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January 12, 2020 | Tom Ballard

Jesse Thornburg learned early in life how to fix things

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a series of seven spotlighting the start-ups that comprise Cohort 3 of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s “Innovation Crossroads” program.)

Jesse Thornburg says he grew-up moving around the east coast before the family settled in Asheville, NC for his high school years. His father had a woodworking shop, and the younger Thornburg says, “I got used to fixing things.”

Today, he and his partner in a company named Grid Fruit are focused on addressing a challenge that affects retailers such as grocery and convenience stores that have large coolers for food and beverages. It’s the cost of energy, and fine-tuning a solution was what brought Thornburg to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and Cohort 3 of its “Innovation Crossroads” (IC) program.

“Refrigeration and freezer loads can be shifted somewhat as long as food is kept within certain bands,” the PhD graduate of Carnegie Mellon University says. “We anticipate saving each supermarket about $31,000 a year, depending on size.”

As anyone who has studied the business operations of grocery stores knows, the margins are extremely small, so any savings helps with profitability. Thornburg says that labor and energy are the top two costs for a grocery store and the refrigeration load alone accounts for 50 to 60 percent of all electrical energy usage.

Reducing the cost of energy is important on several fronts, but the young entrepreneur also says there is a competitive advantage for the stores. Through a National Science Foundation I-Corps program that focuses on customer discovery, Thornburg learned that one way for grocery and convenience stores to compete against eCommerce providers is in the fresh and frozen products segments that will bring customers into a brick and mortar location.

Grid Fruit launched a small pilot in a convenience store in Pittsburgh in 2017.

“We’ve been collecting data on temperature, air pressure and door openings,” Thornburg says, explaining that large stores have sensors to collect that information. “We’re taking the data, using AI (artificial intelligence), and optimizing actions like defrosting.”

During the two-year IC fellowship, Thornburg wants to have a larger-scale pilot running at what he calls the utility level, something that is more feasible now that TVA is partnering with ORNL on Cohort 3. Among the areas that he wants to better assess are time of day pricing and staggered loads. Thornburg also wants to implement a pilot project with a large supermarket.

“We’re talking to a lot of stores and have executed an NDA with one large chain,” he says.

Thornburg’s first two degrees are from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while his partner is a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon. The two first collaborated while Thornburg was working on a different idea – a company named KOPO, LLC with a bottle he had designed that would purify water using solar energy. That idea came as a result of identifying a need he saw during a two-year mission in the Congo and Rwanda working on hydro plants and microgrids.

“The materials and shipping were too costly,” Thornburg says of the failed venture.

How did he learn about the IC program?

“We were pitching at a lot of conferences,” Thornburg said. One was a regional U.S. Department of Energy “Cleantech University Prize National Competition” where he met ORNL’s Dan Miller, who leads IC. “He put a bug in my ear.”

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