First Cohort of Innovators Enter West Gate
For Mikhail Konev, founder of Tereform, returning to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to take part in the first cohort for West Gate, the newest Lab-Embedded Entrepreneurship Program (LEEP), is very much coming full circle.
“About a year ago, I went through the Energy I-Corps program looking to see if the technology I helped develop in the lab had any commercial viability,” Konev said. “The initial pitch turned out to not be feasible, but an alternative we pivoted to, everyone was interested in that.”
Konev worked as a researcher at NREL before resigning to start Tereform. Energy I-Corps is a Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Technology Transitions program. West Gate is a program within DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) with core support from the Advanced Manufacturing Office.
As a LEEP node, West Gate embeds innovators at NREL and pairs them with national laboratory scientists and capabilities over a period of two years. During this time, innovators will have prime access to world-class national laboratory capabilities and expertise to significantly advance the development of their clean-energy technologies. Because of this access, innovators save tremendous amounts of time and money leveraging millions of dollars of applied research investment and know-how found within the NREL lab complex.
“On NREL’s campus there’s a physical gate called the West Gate, and if you head through it, you can travel to the Colorado School of Mines campus,” said West Gate Managing Director Rachelle Ihly. “Through the West Gate program, innovators will receive unparalleled support from NREL and the Colorado School of Mines, powering their development of their clean technologies. West Gate also connects innovators with business mentors, curriculum, and training to facilitate their entrepreneurial know-how and growth.”
West Gate’s first cohort includes:
- Andrew Gabor, BrightSpot Automation LLC
- Grant Gunnison, Zero
- Mikhail Konev, Tereform
- Stefan Streckfus, Renewell Energy
“West Gate sounded like a perfect match because NREL has researchers I’ve wanted to work with for ages, and the facilities are perfect for helping to improve and test our products,” said Andrew Gabor, chief technology officer of BrightSpot Automation. “It checked all the boxes.”
Andrew Gabor, BrightSpot Automation
Gabor’s technology focuses on finding defects in solar cells and solar panels, because cracks can lead to inactive areas, or there could be problems in the interconnect wires that transport current.
“Some of these defects are tricky in the sense that you might have cracks that presently aren’t causing a big problem, but they represent risks over time,” Gabor said.
The technology BrightSpot currently has in the market takes a series of images of the panels and cells to find the problems. The goal is to reduce the cost of solar panels, make them more durable, and reduce the annual degradation rate. Gabor is hoping to improve current and future products.
“We’re starting with two tracks. One is machine learning to automate our solutions, and the other is for ultraviolet fluorescence (UVF) testing equipment. It’s a relatively new technique, and there is good expertise at NREL. It’s a non-contact, lower-cost way to look at defects with UV light,” Gabor said. “NREL has many panels on campus that allow me to find a wealth of different defects. This is a little bit of a dream come true to get funded research money to spend on working collaboratively with some of my favorite researchers.”
Grant Gunnison, ZERO
Having previously run his family’s construction business, Grant Gunnison believes that to quickly reduce emissions in the single-family home market, the entire industry must change its approach. After working at NASA designing CubeSats, Grant built a software prototype to test and demonstrate his new approach, ZERO.
“It’s fundamentally about changing the paradigm of how we deploy solutions in homes. Today, we help homeowners understand what to do and enable contractors to price out projects without going to the home, which dramatically reduces the burden on everyone,” Gunnison said. “The industry shouldn’t spend twice the time trying to figure out what to do instead of actually doing it, but today, they do.”
As he continues to develop his software platform, Gunnison said he has been “bootstrapping with the few resources I have and testing with customers at the highest possible volume to validate our approach.”
“We’re giving them a smart tool, instead of a smart person,” Gunnison said. “Which dramatically improves the customer experience and enables them to get all the information they need much faster. This is how you get homes to zero emissions, at scale.”
He hopes his time with West Gate allows him to fundraise, build his team, and further develop the design technology he is working on, as well as certify his system’s performance with the lab.
“This program will be catalytic, both from a technology development standpoint, with research partnership with NREL, but also from a business strategy perspective, it will force me to think deeply about the direction everything is moving in,” he said.
Mikhail Konev, Tereform
Mikhail Konev’s company, Tereform, takes waste textiles, such as carpet and clothing otherwise destined for a landfill, and uses a chemical process to break it down into fundamental building blocks.
“We can remake the kind of polymers and plastics they were in the beginning,” Konev said. “You can only mechanically recycle a water bottle so many times because plastics’ physical properties degrade. Our process of chemical recycling allows us to do it over and over again.”
Typically, it is difficult to use chemical recycling for textiles because of the additives. Konev’s process overcomes that challenge, and for him, West Gate is about validating and scaling up Tereform’s process. Since the West Gate program begins with Energy I-Corps training, even though he has participated before, Konev believes it can still provide crucial lessons.
“Aside from validating the technology, the entrepreneurial training is a huge aspect,” Konev said. “That’s a whole world that I’ve only scratched the surface with, and I’m super excited about that aspect.”
Looking ahead, Konev hopes he can continue with other NREL-based programs, such as the Shell GameChanger Accelerator™ Powered by NREL (GCxN), American-Made Challenges, and the Industry Growth Forum.
“The wonderful thing about it being the inaugural cohort, you get to help shape how this program evolves,” Konev said. “It’s a huge honor.”
Stefan Streckfus, Renewell Energy
Stefan Streckfus, chief technology officer and co-founder of Renewell Energy, aims to convert hundreds of thousands of inactive oil and gas wells into gravity storage sites. Renewell installs a winch on each well after sealing it, then lifts a large weight to the top of the well to store energy that later turns a generator by lowering the weight when electricity is more valuable.
“The vertical drop is key since the average oil well is a mile deep. Additionally, we use the electrical infrastructure that’s already there. Finally, it’s expensive to clean up these wells, and we do the most important part, sealing the well, to install our device,” Streckfus said. “We are giving these unused wells a second life.”
Any stored energy can help utilities balance the power in the grid, but Streckfus thinks his has an advantage.
“It’s more flexible than anything else on the grid today. And NREL’s ability to model out grid events is huge,” he said. “At the end of the next two years, success for us looks like having a well-established customer pipeline, as well as one fully functional commercial product. The reality is that we’re going to have some development left, but if we can start deploying by the end of this program, I’ll be happy.”
Streckfus is also no stranger to paving the way, having participated in two previous incubator/accelerators.
“So far, our company has only been in the first cohort of everything we’ve done,” he said. “I think it’s an opportunity, it’s a responsibility, and it’s exciting to be part of something that’s new that we can help guide in a sustainable and positive way.”
The Two Years Ahead
The application period for the second cohort will be announced on the West Gate program’s website in fall 2022. The selection process is highly competitive and multi-phased. The first-cohort applicants navigated a rigorous selection process and attended a finalist pitch day at the Colorado School of Mines.
“We hope that by the end of their two-year West Gate experience, they’ve de-risked some critical facet of their technology, grown their startup team, and are on a path forward with more funding and resources,” Ihly said. “These people are here to change the world, and West Gate is proud to support these talented innovators.”