At the White House earlier this week, President Obama announced new efforts to support emerging entrepreneurs who develop solutions to some of the world’s toughest challenges, including climate change.
As part of the event, Felipe Gomez — founder of energy startup FGC Plasma Solutions — was recognized as an emerging entrepreneur and took part in a panel discussion with “Shark Tank” investors Barbara Corcoran, Daymond John and Mark Cuban. FGC Plasma recently won the top student prize for its fuel injector technology at the Clean Energy Trust Clean Energy Challenge in Chicago, the first regional contest of the Energy Department’s National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition.
We chatted with Felipe about the importance of contests like the National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition, what inspired him to work in clean energy and what advice he would give to future entrepreneurs.
1. HOW DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN CLEAN ENERGY?
I’ve been interested more broadly in increasing efficiency for most of my life. As a distance swimmer this is something I work towards every day in the pool — and as a fifth generation engineer, this has always been ingrained in me as well. The FGC Plasma fuel injector technology actually has roots in a high school science fair project, where I was looking to see what effect electric fields had on flames. After promising initial results, the project developed into an investigation on how to use this phenomenon to improve combustion in jet engines.
I ended taking this project all the way to the Intel International Science Fair in 2012 and when we were flying back, one of the teachers in my delegation pointed out the window and told me, “Can you imagine if in 10 years every engine flying has something you designed?” I took this as motivation to keep working on the project.
At Case Western Reserve University, the work shifted to finding the best way to apply plasma to improve combustion in jet engines. I was motivated to advance this project not just as academic research, but also as an endeavor that could have applications in the marketplace.
I believe that decision has made all the difference and now — somehow four years after tinkering with an ill-advised Bunsen burner/high voltage power supply generator in my garage — I ended up with my own company striving to make that teacher’s casual remark a reality.
2. HOW DOES YOUR TECHNOLOGY WORK?
We are using plasma, essentially a high-energy soup of charged particles, to modify a combustion reaction. At the molecular level, the effect of plasma on combustion can be explained simply with a LEGO analogy: If someone asked you to build a model car out of LEGOs and gave you all the pieces stuck together as one block, logically you would have to break apart the large block, at the expense of time and energy before building something new.
Similarly, in a combustion reaction, the large fuel molecules must be broken down through hundreds of chemical reactions. Plasma provides the ability to bypass these reactions, thereby solving many important challenges to clean combustion in jet engines.
3. WHAT ENERGY CHALLENGE DOES YOUR TECHNOLOGY ADDRESS?
Our technology solves a variety of marginal combustion problems, or combustion problems which arise at conditions outside the ideal fuel-to-air ratio.
This means that we can maintain a stable flame under a wide variety of conditions, which becomes very important for both jet engines and industrial gas turbines for power generation. In both cases, the stable, leaner flame can reduce nitrogen oxide emissions as well as fuel consumption.
Particularly for industrial gas turbines, there are some additional potential benefits such as faster response times and fewer shutdowns.
4. WHAT WAS IT LIKE COMPETING IN THE CLEAN ENERGY TRUST CLEAN ENERGY CHALLENGE?
It was actually a lot like a very high-caliber swim meet. You prepare for a long time, execute for a few intense minutes trying to beat tough competition and then you enjoy good food afterwards! The difference is that at the Challenge, regardless of whether your team walked away with the top prize, everyone gained extremely valuable connections and experience.
5. WHAT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT WAY THE NATIONAL CLEAN ENERGY BUSINESS PLAN COMPETITION HELPS ENTREPRENEURS LIKE YOU?
More so than in other industries, developing a new technology in the energy sector — and in aerospace — can be expensive and risky with long development cycles. At least in my experience, this means startups are difficult to fund via conventional routes — such as through venture capital investments — so the high risk capital that the Clean Energy Challenge provides is invaluable. Additionally, the connections made at these events are incredible. It is probably the highest caliber event I have ever been to and the mentors who we have been paired with provide invaluable industry advice and expertise.
6. EARLIER THIS WEEK, YOU WERE RECOGNIZED BY THE WHITE HOUSE AS AN EMERGING GLOBAL ENTREPRENEUR. WHAT DOES THAT HONOR MEAN TO YOU?
While it is of course an incredible honor, which validates many years of hard work and sacrifices, I have seen so many other great entrepreneurs working on incredible technologies which are at least as deserving as I am of this honor. So I believe I was just in the right place at the right time.
I am taking this as a call to work even harder on developing my technology as well as to help develop entrepreneurial ecosystems such as the one I have encountered to ensure other aspiring entrepreneurs have the chance to bring their ideas to the marketplace.
In my experience, the idea of shifting from pure research to a venture model of R&D has been much more efficient with greater access to capital.
I want to inspire other researchers to consider entrepreneurship as a viable pathway to bring technologies out of the laboratory and make sure they also have the means to do so.
7. WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ASPIRING CLEAN ENERGY ENTREPRENEURS?
Whenever you are trying to do something novel in industries with high barriers to entry, there will inevitably be a lot of skepticism. The key is to be absolutely confident in the science behind your technology.
This means doing your homework, making assumptions at times and validating those assumptions with testing. Once you are absolutely confident in this, then you can face any doubters with a firm foundation in science and press on to find creative solutions to problems the industry is facing.
Don’t be afraid to think outside-of-the-box and try something radically different.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY
in the Breakingenergy.com
May 15, 2015