SEAL Q&A: Thermoelectric Generators with Recollect Energy
JP Dowling of the University of Houston attended the Austin Technology Incubator’s Student Entrepreneur Acceleration & Launch (SEAL) program this summer to work on Recollect Energy, a company that manufactures high-temperature thermoelectric generators for commercial fleets.
Funded by the Kauffman Foundation, SEAL is a selective, nine-week, mentor-driven program designed to help student teams tackle the most difficult, deal-killing questions of their new ventures. SEAL culminates in Decision Day, where teams announce whether their business is a “go” or a “no go.” Two-thirds of SEAL graduations raise capital or successfully bootstrap their companies to market.
Q. How did you learn about SEAL?
A. At U of H there are several different stages of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. There is an undergrad degree program that’s just entrepreneurship. It culminates in tech transfer, where we evaluate technologies from the university… (Recollect Energy is) one of two teams that is still continuing from that program. So I graduated from the Center for Entrepreneurship. The person who runs our program referred us to ATI and SEAL.
Q. Summarize Recollect Energy for me.
A. We make thermoelectric generators that convert heat into electricity. So these are small modules — something like a 4 X 4-centimeter module could convert and generate about 20 watts of electricity. There’s no sunlight needed. You can put these anywhere there’s heat, as long as there’s a hot side and a cool side. You can harvest that. We’re looking at a lot of different applications. We’re looking at exhaust on 18-wheeler trucks. So an engine of any vehicle … are about a third efficiency — a third is actually fuel used to move the truck, a third of it is waste heat through the exhaust, and a third of it is waste heat through the radiator. So we can make that whole system more efficient by capturing these sources of waste heat, converting them to electricity, and allowing that to power the truck’s electric systems.
Q. Are you focusing on consumer cars or commercial trucks?
A. Right now, because trucks drive so much more and they spend so much on fuel a year, to put this on a truck would pay for itself a lot faster. The truck would drive 100,000 miles a year or more, whereas consumer cars only drive around 10,000 miles a year. It would not make as much sense to pay for that, because it would take longer to pay off. If we scale up and the cost is really cheap, then we can totally put it in cars.
Q. What stage is your prototype in?
A. Right now not at truck-scale. We’re developing the modules right now. The base building blocks of any of these generators still need to be perfected. Then we can start manufacturing those. There’s actually a market for those outside of any particular system application. We could sell them to companies who manufacture heat systems — so things like furnaces or boilers. We can just sell them the component, and a lot of companies already know what to do with it. And our modules are able to generate basically twice the electricity of anything else on the market.
Q. Who are your competitors?
A. There are definitely competitive companies, but I would say in terms of the technology there’s not anybody in this particular range. It’s a broad landscape of thermoelectrics. There are low-temperature ones that we don’t compete with. Things that go from between zero and 200 degrees Celsius. Our sweet spot is about 50 to 500 degrees Celsius … There’s one company called Alphabet Energy that has a similar temperature range — we’re a little bit higher — but it’s close enough to be competitive. And they are probably the leader in the field right now. But if you look just on a basic building blocks perspective, we have twice the efficiency and twice the power output. So we’re confident that we displace them pretty easy.
Q. How has SEAL been for you?
A. We picked SEAL over some other incubator programs — U of H has one. Rice has one. They do a summer session sort of together. But that one and I think a lot of other sort-of mainstream incubators do a lot more on the business education side. They kind of assume you’re a software developer that wants to know how to launch a company or something like that. Our team of three comprises one research scientist and two entrepreneurship students. We know we didn’t want to spend a whole summer learning about business. We had already spent a year and a half doing that. So SEAL is actually kind of the perfect fit. It’s not a structured program where you’re required to put time into things that you might already know. And at the same time for the people who need those resources, they are available — like working with Dave (Altounian) or Mitch (Jacobson) or anybody else. The Lunch and Learns are great. And you can follow back with (the speakers) if you want to learn more. It’s actually been really cool that it’s less structured. The downside to that is it’s harder to get to know the other teams because we don’t run into each other as much, because there is no common space where everybody is every day. But there’s a lot of freedom in that, too. So you can travel or do whatever you need to do.
Q. Tell us about your SEAL mentors.
A. Everybody has helped us connect with the right customers and investors. When we came in, our biggest concerns or deal breakers were: Can we raise money to do this? Will it work on a large-system scale (because we’re still on a small scale)? Can we scale it up? Can we put this in a truck — and will it work? And how the hell do we start to manufacture these — even just the modules?
We have three mentors. One is Lu Yan of Yan Engines, an ATI alumni company. They’ve raised over $5 million in a very similar technology — it’s non competitive (with us), but it’s automotive efficiency technology. So they’ve don’t the capital part. Another mentor, Jeremy Rice, runs a thermal engineering consultancy and knows exactly how we would put this in a truck.
Q. Well, that’s convenient.
A. Yeah, I got schooled really quickly in the technicalities of heat exchangers. He’s been really great. He’s super helpful.
And our other mentor is Bill Rafferty, who is the regional director of the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center.
A. [Laughs.] So our mentors’ areas of expertise kind of hit all of our concerns. It’s been really good. We came in, and they were there. We had phone interviews beforehand and Mitch (Jacobson) and Kathleen (Baireuther) had seen our pitch before. I talked with Toni (Miranda) on the phone and gave them our kind of mentor ideal landscape, and we showed up and they were ready. It was really cool. That’s definitely been the best part so far — just having people who are really willing to set time aside and have such specialized knowledge.
Q. Heading towards Decision Day, do you feel like you’re leaning more one way or the other as far as being able to take this and really turn it into a business?
A. I’ve spent almost a year on this, and I wouldn’t be here still if I didn’t see a really good trajectory for it. So I think we have the technical competitive … I think this is a huge market, but it’s something that everywhere the regulatory pressure and the need for efficiency is increasing. Greener and less fuel. So all of that’s there, so I definitely think we need to take this further. The question for us is, how good can we get on a technical level? Because what we assume now is extrapolated several times from our current prototypes. So what we’ll be working on going forward is raising a seed round of around $680,000 … But from a business standpoint, our decision is definitely a “go.”