent need to address climate change.
“If we don’t handle it today, there’s no other earth,” Chan says in his low-key but matter of fact style. More important, he explains that what he is doing as part of the accelerator program is “the culmination of all of these (business) experiences that I have had.”
Chan has a strong technical background, having earned three degrees in Chemical Engineering. After graduating with a B.S. from California Institute of Technology (Caltech), he earned both his M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton University.
He told us his patent pending technology is focused on carbon generators and is specifically designed to use functionalized graphene to capture the exhaust emissions of engines so that the carbon dioxide is not emitted into the air. Thus far, he has had very productive conversations with both Oak Ridge National Laboratory from an R&D perspective, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) from a potential customer perspective.
The “Spark Cleantech Accelerator” is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, City of Knoxville, Launch Tennessee, TVA, and UT Research Foundation, and is further supported by the Energy Mentor Network, a program managed by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council. It is also a partner in the Heartland Climate Tech Partnership, a collaboration of start-up programs across the Greater Midwest Region including Evergreen Climate Innovations and mHUB, both based in Chicago, and Centrepolis Accelerator which is based in Detroit.