At clean-gen startup ThermoLift, the heat is on

ThermoLift CEO Paul Schwartz:

By GREGORY ZELLER // With a new roster of heavy-hitting contributors, an advanced prototype being readied for field tests and significant fundraising in the bank – plus another major investment pending – the folks at clean-gen startup ThermoLift are fired up.

The company, a resident of Stony Brook University’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center, is certainly thinking big. With its natural gas-powered heat and cooling pump, three-year-old ThermoLift aims to redefine the energy world, making environmentally friendly alternatives, often too expensive for residential use, finally accessible to all.

So far, the prototypes dreamed up by the firm’s cofounders – CEO and former Wall Street broker Paul Schwartz and German scientist Peter Hofbauer, Volkswagen’s former head of engine and power-train development – have stoked plenty of investor interest, starting with an initial seed funding of $75,000, a $1.6 million investment by local investors and a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Next came a $482,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. ThermoLift is currently negotiating a follow-on $100,000 NYSERDA grant, according to Schwartz, and within a week or so will announce a “major” private investment that the CEO is, for now, keeping under wraps.

The investments have provided more than just the financial means to continue the company’s R&D. It’s also allowed the company to take a big-picture approach, facilitating what Schwartz called “a long-term view toward technological development.”

“It’s a very difficult environment right now for the clean-tech space, with the cost of energy declining so rapidly,” he said. “To have this support, especially local support on Long Island, is very comforting.”

Its warmest comforter: the Clean Energy Business Incubator Program at Stony Brook, which has assisted Schwartz on everything from tracking down engineering expertise to perfecting the firm’s financial pitch.

At the heart of ThermoLift is that pump, a single device that heats and cools air and water and has the potential to reduce both commercial and residential energy consumption by up to 50 percent. The concept, envisioned by a New York engineer named Rudolph Vuilleumier back in 1918, also offers considerable up-front savings over the combination of systems currently used to provide air conditioning, heating and hot-water for homes and businesses.

ThermoLift has already produced a demonstrator model that’s gone through over 20 “rebuilds,” as Schwartz calls them, “with various modifications and dozens of test cycles.” The early returns are promising, and the company – which is sitting on six pending international patents – isn’t the only one who thinks so.

Schwartz and Co. has been invited to present at numerous clean-gen conferences, including the annual Advanced Research Projects Agency energy confab in Washington, attended by the U.S. secretary of energy and other dignitaries. ThermoLift won the ARPA-E’s 2013 investor pitch competition, which didn’t lead directly to new funding but was “another important step in the credibility process,” Schwartz noted.

“It’s a good talking point for us,” he said. “It gets us in front of potential partners and helps us form strategic relationships with large HVAC companies.”

The startup has also huddled with most of Canada’s largest gas and utility companies, arranged by Sustainable Development Technology Canada, a national alternative-energy trade group that funds clean-tech projects and helps companies bring new energy solutions to market. It’s also consulted directly with Thomas Nowak, secretary general of the European Heat Pump Association, and has attended meetings at the Department of Energy and Climate Change in the United Kingdom.

“The UK is quite interested in a thermally driven heat pump,” Schwartz noted. “They import 40 percent of their fuel, which becomes a national security issue. If they could access a heat pump that reduces their fuel needs by 40 or 50 percent, it could become a game-changer for them nationally.”

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Schwartz, with prototype: ThermoLift has a significant new investor, to be named soon.

The Energy and Climate Change people were so intrigued that ThermoLift subsequently received a letter of support from British Gas, the UK’s largest natural gas supplier. This was especially interesting to Schwartz, who noted British Gas installed some 120,000 heating systems in 2014 alone.

“Having a highly trained installer network would reduce the risk related to installation issues,” he said. “And that reduces our overall risk while introducing the product to a new market.

“We’ve had dialogues with some of the largest HVAC companies in the world,” Schwartz added. “We’re on radar screens around the globe.”

Enthusiasm has been just as high domestically. ThermoLift was a 2013 winner of the Defense Energy Technology Challenge, hosted by the national nonprofit Clean Technology and Sustainable Industries Organization, and was a featured presenter at the 2014 and 2015 New York Energy Week events.

Schwartz also cited several productive conversations with utility giant National Grid, which is “providing guidance on where they think the product sits within the marketplace.”

“They see a great product fit with their over 1 million consumers,” Schwartz said.

In addition to moving forward with new designs – ThermoLift will send its latest prototype to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee in December for “independent validation” – the company has also bolstered its professional staff. Its latest additions include Adrian Tusinean, a mechanical engineering Ph.D who worked with Hofbauer at EcoMotors, a Bill Gates-funded Michigan company developing advanced engine prototypes and is now ThermoLift’s chief technology officer.

Also drafted: Retired U.S. Army Col. Paul Roege, former chief of the Army Operational Energy Office, who now serves as a “key advisor” to the 10-person firm.

If all goes according to plan – and so far, it has – ThermoLift will have a market-ready system by 2016, the CEO said.

“There are a number of heat-pump technologies being developed that are electrically driven, but we are the only company looking to commercialize an electromechanical device,” Schwartz added.

“We want to become the new HVAC standard around the globe.”