NYC’s Radiator Labs Nabs MIT Clean Tech Prize, Vies for New US Crown

6/5/12Follow @arleneweintraub

Marshall Cox moved into graduate housing at Columbia University a couple years back and immediately ran into a problem that plagues many New York City residents. His apartment was too hot. Cox couldn’t adjust his radiator because all of the heat for the building came from a single steam generator. So the only way he could get some relief was to open a window. Sometimes he got so desperate he turned off the radiator, but then he’d wake up freezing and have to crank it back up again. “The temperature could not be regulated without wasting a huge amount of energy, and even then, it wasn’t working,” says Cox, who expects to complete his Ph.D. in electrical engineering this year. “It was a horrible way to live.”

Cox’s quest to find comfort in his own home became a business plan for Radiator Labs, which invented a temperature-regulating slipcover for steam radiators. On May 1, Radiator Labs won the MIT Clean Energy Prize and took home $200,000 to help get the business off the ground. Now the company is one of six startups vying for the National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition, a new prize sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Cox will pitch his plan to venture capitalists and energy-industry executives at an event in Washington, DC on June 13.

Cox developed his idea with the help of a research group called the Columbia Lab for Unconventional Electronics, run by assistant professor John Kymissis, who is now serving as the Radiator Labs’ chief technology officer. They first tested the technology in the place that inspired the company—Cox’s apartment. It went so well, Cox says, the company is now planning a large pilot for the upcoming winter, which will be run in a New York apartment building that has yet to be selected.

Radiator Labs’ device was designed to address the core problem with steam heat, Cox says, which is that it’s impossible to distribute it evenly. That’s because unlike most homes, where the temperature on different floors can be controlled independently, most old apartment buildings only have one “zone,” meaning their steam units are programmed to send the same amount of heat to everyone. “Apartments that lose heat faster are heated to compensate for that,” he says. “As a result, apartments that lose heat more slowly become vastly overheated.”

Radiator Labs designed a cover that intelligently controls how much hot air flows into a room. Using electronic sensors that are attached the cover, the device releases heat into the room, via a small fan, based on how much is needed to keep the room at a steady, comfortable temperature. (See video demonstration below.) The system does need to be plugged into a power source, Cox says, but it only uses about six watts of electricity. “The increase in the energy efficiency of the steam system is vastly more than the electricity you’re using,” Cox says.

Most energy experts agree that steam heat is horribly inefficient. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority estimates that steam-based buildings use between 15 and 30 percent more heat than they need. There are 14 million steam-heated apartments in the U.S. that waste $4.5 billion a year in heating oil, according to figures collected by Radiator Labs.

The first version of Radiator Labs’ device uses a standard wall-mounted thermostat, but the company has big plans for future iterations. Cox is developing a building-wide system that would connect to the Internet and allow apartment residents to control their heat via the Web or their smart phones. The founders plan to market their technology both to building owners and to individual consumers, though they are still working out the specifics of the marketing strategy, Cox says. “Some people care about it because they want to be more comfortable,” Cox says. “Different people care about it because they want to save energy and money.”

At the National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition, Radiator Labs will spend three days fine-tuning its business plan and meeting with potential financing sources. The company will compete against five other University teams from across the country, all of which won regional competitions that feed into the national program. The grand prize is $100,000, but Cox says the connections he expects to make through the program will be much more valuable than the money. “The major compensation is going to be exposure, and meeting those institutions that can help us.”

The DOE established the national competition this year with the goal of fostering student-run businesses focused on clean tech. The six regional business plan competitions leading up to the national prize were held in the spring. MIT, which has sponsored a clean tech business plan competition for the past four years, was chosen to be the northeast regional lead.

After the national competition, Radiator Labs plans to raise about $750,000 in seed financing to fund several pilots, Cox says. “I’ve gotten e-mails from Greece, Australia, England, Canada. They’re all asking us to do a pilot,” he says. But first the company must complete its initial pilot in New York—a test that will be essential for demonstrating that its little device can provide big value to building owners, Cox says. “The data from my apartment shows we can increase comfort. That’s proven,” he says. “But we need to be able to certify an energy-efficiency case.”

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  • ngmdisqus

    It’s also inefficient with rooms have electric or gas heat individually simply for living on an upper floor. There needs to be a way to send heat back down if possible.

  • Master Plvmber

    As a steam-heating installation and repair contractor, I certainly applaude your efforts in identifying a problem and offering a remedy. However, there are already non-electric options on the market that deal with this by reading the room air temperature and opening and closing an individual radiator’s air vent, thus dis/allowing steam to travel into the unit and heat the room. Surely, in your research you’ve come across thermostatic radiator valves (TRVs).
    It’s this product that could use improvement as I do believe that non-electric is the way to go when trying to reduce overall energy consumption.
    Thanks,
    John Cataneo
    Gateway Plumbing and Heating
    New York, NY