PowerBridgeNY Draws New Ideas in Energy from the Academic Well

Lots of universities try to turn lab research into real businesses. Backing from a New York state agency may give some innovations in energy a head start.

Last week, 13 teams from area universities pitched ideas to a panel of venture capitalists and energy industry experts, hoping to win a piece of grant funding. Some of the teams focused on software while others tackled hardware, such as power transformers, to make the grid more efficient.

The pitch day was hosted by PowerBridgeNY, which is a collaboration between two groups of schools and research organizations (led respectively by Columbia University and NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering.) Each group won $5 million grants from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to support energy technology development.

A third group, High Tech Rochester, also won a $5 million grant from NYSERDA but is not involved with PowerBridgeNY. High Tech Rochester is a nonprofit that works with such institutions upstate as the Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Rochester, the SUNY Research Foundation, and Cornell University.

PowerBridgeNY plans to give up to $150,000 per team to help their ideas see the light of day. Much of the technology presented at the pitch day was in early development, though some seemed to be on the fast track to market.

The team behind Grid Symphony presented plans for power-supply forecasting software for electric grids. Team member Ariel Fan said Grid Symphony uses machine learning, comparable to the way Google knows what people are about to type into the search engine before they do it and how Facebook suggests new friends. “We want to build a brain for the electric grid,” she said.

Forecasting the availability of energy resources, Fan said, especially in times of severe weather when power can be lost, can help grid operators plan more efficiently. The usual strategy, Fan said, is to overbuild and create redundancy in the grid in case transformers explode. That means more hardware such as power lines and substations—the cost of which is passed along to the customers.

Grid Symphony, she said, can alleviate some problems by giving operators information to divert energy away from parts of the grid that may be at risk, potentially saving billions of dollars currently spent on hardware backups. “By monitoring which places are more vulnerable, we’re able to direct our load to areas with less pressure,” Fan said. The team previously developed software for ConEd that anticipates electric load.

The service Grid Symphony plans to offer could also be used by microgrids such as universities, she said, which may run on own localized power. “We also want to target data analytics firms and service providers for these types of businesses,” Fan said.

Another team at PowerBridgeNY took on some of the heaviest hardware around: railroads. Headed by Lei Zuo, associate professor at Stony Brook University, this team is developing what they call an electromagnetic railroad energy harvester.

The idea is to create an alternative power source for the infrastructure and devices along railroad tracks. The harvester converts the up-and-down vibration of the track into power, said Nolan Walsh of Columbia Business School, the team’s entrepreneurial lead. Older types of energy harvesters, he said, may generate up two watts, but “we’re able to yield 100 watts each time a train passes.”

In addition to funding from the grants, PowerBridgeNY said it will help its teams find investors, offer mentors, and assist with business plan development. The judges who will pick the winners are drawn from Lockheed Martin, Dow Chemical, IBM Research, Lux Capital, SJM Ventures, and Braemer Energy Ventures. Their decision is expected in about a month.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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