University technology developers test skill with questioners
Carlo Luri, general manager of Bently Biofuels Co. in Minden, listened carefully to a proposal to finance a northern Nevada company to refine specialty fuels from waste tallow.
Less than half an hour later, Luri told researcher Rainier Busch that Busch needs to sharpen his financial projections before he makes a serious bid for venture capital financing.
That was just exactly what leaders of the University of Nevada, Reno, and the Desert Research Institute wanted as they showcased four promising technologies before a panel of technology and venture finance specialists a few days ago.
Working with Nevada Institute for Renewable Energy Commercialization, higher education officials want to get out the word that they’ve got technologies nearly ready to move into commercial applications.
And they want the technology and finance experts to toughen up entrepreneurial researchers before they hit the streets in search of financing.
Busch, an adjunct professor at UNR with eight years experience in the biofuels industry, told the panel his process to convert tallow into specialty fuels is working in small-scale tests.
An investment of $300,000, he said, would allow development of a pilot plant to produce white fuels the fuels that fire camp stoves, help ignite charcoal and keep patio torches burning.
But Luri wondered whether the size of the white-fuels market Busch estimates it totals $85 million a year would justify the capital and the work.
“I don’t think that going after this one is a smart business plan,” he told Busch.
Other DRI and UNR researchers drew similar questions as they outlined plans to develop new companies around their research.
Among them were Chuck Coronella, Victor Vasquez and Mike Matheus of the UNR chemical engineering department, who have developed technology that could cut the cost of operating municipal wastewater treatment plants by 20 to 40 percent.
Their technology, which provides for improved drying of the sludge produced by the plants, also might create fuel for electric generation.
Panelist Sherrie Clark of GE Energy’s operation at Minden pushed the group to better identify the markets it will target, and Chris Howard of Northstar Investors in Reno said venture capitalists will want to hear much more about the potential financial returns of an investment in the company.
Among the showcased technologies closest to commercialization is one dubbed “LoadIQ,” a software developed by Hampden Kuhns and Morien Roberts of DRI.
Kuhns, who is taking time away from his research work to bring the system to market, said it’s designed to show electric customers the operating costs of individual appliances. That’s going to be a bigger deal, he said, as smart metering allows power companies to charge more during times of day when demand is high.
Members of the review panel noted, however, that LoadIQ will target small businesses, but some of its explanatory material is based around the example of household customers.
Boxes and shipping materials, meanwhile, came to the forefront as Alan Fuchs, an associate professor in UNR’s chemicals and materials engineering department, and Mark Pingle, an economics professor at the school, introduced a new design to improve the performance of lithium-ion batteries.
Clark and fellow panelist David O’Connor, also of GE Energy cautioned Fuchs and Pingle that shipping regulations for batteries are so complex these days that the entrepreneurs should research shipping rules at the same time that they research battery technology.
Li Han Chan, director of operations for NIREC, said the institute hopes to work with DRI and UNR to create more events to showcase promising new technologies.
Nevada Industry Excellence recently launched the Nevada Manufacturing and Tech Forum to provide a platform to help industries forecast, prepare for and build on cybersecurity and technology disruptions as part of the Industry 4.0 revolution.