By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Michael Garrabrant of Stone Mountain Technologies, Inc. (SMTI) says the technology that his company has developed “offers customers significant savings to heat their homes, businesses and water.”
In the case of this Johnson City-based company, the customers are not individual consumers, but the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) that produce the heat pumps, water heaters and other devices that heat and cool buildings. They will be buying SMTI’s components that enable sorption heat pumps to compete against “standard” direct-fired heating systems.
“Our technology could be in their products within 24 months,” Garrabrant says. “The timing is in their hands.”
In fact, there are two units currently undergoing field testing in NE Tennessee, and five more pending installation in the States of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California.
Garrabrant is a graduate of The Ohio State University with B.S. and M.S. degrees in Mechanical Engineering. He was recruited to the region in 2003 to become Vice President of Product Engineering for American Water Heater Company and transitioned to A.O. Smith Water Products Company when it acquired American Water Heater in 2006.
In 2008, he turned entrepreneur, founding SMTI on the belief that existing technologies for heating buildings, homes and water had about reached their maximum efficiency, so new approaches were required.
Garrabrant cites the fact that non-condensing models of furnaces, boilers and water heaters are at 83 percent efficiency while condensing models are at 96 percent. By comparison, gas heat pumps are realizing efficiencies of as much as 160 percent.
SMTI has benefitted from numerous U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Army, and gas utility grants – more than $4 million, he says – to develop and refine its technologies. Today, Garrabrant notes that his gas heat pumps not only allow operation at great efficiencies for heating cycles, but can also use waste heat or solar energy to power a cooling cycle.
“Our main patent has been filed,” Garrabrant says, adding, “Others are planned for filing soon.”
He says the company has been able to maintain a “cash flow positive position” during development. While he has not pursued venture capital, SMTI will need private investment in the near future to finish development and initiate manufacturing.
With the less plentiful access to investment capital, we asked Garrabrant about the reasons for starting SMTI in Johnson City.
“My wife and I absolutely fell in love with the region,” he says about his arrival more than a decade ago. “Thankfully we live in an age of communication. Theoretically I could have started this company on a remote island.”
Garrabrant is also a realist about the market segment he has picked, an industry that he says is characterized by its propensity for incremental change.
“Externalities trigger major redesigns,” he says of the heat pump and water heater market. In the case of SMTI, Garrabrant believes economics and a commitment to more sustainable and efficient products will drive adoption of his technology sooner rather than later.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Here are two photos that Garrabrant shared with us.