Rethinking the science of business (and clean energy)

Fast forward: Entrepreneur Slawa Solovyov, a longtime Brookhaven National Laboratory researcher, hopes to lead NextSwitch where no superconductivity/fusion cell reactor clean-energy specialist has gone before.
By AMY ONORATO //

Becoming an entrepreneur introduced Slawa Solovyov to a new way of thinking about science – a mindset incorporating business and marketing factors that went beyond straight research and development.

For Solovyov, who had spent the previous 20 years pursuing superconductor research at Brookhaven National Laboratory, it was a challenge. And it would answer the question: What happens when a scientist wants to become an entrepreneur?

Solovyov – also chief scientist at R&D company Brookhaven Technology Group, based at Stony Brook University’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center – focuses on superconductors and their role in creating a source of clean, sustainable energy, primarily for businesses and industries.

And he was ready to go pro.

“Fundamentally, I wanted to see some tangible results for my research,” Solovyov said. “Not just scientific papers, which of course are important, too. It’s trying to apply my scientific skills, so to speak.”

The researcher teamed up with Brookhaven Technology Group cofounder and President Paul Farrell to start NextSwitch in 2015. Part of SBU’s Clean Energy Business Incubator Program, the startup works in partnership with Massachusetts-based energy-tech company American Superconductor on what Solovyov described as twofold goals.

“We’re developing a new concept for superconducting cables that make them better suited for high-magnetic-field magnets,” he said. “But we’re also looking at this new generation of fusion reactors, which hopefully will deliver clean energy – which is pretty much unlimited and pollution-free.”

This is a job for superconductivity: And NextSwitch is on the case.

And unlike “intermittent” renewable sources like solar and wind, Solovyov added, “this energy source is pretty much on all of the time.”

Fusion-reactor technology exists, he noted, “but it’s still too expensive, and not exactly reliable.”

“It’s a matter of making it less expensive and more reliable,” Solovyov said. “And that’s where we come in.”

To get started, NextSwitch needed considerable funding to cover its specific, high-tech manufacturing equipment – “not like a software project,” Solovoyov noted.

Solovyov and Farrell were able to secure $1.3 million in federal grants and an additional $30,000 through the New York Manufacturing Extension Partnership to offset initial equipment costs. They also poured in what Solovyov referred to as a year’s worth of “sweat equity.”

“It was quite a bit of time – a year of work with no pay,” Solovyov said, noting hours cut off his full-time job to get the business off the ground.

The entrepreneur’s thinking – including his thinking about science – soon changed.

“In science, it’s always the best and brightest idea that’s the most valuable asset,” he noted. “But in the business world, it’s really different. It’s value proposition and value to customers, and sometimes the most intriguing ideas simply don’t have that customer value.”

Proving customer value in his ideas – and winning new business – are front and center for Solovyov, as the company sets its sights on building strategic partnerships and generating sales, while still developing its first prototypes.

To spread the message, Solovyov and his team have traveled across the country, participating in trade shows and other events where they can educate other industry professionals on the value of their work, and learn from others in the space.

“Educating your potential customer is very critical and very important,” Solovyov said.

These marketing initiatives also give the entrepreneur plenty of customer feedback, which plays a new role in his thinking and his research.

“We’re trying to deliver the best value for our customers,” Solovyov noted. “And the gambit’s quite different from your scientific research, where you’re driven by your curiosity – and, frankly, towards publication (of research papers).”

The primary goal is to show NextSwitch has a product with “real revenue potential,” the cofounder said – though the first prototype may take several years to complete.

“The largest market on the planet right now is the market of energy,” Solovyov said. “And if you can get your foot into this game, you probably have a true business proposition.”

NextSwitch 

What’s It? High-temperature superconductivity for large-scale energy distribution

Brought To You By: Slawa Solovyov, longtime BNL researcher and principal scientist at Brookhaven Technology Group

All In: $1.3 million in federal grants and state awards, plus buckets of “sweat equity”

Status: Fundraising, developing, thinking long term


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