“Innovation Crossroads Showcase” spotlights new entrepreneurs, recent graduates

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Five of the seven new start-ups that comprise Cohort 3 of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s “Innovation Crossroads” (IC) program and two of the alumni of Cohort 1 that recently graduated were spotlighted during a showcase Thursday as part of “Innov865 Week.”

Held in collaboration with the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council (TAEBC), the event underscored one of the entrepreneurial strengths of the region – advanced energy and the 15 start-ups that have been or are still participating in the IC initiative. It also marked the graduation for the two alumni of Cohort 1 that recently completed the “Energy Mentor Network” program offered by TAEBC with financial support from Launch Tennessee.

During the event, I had the opportunity to have a fireside chat with the two Cohort 1 graduates – Anna Douglas of SkyNano Technologies and Mitchell Ishmael of Active Energy Systems. Both have ties to Tennessee, but both have also decided to remain here and grow their companies.

Douglas and Ishmael shared the evolution of their start-ups – from the time they arrived in mid-2017 until now – as well as their near-term plans. Not surprising was the fact that both have made major pivots from where they were in their planning when they arrived here 30 months ago.

In Douglas’ case, she said that her initial focus was on a capture and conversion technology of atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbon nanotubes. “We were focused on single wall carbon nanotubes,” she said. Today, the short-term target is multi-wall industrial grade carbon nanotubes.

“We first came in and were thinking as scientists,” Douglas said. After digging into markets and market opportunities, she said the team learned that was not really what was needed and would take much longer “to make the holy grail of materials.” So, SkyNano shifted to the multi-wall nanotubes and is now focused on scaling-up an industrial and chemical process.”

“I’m very excited about where we are now,” Douglas told the attendees.

Ishmael, who was born in Knoxville and now lives in Oak Ridge, co-founded Active Energy Systems with a focus on developing an advanced thermal energy storage technology. His company was one of the three start-ups that secured funding from the just announced TennesSeed Fund.

Noting that the IC entrepreneurs have “two years of runway,” Ishmael said, “We got to take a good, hard look at what we were doing when we came in.” The initial idea was something called pump thermal energy storage which was challenging from both technical as well as financial and scaling perspectives.

“About midway through the program, we really took a good, hard look at what we were doing,” he explained. That review resulted in a pivot to an icephobic heat exchange process that was very valuable and one that the team could execute successfully. “I don’t know if we did not have that runway if we could have figured it out in two years,” he added.

Active Energy is now focused on scaling-up its technology. “We have a benchtop system that works,” Ishmael said. The company is working to build a bigger system, something he characterized as a “show and tell system that looks like it didn’t come from a laboratory.”

Scaling-up is also the focus of SkyNano. “We’re trying to make a bigger system than we have right now,” Douglas said, explaining that the current hardware can make 50 milligrams per hour. The goal is to make about a shoebox-size reactor that could make about 20 kilograms a year, something she characterized as a “pretty large-scale difference.”

Both entrepreneurs praised the assistance they received through the TAEBC-managed “Energy Mentor Network and had some sage advice, particularly for Cohort 3.

“Spend your first year getting an awesome result and spend your second year to get the next amount of money to do what you want to do next,” Ishmael said.

The five Cohort 3 entrepreneurs who presented were:

  • Jesse Thornburg, Co-Founder of Grid Fruit. He is developing a novel technology and operating framework for monitoring and control of commercial refrigeration systems installed at food retailers.
  • Leila Safavi-Tehrani, Co-Founder and CEO of Purist. She is developing a platform technology that can be implemented in existing underutilized research reactor infrastructure nationwide for local and on-demand medical grade radioisotope production.
  • Trevor McQueen, CEO of Neptune Fluid Flow Systems. He is working to scale-up, validate, and manufacture an advanced, thin-film cryogenic sample preparation device designed to substantially improve sample preparation for the transmission electron microscopy (TEM) community.
  • William Fitzhugh, Founder of American Nanotechnologies. Fitzhugh is developing a novel dielectrophoresis (DEP) platform that can reduce the cost of semiconducting carbon nanotube production by orders of magnitude.
  • Jesse Claypoole, Founder of Mantapoole Technologies.The company is developing roll-to-roll manufactured, active multispectral light field (AMLF) micro-optics for applications including autonomous surgery, industrial manufacturing, robotic farming, and real time robot vision.

Look for a series spotlighting all seven Cohort 3 entrepreneurs that will begin publishing next month in

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