Ian Hamilton had an idea for a nuclear battery the size of a small coffee can that will operate continuously for two years and be lightweight enough for soldiers to carry on months or years-long missions. He grew the idea into a startup company, Atlas Energy Systems, and attracted early funding while a student at Purdue University. But graduation threatened to pull the plug on his dreams of entrepreneurship.
“I turn spent nuclear fuel into energy via radioisotope plasma generation to power the battery,” he said. “I couldn’t just go build a nuclear accelerator in my garage.”
There are only a few places in the world with that type of equipment and gaining access to them can be time-consuming and costly. Until the U.S. Department of Energy launched a hybrid incubator/accelerator at Argonne National Laboratory last year. The program, Chain Reaction Innovations (CRI), gives cleantech entrepreneurs such as Ian unprecedented access to the multi-million dollar R&D tools of a national laboratory, the guidance of expert laboratory scientists and engineers, up to $210,000 over two years for salary and travel expenses, and $100,000 to spend in the lab for research. Innovators also receive business mentoring from staff at Purdue Foundry at Purdue University, the Polsky Center at the University of Chicago, and CRI.
Ian was accepted into the first cohort, which started in January. It was a turning point for his company. He expects to have a prototype battery within the first four months of working on one of the laboratory’s accelerators.
Felipe Gomez del Campo, Founder and CEO of FGC Plasma Solutions, was also accepted in the first CRI cohort. Felipe and FGC are developing plasma assisted fuel injection systems that will lead to smaller, cleaner, and more efficient engines and turbines. In 2015, FGC Plasma won $100 thousand at the Clean Energy Trust Challenge and joined CET’s portfolio of cleantech startups. FGC has gone on to do testing at NASA and in 2015 Felipe was invited to the White House as part of an event celebrating emerging entrepreneurs. Felipe is particularly excited to work with world-class researchers with incredible equipment that will allow FGC to make huge strides in testing and developing their technology
“Launching a cleantech startup is very difficult,” said Andreas Roelofs, director of CRI. “It requires long development cycles in high-tech laboratories that can take more than a year and hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up. CRI gives cleantech innovators labs to use, technical guidance from Argonne researchers and business mentoring from CRI staff, giving them more time to focus on R&D. This accelerates the development of their technology and gives them the modeling, validation, and scale-up tools to make the technology attractive to investors and commercial partners.”
To qualify for CRI, innovators need to be US citizens or permanent residents, have not raised more than $1 million in private funding, and are first time founders. The technology should have a positive societal impact in the areas of advanced manufacturing, US competitiveness or energy efficiency or sustainability.
CRI’s second cohort will be accepted later this year. To get notified when the application process opens, innovators should fill out a pre-application form.