March 9, 2015

NETenergy advances in two startup competitions

A thermal energy tech company aiming to cool down customers’ energy consumption costs through the Chicago Innovation Exchange’s (CIE) Business Incubator program has recently advanced in two startup competitions.

NETenergy, a project led by University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) professor Said Al-Hallaj and Booth School of Business student Mike Pintar, was invited to participate in the semifinal round of the Kaplan New Venture Challenge at the Booth School last week. The competition requires teams to submit an initial presentation early in the spring, submit a business plan mid-spring quarter, and to make a final presentation later in the quarter. The top finalists in the competition compete for $500,000 in prizes.

“[It’s] an exciting opportunity because they’re really going to dig in and critique your business plan to see what you need to fix to make it the most viable business possible,” Pintar said.

The other competition NETenergy is advancing in is called the Clean Energy Trust Challenge, organized by the Clean Energy Trust in support of clean energy innovation in the Midwest. The Clean Energy Trust Challenge pairs startups with mentors in the industry to help advance the business. NETenergy’s mentors include an investment banker in renewable energy and a scientist at Argonne National Labs. After six weeks of working with the mentors, the finalist teams will pitch their idea in mid-April and the best teams will awarded a million dollars’ worth in prizes.

“Through working these competitions, we’re hoping to really hone in on targeting a market,” Pintar said. NETenergy is currently considering selling their thermal energy module through Energy Service Companies, which help building owners come up with ways to save their energy consumption. Other options include selling the energy module to retail companies that could integrate the module into their standard building offers and to utility companies that have to spend a lot of money to meet peak electricity demand.

The idea behind NETenergy’s technology is to use an air conditioner to run at night when energy prices are lower to cool their thermal energy module. “Then during the day, this energy would be discharged in lieu of running the air conditioner at full power when the energy prices are high.” Pintar said.

Many companies all over the U.S. actually use similar technologies to offset air conditioner consumption. They do this by freezing large tanks of ice using a special chiller system to melt during the day for cooling. The issue is that freezing water efficiently actually requires lowering the temperature way below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and air conditioners don’t operate optimally at that temperature.

“NETenergy has a patented phase change composite of graphite and wax that allows us to control the freezing point. So we’re able to control the freezing point to more of a 40 to 50 degree Fahrenheit range, which is the optimal temperature that a standard average rooftop air conditioner operates at,” Pintar said.