Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

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February 28, 2019 | Tom Ballard


(EDITOR’S NOTE: As Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) finalizes selections for the third cohort in its “Innovation Crossroads” program that accelerates new energy start-ups, we wanted to provide an update on the three members of the inaugural cohort. They arrived here in May 2017 and will complete their two-year Fellowships soon. Today, we spotlight Mitch Ishmael and Active Energy Systems. The final spotlight publishes next week.)

  • When you were selected for the inaugural cohort of ORNL’s “Innovation Crossroads” program, how would you describe the state of your technology and where you were in standing-up a start-up? Active Energy Systems has made a significant pivot since starting the program. We discovered that our initial waste-heat-recovery energy storage “technology” is actually the “application.” Our research led to the invention of a new coating for ice thermal storage cooling coils that prevents ice from sticking, which is a more general and far-reaching discovery capable of disrupting multiple energy markets.
  • Now, more than three-fourths of the way through the two-year experience, how would you answer the question? Commercialization of our original innovation (a thermally integrated power cycle for energy storage) would have been challenging due to the necessary system size for market viability. Instead, we can incrementally de-risk our coating technology for ice thermal storage. Fewer scale-up iterations, bite-sized tranches of capital, shorter time to market… if nothing else, our approach to commercialization has significantly matured.
  • What have been the biggest changes and how has the “Innovation Crossroads” program helped with the progress that you’ve made? The breadth of technical expertise available at ORNL supported us through our pivot: from advanced power cycle technology to novel surface coatings; there was always world-class talent at ORNL ready to brainstorm with us. And the “Innovation Crossroads” team helped us make the necessary industry and investor connections to complete our pivot.
  • What more do you expect/hope to accomplish before your commitment ends in May? We will demonstrate our novel ice thermal storage coating for a waste-heat powered energy storage system to prove the technology’s scalability.
  • What comes after the “Innovation Crossroads” ends for you? Will you remain here or go elsewhere? The National Science Foundation recently announced we have been recommended for a Phase I SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) award. Our plan is to stay in Knoxville and continue improving the cost of the coating and the design of the thermal storage cooling coil.
  • Knowing now what you did not necessarily know at the time, what advice would you offer to the third cohort of “Innovation Crossroads” teams in terms of maximizing the opportunity? My suggestion is to divide your time in two. During the first year, focus on technical development and clearly demonstrate the potential of your technology. In the second year, acquire the resources you need to push your tech to the next level. Reign in the instinct to do everything all the time.

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