Imagine driving a car fueled by reprocessed household trash. Or visiting a farm where a herd of beef cattle is fed with algae that might be vastly better for the environment than the corn and grains in common use today.
Those are just two of the visions being that have been pursued over the past four years by small companies in the Maryland Clean Energy Technology Incubator (CETI) at bwtech@UMBC Research & Technology Park.
As the youngest of three business incubators housed within the research park, CETI has had its share of growing pains. When the incubator was founded in 2009, the clean-energy sector was awash in federal stimulus money. Today, companies must scrap for every bit of private investment and public research support they can muster.
Fledgling clean-energy companies in the CETI get inexpensive office space, ample laboratory facilities, and a host of less-tangible benefits – including proximity to UMBC faculty members and students and membership in a statewide network of energy companies – to help grow their businesses.
“You can meet people here who you’d never meet if you rented offices in a random building in Columbia,” says Bjorn Frogner, who serves as the incubator’s “entrepreneur-in-residence.” With more than three decades of experience in energy and software companies, Frogner gives CETI companies informal advice and troubleshoots problems related to grant proposals, patenting, and human resources.
“Having an entrepreneur-in-residence is a real value,” says George Oyler, the founder of Clean Green Chesapeake, a start-up company piloting systems for converting algae to cattle feed and liquid transportation fuels. “My background was as an M.D./Ph.D. Many academics dream about transitioning into some sort of start-up, but there’s not a lot of appreciation for what it means to be in business as opposed to research. It is really helpful to have people like Bjorn who have a history in this kind of work.”
Perhaps the best-known clean-energy company at BWTECH is Fiberight, which will soon break ground on a large-scale plant in Iowa that will convert municipal waste into ethanol fuels. (The company has begun the planning-and-permitting process for constructing similar plants in Maryland.) Fiberight was already two years old when the CETI was founded, company CEO Craig Stuart-Paul leapt at the chance to move the company’s headquarters there when he learned about its creation.
“There’s no question that you get better access to academic expertise if you’re located in a center like this,” Stuart-Paul says. His company has hired three UMBC graduates as full-time staff members and regularly brings UMBC students aboard as summer interns.
Bryan Kim ’13, chemical engineering, worked as an intern at Fiberight in 2012 and accepted a full-time job this past May after graduation. “I’ve mostly been creating process-and-instrumentation diagrams for our small pilot plant in Virginia,” Kim says. “But I’ve met everyone, and I’ve gotten to do a little bit of everything. That’s the great thing about working for a start-up. This is the best introduction I can imagine to the post-college work world.”
Frogner also hopes that some of the collective expertise of companies at CETI can pay off for the UMBC campus itself, including the possibility of applying “smart grid” technology developed at the incubator to future campus construction projects.
Other companies in the clean-energy incubator include Plant Sensory Systems, which has large federal grants to support the development of genetically-engineered plants with high oil yields and low requirements for nitrate fertilizers; Innovative Bios, which converts animal wastes into cell culture broths for the biotechnology industry; and Agira Energy, a solar-cell manufacturer.
David J. Fink, director of entrepreneurial services at bwtech@UMBC, says that he believes that even more companies at CETI will be helping create a greener future in the marketplace – and maybe sooner than anyone thinks.
“We have today a very strong and diverse set of companies,” Fink says, “and they’re all geared toward bringing products and services to market very rapidly.”
– David Glenn