For this edition of Ask the Expert, we spoke with Brian Apkarian, Director of Business Development for the Center for Future Energy Systems (CFES) at Rensselaer. As one of 15 Centers for Advanced Technology (CATs) funded by NYSTAR, CFES collaborates with New York State companies on R&D projects in the energy sector. Apkarian serves as an “opportunity broker,” helping companies connect to state and federal grants or to Rensselaer faculty who can assist in their research.
Give us a brief overview of CFES and its mission.
We work with companies ranging from startups to the Fortune 100 to collaborate on projects in areas such as wind energy, solar energy, energy efficiency, energy storage, and green hydrogen. One of the things we can do for New York State companies is cost-share a portion of their R&D project expenses using NYSTAR funds. If they come to us after receiving a grant from the Department of Energy or NYSERDA, we can use our cost-share to take the research a step further.
The other thing we can do is help companies acquire third-party funding, such as DOE or NYSERDA grants.
Since our inception in 2006, we have helped over 50 New York State companies, which collectively reported $93 million in economic impact from their collaborations with us. This would include increased revenue, cost savings, federal funds received, and capital raised. During this same period, these companies reported over 200 jobs created.
Why is this important to New York’s future?
We are in sync with New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which spells out ambitious goals, including 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040 and economy-wide, net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Now tell us about your role with CFES.
I came up with the phrase “opportunity broker.” There are funding opportunities for entrepreneurs and young companies with the DOE and NYSERDA and I marry those opportunities to industry partners. As I network and make contacts with different energy companies, I get to know what they do and what their technology is about, and when I see a relevant funding opportunity, I can direct it to a company that would then hopefully bring us in as a research collaborator on any award that they win.
I also broker faculty to industry. Sometimes a faculty member will say “Hey, I have this idea for a research project. Can you find a company in this segment?” Or I may have an industry partner looking for someone in faculty with the needed expertise.
Basically, I hook up funding with companies, funding with faculty, and companies with faculty.
Then at a more macro level, I am responsible for the promotion and marketing of the Center, including quite a few events. I meet a lot of companies through networking events – most are still virtual, but now in-person events are trending up. FuzeHub events, in particular, have been a great use of my time. In fact, CFES is partnering with FuzeHub to co-host the Green Energy and Sustainability Forum in April.
Tell us about your background. What brought you to CFES?
I am relatively new to academia and R&D. I spent 30 years in corporate America in sales, marketing, and product management. I started in sales with Johnson & Johnson and then received my MBA from Syracuse University. I majored in marketing and fell in love with product management and brand management and strategy. I left my sales career and went into marketing strategy in positions with Vermont Castings, Crane Papermakers, and Taconic Biosciences. I went from wood and gas stoves to stationery to transgenic mice. But the interesting thing is the principles of strategic planning and product management are all the same regardless of the product, so I was able to move across industries.
While I was doing that, for about 10 years I was an adjunct here at the Lally School of Management. That exposed me to the fact that there was business marketing and development being done in academia and I was attracted to make a move to that.
From a marketing perspective, what is the main obstacle to selling the public on clean energy?
I think the biggest challenge is that it requires behavioral change. It is not dissimilar to when you go into a drug store and reach for a certain brand of pain killer. You reach for it every time. For a consumer to decide to reach for a different brand, there needs to be a reason – a benefit to them. In the long run, I think it will come down to economic benefit.
What is your message to energy entrepreneurs who want to work with CFES?
I think some people can be intimidated by a large research university and the feeling that “Gee, I am just a startup in my garage” or “I’m not ready for commercialization” or “I don’t have a lot of dollars to spend on R&D.” I think the message I would want to send is how easy it is to initiate a potential collaboration with the university and, at CFES, it would be reaching out to me. We don’t work for free, but we have the cost-share, and we can connect you with funding opportunities. It may not be the right fit but you never know. Just make the contact.
Can you share some CFES success stories?
One would be a New York City company that worked with the Center and faculty member Dr. Theo Borca-Tasciuc to produce a conceptual prototype to assess the feasibility of a proposed micro-climate, solid-state HVAC system. Additionally, the company was able to conduct analysis around product-market fit, customer needs, and go-to-market strategy. The company received financial support from NYSERDA in the amount of $330,000 and used part of the funds to characterize the prototype at Borca-Tasciuc’s Nanoscale Thermophysics and Energy Conversion (NanoTEC) lab. With CFES cost-sharing, RPI was able to conduct a more thorough analysis of the prototype. The anticipated next steps are to develop and evaluate the performance of a full-scale prototype, validate the product benefits, and establish relationships with potential manufacturers.
Another would be a Brooklyn company whose technology cleans automotive sensors and cameras for transportation efficiency and the cooling of electric vehicle batteries. The company’s relationship with the Center, faculty member Dr. Miki Amitay, and the work completed at Rensselaer were instrumental in enabling the company to attract $5 million in seed funding led by a leading automotive manufacturer and additional support from NYSERDA. Technical contributions from the collaborative research effort advanced the development of the company’s synthetic jet module and improved understanding of synthetic jet placement in transportation and camera vision applications. The company has contracted with automotive OEMs and camera manufacturers to move the process to full-scale testing and sales.