With clever new focus, hope floats at Energystics

Batteries not included: Boat owners will be the first to note that keeping boat batteries charged between trips is its own special headache -- but Energystics has an idea about that.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

In the movies, the hero routinely saves the world in a single bound – but in real life, getting there often requires many smaller steps.

Such is the lesson learned by innovator Reed Phillips and his Stony Brook-based startup Energystics Ltd., which has always favored the slow-and-steady route but is now laser-focusing on a particular vertical that Phillips hopes will prove a gateway to much bigger things, and that right quick.

Phillips’ trademarked and heavily patented Vibristor technology – designed to harvest “vibrational energy” from surrounding environments – has many potential applications, and the innovator’s R&D teams have explored several promising ideas: wave-powered navigational buoys, people-powered chargers for personal electronics and more.

But before the 2012 startup and its clean-generation technology can reduce global carbon emissions and otherwise assist planetary environmental rescue efforts, the tech much catch on – which in this case means throttling back and, at least temporarily, scaling down.

The technology works. Phillips and his Energystics team, longtime members of Stony Brook University’s Clean Energy Business Incubator Program (and big fans of SBU’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center), have mocked up a vibration-powered flashlight, those personal chargers (which can charge a cell phone by harvesting the vibrational energy generated by walking and other simple motions) and other prototypes wherein Vibristor did the trick.

But “for a variety of reasons, we’ve had to reject a number of possibilities,” Phillips lamented.

Producing ocean wave-generated electricity to feed regional power grids, for instance, is “a 10-to-15-year effort that requires a tremendous amount of capital,” he noted, “and the company is still too small for that.”

Reed Phillips: First things first.

Wave-powered navigational buoys, outfitted with weather-monitoring tech and other scientific sensors? “It works,” Reed said, “but each jurisdiction has different regulations, and the regulatory environment makes it tough to get started.”

Those people-powered personal chargers? “Too faddy,” according to Phillips.

The vibration-powered flashlight? “Too specialized, so it won’t get enough traction.”

For Vibristor to make a splash and, ultimately, a global impact, Energystics and its limited marketing and distribution resources must be uber-selective in its choice of applications. And to that end, “we’ve had some trouble deciding which way to go,” Phillips admitted.

“We need (to find) the application that would have the highest probability of giving the technology and the company traction,” the CEO added. “By picking a successful application, we’ll really be able to get the company going.”

At last, Phillips and Co. believe they’ve found it – and in an ironic twist, the market has come to them.

“A few dozen people who happen to own boats have pointed out a particular problem to us over the past two years,” Phillips told Innovate LI. “Dead batteries.”

The scenario is likely familiar to all powerboat owners: Between voyages, boat batteries tend to run down, often requiring stranded vessels – including marina-anchored vessels resting out in the harbor – to be towed into port just to spark their engines.

That’s “a very expensive proposition,” according to Phillips, but not nearly as costly as what happens when battery-powered bilge pumps fail.

“The other serious problem [boat owners] have is when the batteries go dead after or during a rainstorm,” he noted. “Water accumulates in the boat, because the bilge pumps don’t operate, and the boat can sink.

“The damage can be severe, even total.”

The idea, then, is a “trickle charge” device, in which Vibristor harvests just enough wave energy to keep those boat batteries juiced and ready.

“Many boats don’t have access to AC power (between trips),” Phillips noted. “But out in the harbor, they’re subjected to all sorts of wave action – an untapped energy source that can be easily harvested to benefit boat owners.”

Not only have dozens of boaters expressed support for the idea, but the regulatory environment surrounding such devices is relatively lax – in fact, according to Phillips, “there are no particular regulations involved with this.”

“And we know from initial market analysis that this is something that would be in demand,” he said. “So, we’ve decided this is what we’re going with.”

Leveraging resources provided by CEBIP and the AERTC, Team Energystics is now working up a prototype specifically for a boat-mounted, wave energy-harvesting application. Field testing should commence before the end of the year, and while the company has always been careful not to rush things, it’s up against the clock now: The plan is to have a commercial prototype ready for the 2019 New York Boat Show, scheduled for late January at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

Phillips likes their chances, as “most of the technological challenges have basically been worked out with the other prototypes.”

“It’s now a matter of testing the devices for durability and reliability, and a matter of commercializing it,” the CEO said.

From there, the plan will be to take Vibristor in several different directions – probably through licensing agreements, according to Phillips, as opposed to multiple manufacturing efforts.

And none of it – the pursuit of the boat-mounted harvesting device, those potential forays into further verticals, even the development of the initial technology – would be possible without the contributions of CEBIP and the AERTC, Phillips noted.

“I’m a scientist,” he said. “I create technology. Commercializing it, intellectual property protection, accounting, manufacturing, payroll … that’s its own science, a whole different kettle of fish.

“Being with CEBIP and part of the AERTC at Stony Brook has been awesome,” Phillips added. “They are basically responsible for getting successful technology out of the laboratory and into the marketplace, where it can expand its presence.”

 


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