Faces of Manufacturing: John Costa of SunThru

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SunThru LLC is a Schenectady-based developer of transparent insulation in the form of aerogel monoliths, lightweight nanostructured materials with applications as thermal insulators. The company, which was born in the aerogel lab at Union College, aims to bring the performance of triple-pane windows to existing double-pane infrastructure, answering the call both for energy efficiency and the customer’s need for ease and cost savings.

“There is a big shift in Energy Star guidelines and there will be similar shift in building codes that will drive a push toward triple-pane equivalent products,” said John Costa, CEO of SunThru. “That is the problem we are addressing by working with customers to insert aerogels between two panes of glass.”

Early Days

 

As a Mechanical Engineering major at Union, Costa spent a lot of time in the aerogel lab with his good friend, Adam Forti.  They were so engaged in their work with professors Ann Anderson and Mary Carroll that they kept a hammock in the lab for naps.

When they graduated, Costa went into the pizza business with his father but kept in close touch with Forti. The two decided to get into business together, using Forti’s idea for aerogel insulation. They took their plans to Anderson and Carroll, who had started SunThru to leverage the aerogel manufacturing process they had invented years earlier. The professors were impressed and invited their former students to join the company in January 2020.

The new team applied for a National Science Foundation Phase 1 Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant and received $256,000. It also gained entry into NSF’s I-Corps customer discovery program.

“That program is phenomenal,” Costa said. “We did about 200 interviews in six weeks with people throughout our industry and learned a lot about windows.”

Unfortunately, potential customers disliked the translucent aerogel inserts they were shown. Using the NSF grant, the team engaged the Union lab in coming up with transparent aerogels. In three months, it did.

“That was a major turning point for us,” Costa said. “We developed a plan on how we would go about scaling from there.”

Growing Panes

 

With Union’s technology, SunThru was limited to 5” by 5” aerogels.  The next logical step was 14” by 20.” SunThru searched for the right equipment, but soon realized it would have to build its own machine. The company pitched its plan for the Supercritical Oven for Monolith Aerogels, or SOMA, to FuzeHub and won the 2021 Commercialization Competition and a $50,000 prize.

SunThru then spent 2022 building SOMA, with the help of a consultant hired thanks to NYSERDA’s Manufacturing Expertise-in-Residence (MEIR) grant program.  Costa said that would not have happened without FuzeHub’s support.

“There are a lot of parts to making it all come together,” Costa said. “Now we’ve got this device that does exactly what we want it to do. We have not made a perfect 20” by 14” aerogel, but we are fairly confident we will get there in the coming months.”

Once it has hit that milestone, it plans to build a second-generation SOMA at a cost of about $1 million. This version will be scalable to allow SunThru to create incrementally larger aerogels with the goal of eventually reaching 5’ by 10’.

Seeing the future

 

SunThru’s long-term plan is to sell its products to residential glass manufacturers who would insert them between double-paned windows. In turn, these windows would be sold to companies like Anderson Windows & Doors and Pella.  The company expects demand for its aerogels to grow as stricter energy efficiency requirements take hold.

“In five to 10 years, we hope to be in most window products in the Northern climate zones in US,” Costa said.

 

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