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SkySong hosts cleantech, energy experts at forums

March 17, 2011

Edward Fox, vice president and chief sustainability officer for APS, came to SkySong recently to speak to faculty about the lengthy process of commercializing research in the cleantech industry.

“At the end of the day, we’re not in the electron business – we’re in the cold beer and hot showers business,” said Fox. “We’re not buying stuff that isn’t proven. In big corporations, if you have to pull the plug on something, it won’t ever be forgiven. ”

Fox spoke as part of a panel assembled by Venture Catalyst, ASU’s entrepreneurial assistance initiative designed to help faculty, students, alumni and ASU-linked companies launch new startups or accelerate existing ventures.

Dennis Merens of Dow Venture Capital and Tom Cain from Sail Venture Partners were also on the panel and talked about what it takes to get investors interested in a faculty member’s technology. Both Merens and Cain serve on the Venture Catalyst advisory board.

“I’m looking for game-changers,” said Cain. “I don’t care if you’re the best in the Southwest, or even the best in the United States, because my investment horizon is so long that someone else will emerge if we can’t keep you out in front.”

Cain also described his vision of the coming 10-year battle between legacy energy technologies and cleantech. As new technologies emerge and improve, Cain believes we will see matching efficiency gains in, for example, internal combustion engines.

“You’re competing against all the other technologies out there,” said Cain. “It’s not enough just to have the best biomass.”

Charlie Lewis, vice president of venture development for Arizona Technology Enterprises (AzTE), followed Cain’s remarks by describing the ways ASU is working with entrepreneurial faculty to help commercialize appropriate inventions.

“With Venture Catalyst, we have made a concerted effort to provide the critical services ASU faculty need to take the work they’re doing from the lab to the marketplace,” said Lewis.

SkySong also recently hosted Roger N. Anderson, the Con Edison senior scholar at the Center for Computational Learning Systems at Columbia University. Anderson’s team studies the root causes of electric grid failures and has helped lower the electric component failure rates of the distribution grid in New York City by 30 to 40 percent.

“Most of the cost of electricity is two things, putting copper in the ground and fixing things that break,” said Anderson. “Electricity is really cheap if you can keep things from breaking.”

Anderson explained the difference in the utility model when it comes to maintenance.

“With almost all utilities, the plane crashes first, then you go fix it. All the trucks you see out there on the streets are fixing things that are already broken. This is an old model, and it’s not how modern machines should work.”

Anderson spoke as part of the ASU Lightworks CEO Forum. LightWorks pulls light-inspired research at ASU under one strategic framework. It is a multidisciplinary effort to leverage ASU’s unique strengths, particularly in renewable energy fields including artificial photosynthesis, biofuels, and next-generation photovoltaics.