A summer of endless incubation at CEBIP

The $1.5 million question: Stony Brook's CEBIP is ready to keep on incubating, according to Executive Director David Hamilton.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Summer slowdown? Not at the Clean Energy Business Incubator Program, where a full slate of new clients and educational networking programs is giving a traditionally sagging season some sizzle.

While closed schools and holiday vacations historically decelerate summertime business activity across many sectors, CEBIP Executive Director David Hamilton hasn’t had a chance to put up his feet. Fresh off of coordinating two professional networkers for the edification of program participants, Hamilton is now wrapping up a months-long vetting process that will welcome four new members into CEBIP’s virtual fold.

Stony Brook University’s incubator without walls, which provides assistance and resources for developers of disruptive renewable and clean-energy technologies, currently boasts nine member companies. It’ll be 13 before August, according to Hamilton, who figures he can take on a few more clients “before my bandwidth gets pushed too far.”

“We’ve maxed out at 16 in the past,” the executive director noted. “So in my head, I still have room for a couple more.”

Because CEBIP is not a physical space, but a sort of members-only club offering early-stage energy innovators business-development support, it works a little differently than traditional incubators like the Long Island High-Technology Incubator, an SBU-based co-working environment where companies fill actual offices.

“We don’t have to have someone graduate to bring someone else in,” Hamilton noted. “And we don’t have to graduate them out after two or three years. We can walk them through the entire process.

“As a baby, they need a lot of help,” he added. “As a toddler, you make sure they don’t smash into walls. And as a grownup, they have specialized needs, so CEBIP helps with more specialized tasks further down the pipeline.”

The idea, then, is to maintain a healthy mix of older, more self-sufficient clients and younger, needier ones. That’s precisely what’s happening now, with longtime CEBIP client ThermoLift lurching closer to commercialization, established clients like Sulfcrete and Brimes Energy working out technological bugs and finalizing investor pitches and, now, a crop of innovative startups jumping in.

Noting ongoing discussions, Hamilton wasn’t ready this week to reveal the specific identifies of the four new clients, though he dropped some substantial hints. One is a spinoff of an existing Long Island company working to commercialize an SBU-based nanotechnology in the fuel-cell industry, the exec noted.

The program is also opening the books to welcome two groups of entrepreneurs – one from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, one from Italy – developing flow-battery technologies, in which batteries are recharged via ion exchanges and dissolved electroactive elements.

The fourth newbie – a company creating unique interface solutions to help energy-storage entities and renewable-energy providers work together – is “a little different for us,” Hamilton noted.

“We’re mostly manufacturing-based,” he said. “Folks who are going to build things. This is more of an IT platform that integrates existing technologies.”

But the entrepreneurs behind the platform are “a real good team with a real good potential technology,” Hamilton added, “and the advisory board liked what they were looking to accomplish.”

Just getting past the CEBIP advisory board is an accomplishment – “There’s a lot of vetting that goes into it and we’re very selective about who we pick,” Hamilton said – and approving the four newcomers has kept the executive director and his board busy over the past several months.

Adding to Hamilton’s workload was a May workshop on “Principled Negotiations” led by international consultant Curt Davis and a June seminar on “Communicating With the Media” featuring former Reuters correspondent and editor Michael Reilly.

Both of the members-only events were well-attended, and while arranging them was a bear – scheduling speakers, preparing meeting space, attracting attendees from disparate remote locations – that’s life in the incubator business, according to Hamilton.

“Incubation is really about programs, not space,” he said. “We’re a program without a physical space, but it’s still our job as an incubation system to teach our clients.

“Entrepreneurs know a lot of things, but they don’t know everything, and events like the media-communications seminar increase their knowledge base,” Hamilton added. “If they don’t know exactly how to communicate with the media, they’re going to be in trouble the first time they try.

“As a startup, you don’t even know what you don’t know.”

The exec, who noted the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority-funded CEBIP schedules about nine workshops and seminars each year for program participants, is now working up fall discussions on corporate structure and intellectual property, with the IP event potentially incorporating multiple sessions – “specialized, deeper dives,” Hamilton said, covering biotech, clean energy and other specific fields.

Whatever the subject, the member-only events also provide key networking opportunities for CEBIP participants, an important factor at “a virtual incubator where we don’t always get that benefit,” Hamilton noted. Such networking benefits clients on all three CEBIP levels, he added, and as Exhibit A, the exec referenced a corporate pupil who’s starred on all three.

“I look at where ThermoLift is now, and look back at them in April 2012, when they first joined the program,” Hamilton said. “It was Paul Schwartz with an idea and a very basic technology that was validated, kind of.”

Now ThermoLift’s natural gas-driven heat pump and air conditioning unit is being field tested at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and is poised to redefine the heating and cooling industries. Hamilton said he hopes to usher CEBIP’s four newcomers along a similar path – even if their arrival leaves little room for a summer vacation.

“The spring was very busy, vetting these four new clients,” the exec noted. “I anticipate they’ll hit the ground running and keep us very busy for the rest of the summer.”