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Uptown startup hub CLT Joules fuels clean-energy innovation

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/22/10/37/7vUWv.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Katie Hughes, director of product development for International ThermoDyne, holds a single layer of PowerFelt, which is a thin, flexible material that harvests energy from heat and motion, converting it to electricity.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/22/10/37/7PWga.Em.138.jpeg|233
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Katie Hughes, director of product development for International ThermoDyne, holds a single layer of PowerFelt.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/22/10/37/1kQoVm.Em.138.jpeg|235
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Katie Hughes, director of product development for International ThermoDyne, shows a piece assembled of PowerFelt with heat sinks on the top and bottom and two electrical contacts.

Imagine a material that harvests heat and motion to recharge your phone. A light bulb that stays on during power outages. Or “bio-coal” made of organic wastes.

That’s some of the work bubbling up from CLT Joules, Charlotte’s nursery for energy entrepreneurs.

Launched in 2012 in Packard Place, the former car dealership that is uptown’s startup hub, Joules offers office space, legal and financial advice and mentors for fledgling businesses.

More important, the “energy accelerator” connects innovators looking for their first customer, and capital, to established companies prospecting for new ideas.

“When your primary business is to produce electricity, sometimes innovation takes a back seat,” says industry veteran Jim Little, interim president of the energy group E4 Carolinas. “What incubators and accelerators do is kind of bend the curve.

“They change the traditional thinking. They’re not encumbered by tradition. They’ll ask the questions that people have forgotten to ask.”

In return, entrepreneurs learn from veterans how to turn technology into profit, from pricing their products and projecting cash flows to protecting intellectual property.

“There are big companies here actively looking for new, innovative ideas, actively looking for new pieces of business, and who want to partner with entrepreneurs who are willing to take those risks,” says Mark Delgado, who moved to Charlotte in January. “CLT Joules can make those connections.”

As a pre-teen, Delgado wrote computer programs. As a sophomore nuclear engineering student at N.C. State University, he built a radiation detector called an ionization chamber in his dorm room. And as a 2013 graduate, he turned down a couple of six-figure job offers to become an entrepreneur.

“My parents hated me for a while,” he says.

At 25, Delgado is CEO of Koyr Engineering, a nuclear-industry startup that makes radiation detectors that work with smartphones. Koyr also sells software that improves efficiency by automating labor and improving work flow.

The company hopes to gain a toehold in a daunting marketplace.

“The barriers to entry in this industry are massive,” he says. “The educational barriers are extremely high. The sales cycles (from first contact to close) are very long. And then the industry operates more like a family because there are only about 100 nuclear reactors in the United States. So if you make one mistake, you’re done.”

Delgado has reason for optimism. Koyr has completed a pilot project at Duke Energy’s Brunswick nuclear plant and has received approval to do additional work at the plant. A second pilot project, at Duke’s Shearon Harris plant, will start soon.

Ramped up last fall

Founded by Duke emerging-technology official Curtis Watkins, Joules (the term is a unit of energy) ramped up its operations last fall.

The accelerator hired its first full-time executive director, Lori Collins, a financial services veteran. Joules expanded its board, partnered with E4 Carolinas in a leadership development program and hosted “pitch” events for entrepreneurs.

Duke is the primary financial backer, with support from the Moore & Van Allen law firm and the accounting company BDO.

While Joules focuses on energy, it’s not alone in the startup space.

UNC Charlotte’s Energy Production & Infrastructure Center, known as EPIC, partners in research and product development. ReVenture Park, a private “eco-industrial park” in west Charlotte, hosts fledgling businesses. The Project for Innovation, Energy & Sustainability ( PiES), a green-business incubator in Davidson, is working with three energy companies.

The Department of Energy has identified 40 clean-energy accelerators nationwide.

Joules announced three new client companies last month, for a total of seven. Two companies have graduated the yearlong program. Joules requires that its companies move to Charlotte – SineWatts, which also has a relationship with EPIC, relocated from storied Silicon Valley. Joules has 16 more prospects in its pipeline, including five from out of state.

“I feel like the ecosystem is healthy because energy companies are sending (startup) companies our way,” Collins says.

From heat to electricity

On Packard Place’s third floor, year-old International ThermoDyne is at work to commercialize a cloth-like material that seems to snatch energy from the air.

PowerFelt was developed by Wake Forest University physicist David Carroll. The thin, flexible material harvests energy from heat and motion, converting it to electricity.

Fitted to a case, it could recharge a cell phone. Wrapped around a house, ThermoDyne says, it could power the whole structure.

“You start to see energy everywhere,” says co-founder Tim Risser. “You get to the point where you say, wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if we no longer had electrical outlets?”

ThermoDyne’s team doesn’t need business coaching. Risser has deep roots in manufacturing and consulting, Paul Solitario in banking and entrepreneurship, Michael Brisson in manufacturing and management. Katie Hughes has a chemistry doctorate from Princeton University.

ThermoDyne won the Princeton Entrepreneur’s Network $30,000 business-plan competition in May.

“Our attorney calls us ‘a startup with adult supervision,’ ” Solitario said.

After an introduction by Collins, the company moved PowerFelt’s product development to EPIC.

“We know how to make it by hand,” Hughes says. “Figuring out the best and most efficient way to make it at a cost that people are willing to pay for, in large scales, are the really big challenges. I truly believe we can. It’s a ‘when,’ not an ‘if.’ 

The Southeast, where ThermoDyne plans to manufacture PowerFelt, owns a rich textile legacy. Charlotte hosts a 200-company energy hub. And CLT Joules has contacts.

“Lori’s done a great job of reaching out to the larger corporate community in the energy sector and that’s provided some really nice contacts,” Solitario says. “We could be calling these large companies ourselves, but it’s really nice to have somebody doing that for us, to say to XYZ Corp., we have some folks with some really cool technologies that you need to bring your product development folks down to see. That adds a lot of value.”

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender
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