By GREGORY ZELLER //
From the If You Want Something Done Right file comes a startup determined to keep alternative-energy construction projects on track – starting with work done by the cofounders’ other company.
Incorporated in September in Florida, Iontraxx is an offshoot of Orlando-based clean-energy firm Sybac Solar, which custom-designs and installs solar-powered energy generators. Its mission: streamline the construction process by helping solar-energy contractors keep track of their stuff.
The need for such services became clear when Sybac Solar was contracted to build a 24-megawatt solar-energy plant to supplement the power grid in the Central American republic of Honduras. After kicking off the project in 2014, Sybac CEO Artur Madej and senior project engineer Lian Niu realized they needed logistical help – lots of it – with issues like international shipping and tracking tools in the field.
“We didn’t have a sophisticated method of inventory management,” Niu noted. “Some of these tools and hardware are very expensive, and on a 200-acre plot of open land, it’s easy to misplace a tool that costs $10,000 and fits in a book-bag.
“And there was always confusion about where items were in the shipping process,” he added. “So there were a lot of events that we learned from, and we decided to avoid these mistakes in the future by implementing smart hardware and smarter software.”
Their solution: Iontraxx, which shortly after incorporating was welcomed into Empire State Development’s Start-Up NY program, which creates tax-free commercial zones around New York research institutions. The cofounders immediately took office space inside Stony Brook University’s Advanced Energy Research & Technology Center, Iontraxx’s base of operations since the end of the summer.
The Honduran solar plant was completed in April, but not before Madej and Niu displayed some fancy footwork dancing around those shipping and inventory issues. Some of the errors were costly, Niu told Innovate LI, but all were educational.
“Throughout this construction process, we saw a lot of little things that could be improved upon,” Niu said. “At the end of the day, they could have a big impact on an entire project.”
Their rapidly evolving plan involves a proprietary software platform that incorporates existing tech like GPS trackers, wireless radio-frequency ID devices and barcode scanners in a system designed specifically to improve asset management in large-scale solar-energy projects. They plotted for months, until Start-Up NY provided the shove that pushed Iontraxx from concept to reality.
“We heard about Start-Up NY and investigated it, and thought it would be a good launch pad for us,” Niu said.
In exchange for its inclusion in the tax-incentive program, Iontraxx agreed to create 13 jobs and invest $420,000 in the Long Island regional economy over the next five years. It’s already created two full-time slots – including one for Niu, a native New Yorker who’s relocated back to his old stomping grounds – and is planning a mini hiring spree focused on designers, programmers and engineers.
But first, Iontraxx must figure out what combination of global-positioning and radio-frequency technologies it will fold into its asset-management protocols.
“In the first year, our goal is to hire an additional two or three people,” Niu said. “There are many ways to reach our goal, and once we have a better idea of exactly what technologies we’re going to pursue, we’ll hire more people who specialize in those technologies.”
The idea here is not to reinvent the wheel, Niu noted, just to turn what’s already available into a comprehensive package addressing the everyday details that sometimes trip up firms like Sybac Solar.
A great example was that $10,000 tool that went missing in the Honduran field. Not only did Sybac Solar have to replace it – including purchasing a new one and paying to ship the replacement internationally, including all of the customs requirements – but work on the new grid halted while workers waited.
All told, it was an enormous expense that “becomes a much bigger figure,” according to Niu, “when you look at it from a liquidated-damages standpoint.”
The “big lesson,” he added, was the whole mess could have been avoided if the tool was fitted with a simple GPS tracker.
Another idea from their Central American adventure: tag shipping containers with RFID trackers to follow international shipments on their journey, and to monitor if any containers are opened along the way.
Niu, who earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from City College of New York in 2010, recognizes these fixes are as simple as they are cheap. An amateur drone operator in his spare time, he knows he can buy GPS trackers in bulk, meaning a $20 piece of equipment could have pinpointed that missing $10,000 tool “within minutes.”
But putting them all together in one construction-friendly software suite is an innovation with enormous potential. The company is already in talks with vendors who might like to lend their hardware to the cause – “no official partnerships yet,” Niu noted, but a “lot of interest” – and once it determines which devices to address in its software package, Iontraxx will look to make tracks: six months to develop a prototype, Niu said, and a year more for a commercially viable product.
“The time will be determined by the technology we choose,” he added. “Often you choose a tech because you think it’s the best hardware to go with, but later down the line you realize there’s a huge problem and you have to go back two steps to advance three.”
However long the R&D phase lasts, Iontraxx won’t have to look very far to initiate a proof-of-concept phase: Sybac Solar figures to be the startup’s first customer.
“There will always be problems in construction,” Niu said. “There will always be roadblocks and obstacles. The challenge for us to create software that works with smart hardware and is smart enough to mitigate those problems.”