Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

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August 02, 2023 | Tom Ballard

Three Knoxville area start-ups join four others in latest “Innovation Crossroads” cohort

This is the seventh iteration of the two-year fellowship program operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Seven entrepreneurs, including three from the Knoxville region, have been selected for Cohort 7 of the “Innovation Crossroads” program operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

The seven include:

  • Qubit Engineering Inc., a company we spotlighted in this 2020 biz article. Founded by Marouane Salhi, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), it is the only company that has adopted quantum computing technology for solving wind farm layout optimization tasks and shows a significant advantage over traditional methods.
  • Re-Du, founded by Md “Arif” Arifuzzaman, is based on an organocatalyst technology he developed that can convert various types of plastics – such as those used to make bottles, carpets, textiles, packaging, foams, and more – into marketable chemicals.
  • ThermaMatrix, founded by Ryan Spencer, has developed a novel optical technique to characterize a range of materials.

The two-year fellowship program was launched with the inaugural cohort of three start-ups in 2017 as part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lab-Embedded Entrepreneurship Program.” Two of those companies – Sky Nano Technologies and Shift Thermal, originally known as Active Energy Systems – have remained in East Tennessee and are making good progress.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) became an early sponsor of at least one start-up annually, and it was soon followed by two other DOE programs – Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office and Building Technologies Office. This year, DOE’s Office of Electricity and Office of Science are helping sponsor some of the participants.

In making the announcement of the seven start-ups in Cohort 7, Susan Hubbard, ORNL Deputy for Science and Technology, praised the success of the program and the companies that have come through it.

“‘Innovation Crossroads’ start-ups have collectively raised more than $170 million in follow-on funding and are responsible for the creation of 140 jobs,” she said. “Energy technology entrepreneurship is difficult, but our alumni companies are seeing their hard work pay off. It will be exciting to experience the new ideas and energy of Cohort 7 as they build upon the recent momentum of ‘Innovation Crossroads.’”

  • Qubit Engineering is sponsored by the Office of Science and TVA. To meet its customers’ needs, Qubit Engineering develops quantum optimization algorithms for the design of wind farms for energy generation. The degree of complexity of the problem – an assessment must take into account land topology, wind climate, wake effects, turbulence effects, and more – makes site evaluation a challenging task for currently used numerical methods. Designing the most efficient wind farms is vital for the expansion of the wind energy sector. The company’s core technology is based on the implementation of hybrid classical-quantum optimization algorithms. Salhi was an ORNL Postdoctoral Research Fellow from 2016 to 2018.
  • Re-Du is sponsored by the Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office. Arifuzzaman, a former Postdoctoral Research Associate in ORNL’s Chemical Sciences Division, explains that effective recycling of plastic waste into useful chemicals will lessen the need for fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions created in new plastics production.
  • ThermaMatrix is sponsored by the Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office. Its technology named laser-digital-image-correlation, or LDIC, is used to heat a localized area of a material and monitor the corresponding thermal expansion with microscale resolution. With the technology packaged inside a small unit that can be attached to a robotic gantry system, LDIC is able to measure intrinsic material properties and perform defect detection with scalability and cost-effectiveness. Spencer is a former IACMI – The Composites Institute graduate research assistant and worked at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Fibers and Composites Manufacturing Facility.

Other Cohort 7 fellows, their companies, and sponsors include:

  • Shantonio Birch is the Founder and CEO of ThermoVerse, which was launched in Ann Arbor, MI. Sponsored by the Building Technologies Office, the company has developed a large-area transactive cooling, heating, and energy storage system, or LATCHES, which can be retrofitted to older buildings to address energy inefficiencies. The grid-interactive energy retrofit aims to make homes smarter and more resilient to the threats of extreme temperatures while reducing energy consumption and maximizing comfort for building occupants. Birch is an alumnus of the National GEM Consortium and held a GEM fellowship at ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source in 2019.
  • Sarah Jordan, Co-Founder of Skuld LLC, which was launched in London, OH, is sponsored by the Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office. The start-up is creating a manufacturing process called additive manufacturing evaporative casting, or AMEC, which joins the capabilities of lost foam casting and 3D printing of polymers. Compared with other additive manufacturing processes, AMEC is faster, capable of creating larger parts with precision tolerances, less expensive, and has known microstructures for ease of part qualification. Skuld has a Department of Defense Small Business Innovation Research project to demonstrate AMEC in aluminum and an America Makes project to develop the process for Inconel alloys.
  • Daniel Lee, Co-Founder and CEO of Perseus Materials, a Bay Area of California-founded company, is sponsored by the Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office. Growth of the wind energy market is throttled by slow turbine blade production, challenging offshore blade installation, limited blade lifetimes, and the emerging problem of blade disposal. Perseus Materials aims to adapt its recent innovations in polymer chemistry to a new additive manufacturing (AM) method for rapid, on-site fabrication of recyclable wind turbine blades, which cannot be achieved with current AM materials and methods.
  • Manas Pathak, Founder and CEO of Chandler, AZ-based EarthEn, is sponsored by the Office of Electricity. The company develops long-duration energy storage using carbon dioxide in a closed loop to potentially store more than 100 hours of energy at a low-cost, highly scalable, and safe manner for more than a 30-year lifetime. EarthEn’s software tools leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to optimize peak demand pricing, enable grid resiliency, and increase the grid’s cybersecurity.

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