For this edition of Ask an Expert we spoke with David Hamilton, Executive Director of the Clean Energy Business Incubator Program (CEBIP), a virtual incubator at Stony Brook University. He is also the Chief Operating Officer for the Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center (AERTC), a NYS Center of Excellence at Stony Brook University. In this dual role, Hamilton helps clean energy companies make the journey from the pre-seed stage through commercialization and large-scale engineering, while leading the effort to discover and deploy innovative energy technologies.
Tell us a little about CEBIP and AERTC and how they work together.
CEBIP is one of six clean energy incubators that NYSERDA runs in the state. I was hired in 2011 to get it started. It is a virtual incubator, so our folks do not have to rent space at Stony Brook, although some do. We work with pre-seed companies, so almost all of our companies start as one or two people coming out of a lab or a basement. We help them figure out what they want to be when they grow up because a lot of them don’t have a real understanding about their ultimate business goals or customers. They have great technology, but they don’t know how to get it into the market. They don’t know who their customers are. We spend a lot of time helping them with their business strategies, their business plans, their pitch, raising money, getting patents and so on. We work with them all the way through commercialization, so we are kind of a life cycle business incubator.
In January of 2018 Stony Brook asked me to also take over AERTC, one of the 13 Centers of Excellence (COE) funded by NYSTAR. It’s a 49,000 square-foot building and what we do there falls into three main pillars. First is research. We have labs with scientists and researchers from Stony Brook and Brookhaven National Lab working on advanced energy technologies, doing grant-funded research. Second, we have incubator space where we have seven companies working on their own technologies. Some of them are also part of CEBIP. Then, as a COE, we need to look at commercialization and economic development impact, so the third pillar is looking at strategic partnerships and getting industry involved in what is going on at the energy center.
As to how they work together, the Energy Center has an overarching role in looking at advanced technologies, discovering them and figuring out how to commercialize them. CEBIP is more about helping individual companies also in that same area. We are looking at how we can integrate that more. For example, how can we get the CEBIP companies more involved with our energy researchers? Are there joint efforts that can happen there?
How has your background prepared you for your dual role?
I graduated from Clarkson with an Electrical Engineering Degree. The first seven years of my life after graduation I was at LILCO (Long Island Lighting Company), working on independent power projects. So, it is exactly what we are trying to do now (distributed generation, microgrids, etc.) except back then it was not as well-accepted. I got to understand how utilities work, both from a planning perspective as well as operationally. After that, I worked with multiple start-up companies. I worked at what is now Sirius XM. I spent five years there building out their terrestrial network before they launched. Then I spent another 5-plus years at Plug Power, as the Long Island program manager for a fuel cell farm they had here. I worked for a solar company for five years, too.
So, I’ve seen companies like Plug Power with an amazing technology try to commercialize and struggle. Sirius ultimately succeeded but when I was there, it was trying to convince people to pay for satellite radio. That was all about customer discovery and trying to change the mindset of the consumer. I’ve lived through that. The telecom company I worked for was fantastic for nine months. I had more stock options then I knew what to do with; I was a millionaire on paper. But the management team spent all the money they raised on fancy cubicles and carpets and ran out of money.
My work experience brought me to a point where it all came together in a really serendipitous way, to allow me to work with these startup companies and really see from their perspective where they are, but also help them to see from the real-world perspective, which they don’t always understand. And I found I am halfway decent at talking to them about these things where they actually listen, which is another challenge with startups.
Why is clean energy important to New York’s economy?
Looking at it first from Long Island’s perspective–Long Island was huge in the defense and aerospace industries. And then all these companies started merging with each other, and a lot of them left, so Long Island sort of lost its identity. What we are hoping is that we can tap into the resident genius of Long Island, because all of those resources are still here. A lot of the managers and aerospace engineers are still here and a lot of the support companies are still here. So, our mission is to foster clean energy companies who are going to grow and stay here. And as they grow, they will start tapping into all of the resources we have here to build a robust clean energy ecosystem. That is the goal. Will that happen or how long it will take I can’t say, but we’re making strides there.
From the state’s perspective, Governor Cuomo has set very aggressive goals with regard to clean energy. He wants us to reduce our greenhouse gases, he wants us to be decarbonized, he wants us electrified, and he wants us to be 100% renewable by 2040. You can’t snap your fingers to do that. You need programs like CEBIP and the Energy Center and what NYSERDA brings to the table and what FuzeHub brings to the table in terms of helping manufacturing, because we need to grow an industry here.
Where would you say that effort stands?
The plans are there. The Governor, NYSERDA and NYSTAR have plans in place for offshore wind and they have roadmaps for what they want to achieve from a goals perspective, but now we have to make it work. Now we have to implement it. And that’s the hard part. It can’t all be startups, but we do need innovative technologies to get us to where we need to be. That is in conjunction with the larger companies, to use existing knowledge and existing capabilities.
Ultimately, it will be about workforce development. It will be about economic development because we are going to be hiring people for new jobs, high-paying jobs, long-lasting jobs because once we go renewable, we aren’t going back. Workforce development will be critical to the success of New York moving forward.
Can you share some success stories with us?
There is ThermoLift, a natural gas heat pump company. They have been part of CEBIP since 2012. They are building a complicated device that is completely innovative and game-changing from a thermodynamic perspective. They have raised well over $20 million. They have gotten multiple million dollars in grants. They’ve been tested by Oakridge National Labs–successfully–and now they are close to having pilot sites installed in New York and Canada.
Another is Unique Electric Systems, or UES. They’ve gotten a lot of funding from NYSERDA. They focus on the electrification of delivery trucks. They have a contract with UPS. They started out by retrofitting a couple of trucks and they were so successful with those that UPS has given them a contract for a much larger number. To do that work they had to partially move out of the Energy Center incubator into their own manufacturing space on Long Island, which is very exciting.
How are the researchers and entrepreneurs you work with responding to the COVID-19 pandemic?
A researcher at the Energy Center, when ventilators were such a problem, was able to work with some of the folks at Stony Brook and design a ventilator from scratch using off-the-shelf components, and we actually started the process of doing small-scale manufacturing efforts. It turns out the ventilator supply crisis passed and the technology did not have to be advanced further, but for a one-week period he probably worked 20 hours a day on it and got it fully functional where it could have been used on a patient.
There’s also one of our incubator companies that does soil remediation. They are actually looking to file a grant proposal with a researcher at Stony Brook to look at filtration methods that could have an impact, through masks or whatever it may be, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Then we had another company that is in ocean wave generation. They came across a technology that is the vaporization of a certain molecule that, when sprayed in a room, kills or prevents the spread of COVID-19, they believe. So, they have now shifted their focus to look at this potential opportunity, which is a complete pivot from what they were doing.