Some great ideas are born in the nation’s universities and laboratories but never leave there.
Others get an entrepreneurial push and make it to market, where they can benefit everyday life.
Atargis Energy is one such company.
It’s a local startup with origins in the Air Force Academy’s aeronautics lab.
The company began with basic research into wave energy is now has a promising product, a machine that can harness energy from ocean waves and turn it into electricity.
The machine is still in its research phases but could go to market as early as 2015.
It has passed laboratory trials and has undergone a set of tests at a large pool at Texas A&M. It awaits two more pool tests before it’s ready to be tried in the ocean.
If all goes well, the machine will be marketed to utility companies.
But, like all startups, it faces another crucial challenge — money.
“We’re in what startups call the valley of death,” said Stefan Siegel, the former Academy professor who developed the technology. “We’re out of scientific grant funding, and we need venture capital, angel investment.”
Government funding and grants have brought the company this far, but now it needs $7.5 million to finish testing and build a prototype that will be tested in the ocean. Venture capitalists have been wary of the idea so far and are waiting to see results from testing that will be conducted at Texas A&M next month.
“Then, they’ll know more about how it works, and they say they’ll invest then,” Siegel said.
The investor wariness is warranted, because other ocean-wave technology has failed in the deep sea. Machines that sought to capture energy by sitting on top of the water couldn’t hold up against oceanic storms and didn’t harvest the energy its creators expected.
But Siegel says his concept and design is different in two key ways that capture 95 percent of a wave’s energy to use in electricity generation.
First, his machine is fully submerged, which frees it from being buffeted by hurricanes or other ocean storms. Secondly, it uses lift technology, the same design that wind turbines use.
“Wind turbines have been around for a century,” he said. “And the older ones have 10, 15 blades, because they were highly inefficient. Modern wind turbines have one or two blades, because they are shaped for lift, like an aircraft wing.”
The combination of the two makes for a much more efficient machine, he says, and a much more buoyant field of energy.
“I think wind and solar will never be able to stand on their own, without subsidies,” he said. “They’re just expensive. But this technology, I believe, will get past the startup phase.”
That’s because about 75 percent of the country’s population lives within 100 miles of the ocean. Colorado, of course, is the obvious exception to the rule. Siegel says his technology can efficiently deliver energy to the majority of the population.
“Of course, the farther away you deliver it, the less efficient it is,” he said. “But we’re confident that it will provide electricity for the majority of the population.”
Siegel is so confident in his new technology that he paid for three patents in the United States and Europe even before testing was complete. He has a couple more patents that are pending.
“I did it early,” he said. “Because I was worried someone else would come up with the same idea — and I didn’t want to lose the research, the concept. People thought I was crazy, paying my own money for it.”
The concept seems simple enough for more than one person to have developed it, but Siegel isn’t surprised it hasn’t been done before.
“Always, when you first come up with a solution, it will be the most convoluted, complicated way of getting it done,” he said. “But eventually, you come up with simpler plans that work better. It’s just the way engineers work.”
Once the next series of testing is completed, Atargis hopes to raise enough money to hire its part-time employees — some of whom still teach at the Academy — as full-timers. Then, he said, it’s a matter of more tests before the final product.
There are 10 standard steps technology companies must complete before moving a product from the lab to the marketplace, and Atargis is only on step four.
Siegel said things are moving quickly.
Some scientists and professors create company after company using various basic research, but this is the first entrepreneurial effort for Siegel.
And that moves at a much faster pace, than what he’s used to in the lab.
“I’m an academic,” he said. “So this seems to be very fast-paced. Even for other wave-energy products, we’re moving quickly.”