By Kerry Feltner
What is the problem with many innovative technologies?
Some never make it out of the lab.
For a company like Dimensional Energy, aligning with NEXUS-NY—a clean energy accelerator—has helped its founders move out from the lab and on their way to the marketplace.
NEXUS-NY is overseen by High Tech Rochester Inc. It was launched in 2013 as a way to help entrepreneurs in the clean energy space. Each year a cohort of 10 teams is given financial and business support as well as mentorship. The program lasts nine months and is broken up into two phases. Once companies make it past the initial exploratory phase, they are eligible to receive up to $60,000 in funding.
Dimensional Energy is a company with technology that actively addresses the problem of climate change.
The firm has created a photoreactor that converts sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into usable energy for multiple fuels including methanol.
"One of the driving factors for this team is we all see a need to fix the carbon cycle," said Jason Salfi, CEO of the firm. "And through the entrepreneurship we really believe that a market-driven solution that is cost competitive is the fastest way to develop solutions at a scale for this major crisis that we're in. This is a company full of folks who are really interested in fixing the climate change issue."
Dimensional Energy's team includes Cornell professors David Erickson and Tobias Hanrath, Ph.D. candidate Jessica Academy Camada Da Silva, and entrepreneurs Clayton Poppe and Jason Salfi.
The firm was officially launched in 2016 and was recently given a grant by the National Science Foundation in July.
"Carbon sequestration and conversion is certainly an area in which there's lot of commercial interest right now," Erickson said. "Sequestration is a relatively mature technology, but I think converting it into useful fuels and so forth is kind of the next generation, and that's where the burgeoning companies like ourselves are moving into."
Dimensional Energy is one of 10 startups that make up NEXUS-NY and is part of the programs third cohort. Today NEXUS-NY has helped twenty-one concepts become companies with 13 of those startups raising a combined $25 million in the past four years.
For Doug Buerkle, Founding executive director of NEXUS-NY, the program has been an interesting learning ground. Today it has a strong foundation.
"Four years ago it was a concept we were trying to figure out how to build. We had some ideas, but we didn't know what was going to work and what wasn't going to work," he said. "This whole concept of 'we can take technologies for research labs and help translate them into the market,' I think we've demonstrated we know how to do that."
One pivot point was the role of scientists. Not every scientist or researcher wants to be an entrepreneur, Buerkle says. That has helped the program shift gears to find the right technology and then build a scientific advisory team around it instead of the opposite.
"We didn't always have access to the best technologies because our program requires that the scientist not only show interest in the commercial technology but that they're actually engaged in the commercialization process," he said. "There were many scientists that just didn't have the interests [and] didn't have the time to do that.
Competition is out there but Dimensional Energy Has addressed the problem from a different angle, Erickson says.
"What gives us, I think, a competitive advantage over some of these other companies is we've developed special ways to use the heat and the energy within sunlight to perform the conversion as opposed to relying on other means such as electricity," he said.
Adds Salfi: "Right now we are looking to work with the large petrochemical companies in driving new ways to [develop] synthetic fuels and also different molecules for plastics. We're looking to create what we consider a solar fuel—activating sunlight to drive a reaction of carbon dioxide."
Moving the technology out of the lab bumps up against the company's biggest challenge: scaling up.
"Our biggest challenge is scalability," Salfi said.
New York State has made clean energy a priority. Companies like Dimensional Energy have been able to learn and grow faster thanks to the state's focus.
"There's one NYSERDA in the country," Salfi said. " at a state level, to have the support of NYSERDA In through the programs it funds like NEXUS-NY—New York State is really special. We have pretty much our own DOE sitting right in front of us."
With the support of an NEXUS-NY and New York State, Dimensional Energy continues to evolve. The next few years are going to be crucial for the young company.
"We are going to continue to scale," Salfi said. "We'd love to within the next 3 to 5 years have a commercially viable demonstration reactor. Hopefully over the next five years we'll certainly lay the groundwork for deploying one of our reactors that could be producing the feedstocks for a major chemical operation."
Rochester helped Dimensional Energy become what it is today, Salfi said.
"The fact is we definitely are the result of a program that is administered through High Tech Rochester," he said. "Our origin story is straight out of Rochester. We are all from Ithaca but it took a Rochester catalyst to bring this team together."