NOVEMBER 2011: MTTC's, Dr. Abigail Barrow on funding the next wave of cleantech innovations in MA

Last month, Mass Energy Lab's Integrated Marketing Specialist, Jen Kaye talked with Dr. Abigail Barrow, Founding Director of the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center (MTTC) to discuss the center's commitment to the development of innovative technology in Massachusetts' clean energy sector.

The MTTC was funded through the 2003 Economic Stimulus Bill to support inventors at non-profit research institutions. The center is dedicated to accelerating the commercialization and the success of innovative technologies by providing services to help inventors gain funding and bring their project to market.

KAYE: As the Founding Director of the MTTC, can you briefly describe what your role entails and what a typical day is like for you?

BARROW: I don't know that I have a typical day. The Massachusetts Technology Transfer Centers (MTTC) works with all of the non-profit research institutions and research labs in the state to help them take their innovations off the bench and into real products. We help the researchers who have the inventions think through how to commercialize their technologies and, if it's feasible, create a startup company around those technologies. At this phase, we help them find the resources that they need to begin their startup and we identify sources where they can raise money. In addition, the MTTC helps them think through which are the best markets for the technology or identify existing companies that they can work with. The center exists to help all of those inventors in the university research labs to get their technology out of the institution and into either new or existing companies within the state. So on a typical day I might meet with a faculty member and help them think through where their technology could be applied and who they would be working with. Sometimes we work with a slightly more established company where we get outside people to come in and review the technology or review an initial business plan to get the researcher to think strategically about building their business. We also introduce the inventor to venture capitalists and other investors. In addition, we run numerous conferences, one of which is targeted at clean energy. At this conference, we have about 20 early-stage companies pitch their ideas to the audience which is made up of venture capitalists and other investors.

KAYE: It certainly seems like there are many different aspects of your position. What are your favorite or most rewarding parts of this job?

BARROW: I'm working with inventors who have great ideas and are extremely enthusiastic about moving their technology towards commercialization. Most of them do not have much business training but are anxious to learn and think through the business strategy so that they can move their technology out of the institution. It is very rewarding to meet with the researcher and hear about their invention while working with them to develop a plan for commercializing their technology. We get to see a lot of cool technology and great products!

KAYE: It must be very exciting to meet with the inventors and witness their enthusiasm! Can you explain MTTC's Catalyst Program and its involvement in deploying new technologies into the marketplace?

BARROW: The MTTC runs the Catalyst Program which is funded by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC). What we do is give out crucial concept awards to researchers who have technologies that look commercially interesting but need more development and a better prototype to show other people its functionality and what it will look like. Our $40,000 grant will help the researcher take the invention and move it along the commercialization path. As these projects are extremely early-stage there is risk involved as sometimes it turns out that the technology does not work as well as planned or is not competitive enough to replace an existing technology. What we're hoping is to build a company around the technology and create interest among outside investors to continue down the path towards commercialization.

KAYE: How do the MTTC and MassCEC work together to successfully operate the Catalyst Program?

BARROW: It is a joint process, MassCEC funds the program while the MTTC is involved in more of the outreach because we work very closely with all of the tech transfer offices along with the institutions and their researchers. We deal with the solicitations and we manage the review process which is also very much in collaboration with MassCEC. With MassCEC, we recruit knowledgeable reviewers and use their recommendations to make our final awards.

KAYE: How do the two organizations decide which research projects to fund? Is there a set of criteria that each project must meet?

BARROW: We do have a set of criteria; really what we are most interested in finding is technology that is commercially interesting. So with our small grant, can we take the technology to a point where we can show an investor or a company how the technology works in order to continue to gain funding and complete the commercialization process? We can't fund big projects where the technology needs a huge investment in order to get it to a point where it can be commercialized. Our biggest criteria is that the project needs to be small enough so that our grant will be meaningful in moving the technology further along towards commercialization and getting external interest. One of the other criteria is determining if there is a large enough market for this technology to justify its funding. We use a group of external reviewers, including people from established companies along with venture capitalists and investors in clean energy, who review the proposals and listen to pitches from the finalists. These people provide valuable input on which projects offer most marketable technologies with the most exciting commercial opportunities instead of neat technology products. With their help, we are able to choose four or five winners out of the 20 or so applicants we receive for each round of funding.

KAYE: What happens to a project once it receives the funding?

BARROW: Once we award the grant, we then work with the researcher on how they are using the funding to make sure that they are doing projects that will help them to achieve the next level of funding to gain outside interest in the technology. We also help them think through the commercialization strategy, so we might go in and help them develop a business pitch and have outside people consider whether this is a possible investment. If they decide to build a startup company we help them find a CEO and get the business started. Each project is different, but we consistently meet with the inventors to help move the technology along.

KAYE: This is the fourth round of funding provided by the Catalyst Program, what is the furthest stage some of these winning projects have reached?

BARROW: We have a couple of early-stage companies that are in formation, I'm not sure that anybody has raised much money yet, but certainly they have recruited management or in some cases a graduate student has started and helped set up the company. There are four or five companies that currently are in the formation stages, most of these technologies are still in the research phase, but we have started to see increasing interest in them.

KAYE: What impact have past grant winning projects made?

BARROW: Because it is so early in the process, none of the clean energy projects that we supported have products currently on the market. Some of the companies that we have worked with, though not necessarily funded, have raised significant investment. Six years ago we worked with the initial inventors of FloDesign at Western New England University and they have now raised over $100 million and their first wind turbines are in the field and being tested. That is certainly the path that we hope our current projects will follow!

KAYE: That is very impressive! Have there been any energy efficiency projects that particularly stood out based on the project's ability to create substantial efficiency improvements or energy savings?

BARROW: We funded Dr. Taofang Zeng's project out of MIT's Mechanical Engineering Department titled, "Thermal Insulation Materials and Structures for Building Energy Conservation." Dr. Zeng invented a new form of insulation material, an aerogel, with a much higher insulation value so that you can have very thin layers and get the insulation effect of having a much thicker material. That is probably one of the most exciting technologies in the energy efficiency sector that we have been working with.

KAYE: That sounds like a great product with a lot of potential! What was one of the most innovative technologies that has received the grant?

BARROW: We have another project coming out of Western New England University that is for separating algae. It is a new kind of production system which not only has applications in clean energy, but also in various other industries including the conventional oil and gas industry. The project has the potential to clean up the way oil companies handle some of their resources, particularly how they use water in oil extraction. That is another really cool technology that we have!

KAYE: Another great idea! What do you consider MTTC's greatest accomplishment since its inauguration in 2003?

BARROW: I think part of what we have done is built a very collaborative network between all of the institutions across Massachusetts. We developed a website where we list technologies from multiple institutions in one place. It is like a one stop shop where you can find a technology from MIT, UMass Lowell, Tufts, WPI or any of the other institutions. To get all of the state's institutions to collaborate and put their technologies in one place makes them much more accessible. When we talk to people from other states, they are amazed that we were able to get all of these institutions to work together. While it was a very small project, I think it symbolizes what Massachusetts stands for and the willingness of the institutions to collaborate. This was certainly one of our great achievements!

KAYE: There is a lot to be said for that camaraderie within the state. What is your vision for this Catalyst Program and the MTTC in general five years from now?

BARROW: We certainly hope to find and fund a number of great startup companies that can grow and be meaningful while having a positive impact on the industry. It would be great if one or two of our little grants ended up being the catalyst for a big company that will change the way we think about and use energy!

Dr. Barrow is the Founding Director at the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center. At the University of Edinburgh, she received her Ph.D. from the Science Studies Unit and a B.Sc. in Mechanical Engineering.

SEPTEMBER 2011: National Grid's, Matthew Foran on Commmercial and Industrial Oil to Gas Conversion Projects in MA

In September, Mass Energy Lab’s Public Relations Associate, Jen Kaye talked with Matt Foran, Commercial Sales Leader for National Grid to gain an inside perspective on the utility company’s role in the process of converting from oil to natural gas.

As a Commercial Sales Leader at National Grid, Foran is responsible for managing a group of nine individuals who work with customers to implement energy efficiency measures in their facilities. Three of his employees deal with electric energy efficiency projects, while the other six promote the company’s gas energy efficiency programs as well as assisting customers with oil to natural gas conversion projects.

KAYE: What makes natural gas a more viable option and why is National Grid looking to promote oil to gas conversions now with the winter months upcoming?

FORAN: With the weather becoming colder, it’s the natural time of year for businesses to start thinking about converting. As energy use increases in the winter, utility costs rise as well. There are a number of reasons to consider converting to natural gas. For commercial properties there’s certainly an economic reason to do it. The delivered cost of natural gas is running about half of what fuel oil is costing for most commercial businesses so that’s a key driver. In addition, it’s a cleaner fossil fuel and there is less maintenance on equipment. We are finding that a lot of customers are becoming more environmentally aware and are having a growing desire to improve their carbon footprint. Just converting from oil to natural gas, in and of itself, has a substantial impact on reducing carbon footprint. Going a step further and moving from standard efficiency to high efficiency increases the carbon reduction and savings. Fuel conversion alone has an immense effect and can play a key role in a company’s strategy to reduce their carbon footprint.

KAYE: Certainly the cost savings and the environmental savings are huge factors. Are there any other benefits of natural gas that National Grid promotes?

FORAN: Recently there has been a lot of media surrounding the discovery of new supplies of natural gas. These findings have been resounding well with the public. Not only that, but the majority of the natural gas that we consume in the United States comes from North America. These supplies are plentiful and domestic opposed to foreign sources of fuel oil. One key point that customers seem to be very receptive to is the domestic nature of natural gas.

KAYE: The potential for natural gas is definitely impressive! Once a customer decides to convert, what is the process of switching from oil to natural gas?

FORAN: From the commercial aspect, our field sales representatives meet with the customer to determine the gas requirements of the new equipment depending on the equipment’s location in the building. We deal with two scenarios; one which involves no existing gas line to the building while the other scenario involves an existing gas service to the building, however the building’s equipment is oil-fired thus it needs to be updated.

From there, we determine if we need to run a new service line to the building. If so, we work with our engineering team to scope out the necessary gas mains, service lines and meters. When gas already exists in the building, we ensure that the gas service is appropriately sized and we make adjustments as needed.

Once the technical part is worked out we make a proposal to the customer. We do our best to provide a fair value to the customer which might include a subsidy on the cost of the gas service line or a subsidy on heating equipment, but it really is determined on a case-by-case basis. In addition, we promote gas energy efficiency programs and equipment that can be implemented to reduce energy waste.

The job gets processed for construction once the customer decides to move forward. It normally takes between four to six weeks from the time of signing the agreement and when the natural gas service line is installed. This time frame fluctuates depending on the time of year, permitting timeframes and the scope of work involved.

KAYE: What factors determine whether or not National Grid is able to provide incentives or rebates for projects that include oil to natural gas conversions?

FORAN: It depends on construction conditions, for example a job in downtown Boston has much different digging conditions than a job in Amesbury. This difference affects the cost, so the financial analysis of each job varies. The difficulty of construction conditions dictate our ability to subsidize a portion of what it costs to bring gas to a customer.

KAYE: What challenges or obstacles has National Grid faced in facilitating with company’s conversion from oil to natural gas?

FORAN: In this economy it has been difficult for some customers to make the conversion due to the capital expenditure not fitting into their business plan. It is also an extra challenge for customers whose facility is in an area with high construction costs.

KAYE: That is certainly understandable. You seem to be very passionate about your job and the industry. What spurred your interest in energy efficiency?

FORAN: From the customer satisfaction standpoint, I am committed to giving customers a good experience with National Grid. The way I see it is, we have a great product in natural gas and electricity. All of these customers are paying into the funding for these programs, so it always feels good to make sure that we are getting the word out and customers are getting the full value of the product and service that they are paying for. From an environmental perspective, it always feels good to do what we can to help save the planet and reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gases.

Matt Foran is a Commercial Sales Leader at National Grid. He has a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Brown University and an MBA from Babson University.

AUGUST 2011: Gustavo Quiroga on Sustainable Communities and Green Business Ventures

In August, Mass Energy Lab Marketing Manager, Charles Newborn talked with Gustavo Quiroga, Sustainability Manager for the Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation and Co-Founder of Replant Building Solutions to gain his perspective on sustainable community development and green entrepreneurship.

As Sustainability Manager of the Allston Brighton CDC, Quiroga is responsible for the organization's Green & Healthy Homes Initiative. This includes managing the comprehensive energy efficiency retrofit of the CDC's 500-unit portfolio of affordable housing; working with the property management company to implement green operations and maintenance policies; and establishing enhanced building recycling programs. Quiroga balances his role as Sustainability Manager with his role as the co-founder of RePlant Building Solutions, a start-up company introducing a unique line of outdoor furniture and garden planters to market using sustainable building materials. RePlant aims to “rethink the way we build” by developing a range of new products for the outdoor space that are sustainable, durable, and beautiful.

In the latest in our series of interviews with cleantech, energy efficiency, and sustainable design professionals, Quiroga talks about promoting sustainability from multiple perspectives.

NEWBORN: Gustavo, what are the most challenging aspects of promoting sustainability in your role as Sustainability Manager for the Allston Brighton CDC?

QUIROGA: That’s a great question. My role is primarily focused on two components: buildings retrofits, which includes mostly building envelope projects, with an occasional heating system replacement, and tenant engagement.  There are notable challenges for each.

As far as the building retrofit component, there is the constant challenge of trying to fund energy efficiency retrofit projects in affordable housing. Our capital improvement budgets are very tight and in most of our properties incurring new debt is not an option, so it becomes pretty complex from the financing perspective. We confer with outside consultants to understand funding sources, communicate with the multiple lenders involved in each property, evaluate utility subsidies etc. So the process is fairly involved. 

Tenant engagement has its own set of challenges. For one, the majority of tenants in affordable housing do not pay their own utility bills. Most often, they are not really aware of the true costs of their home’s energy bills. So, developing greater awareness of the issue is the first step for us. The next involves using increased awareness to encourage a change in energy use behavior. Even if we implement the most energy efficient improvements at a property, if tenants are not a partner in energy conservation, then we won’t make as much of an impact on energy waste reduction as we would otherwise like.

NEWBORN: Wow, the financial restrictions definitely makes it a challenge! So then, what strategies have you utilized to increase energy use awareness and to encourage the adoption of conservation measures?

QUIROGA:  Our strategy is centered on communicating why conservation is needed. We use several tactics, including one-on-one outreach, community canvassing, signage campaigns and community events. Some methods are more effective, some are not as effective. For instance, if we decide to canvass a property one afternoon or host a community meeting, we might miss an entire segment of people that are picking kids up from schools or working a later shift. It’s tough to connect with people in the midst of their busy lives. Energy conservation is not at the top of most people’s priority list. They have other things going on in their lives, so we have to utilize a mix of strategies to get their attention and begin a conversation on energy. One thing we are focusing on more is a signage and visual communication strategy. In certain properties, we have shared energy usage data with residents and received great feedback and now we want to implement this throughout the portfolio. The energy use at a glance info-graphic list monthly water, gas and electricity usage relative to the budget for the property for the year. It’s been something that has really resonated with tenants and generated interest and involvement. We’re working on refining the template to make it even more eye-catching and incorporate energy saving tips.

NEWBORN: Gustavo, that makes a lot of sense. It all starts with education and awareness. Are you pursuing LEED Certification for any of your buildings?

QUIROGA: We’re more focused on insulation and air sealing with the occasional heating system replacement... basically the low hanging fruit that can make a big difference in terms of efficiency and comfort at a minimal cost. I can envision working toward LEED certification in the future, perhaps under the Existing Building Operation and Maintenance category. Currently we have a program in place that directly relates to the operation and maintenance of our properties which would make the certification process easier to engage. In conjunction with our property management company, we have worked to devise a policies and protocol for green operation and maintenance. This includes using green materials for building improvements, like low VOC paints and flooring, or non-toxic cleaning supplies as well as helping tenants embrace recycling by increasing access to recycling bins.

NEWBORN: Okay, so how do you prioritize sustainability initiatives, like recycling, vs. your energy efficiency projects?

QUIROGA: We pursue both in parallel. Many of the upgrades are dependent on financing. So we continue our analysis and benchmarking efforts and establish a project plan for each property.  We do all we can, so when the funds are made available, we are ready to move.

At the same time we are managing and promoting the recycling efforts for the 509 units, 54 buildings, and 10 property developments in our portfolio. Recycling particularly works hand-in-hand with the tenant engagement piece. Though we want to see higher rate of recycling, it is an easy engagement opportunity... kind of a gateway issue because most people get it. Kids know about it from schools. Parents are probably recycling at work. It’s very important that recycling is under the umbrella of Green and Healthy Homes program because it gives us a starting point.

NEWBORN: In your other role as Co-Founder of Replant Building Solutions, how do you approach promoting your sustainable product line?

QUIROGA: At RePlant building solutions, we offer a unique line of sustainable products for outdoor living spaces including garden planters and outdoor furniture made with a composite building material made from recycled plastic and agricultural waste. We try to encourage people to rethink the concepts of durability and beauty by emphasizing that the qualities that make our products aesthetically pleasing and long lasting are the same qualities that make them sustainable. Our products retain less moisture, which leads to less mold and mildew, they are less prone to decay and are pest repellent. At the same time, as an alternative to wood we are  reducing our reliance on of precious forest resources in the built environment. These factors consistently generate excitement from both, clients and potential clients.

NEWBORN: Seems like you’re a very busy guy. How do you balance your role as Sustainability Manager for the Allston Brighton CDC with your role as Co-Founder of RePlant?

QUIROGA:  It helps to have a “day job” boss as well as colleagues that are very aware and supportive of my business ventures. I also work a 4 day week as Sustainability Manager where I can focus on RePlant, a young and growing company, at least one full day per week. It is also extremely helpful to have roles where I don’t have to completely shift gears going from one to the other. I have the incredible fortune of focusing on the same issue in both roles, and I’m even more fortunate to be in a line of work that I am passionate about and have devoted my life to.

NEWBORN: What are some fun facts about you?

QUIROGA: As I prepared to start RePlant I spent 3 months living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia sourcing product, learning more about the materials we work with, and building a relationship with our distribution partner. It was an incredible experience to be living and doing business in a very different culture. While I was there I had the opportunity to go hiking in the mountains of Borneo, Malaysia. Borneo is the heart of the timber trade and some of the deforestation I saw there was devastating to see up close. That experience helped to cement my commitment to our company’s mission of reimagining how we use wood alternative products to limit the effects of the timber trade on our forests.

Also, summer is hardly over but Im already thinking about the next ski season. I’ve been skiing in New England my entire life and for me it’s the ultimate escape and release to be in the mountains and on the snow. So, I can't wait for the season to begin!


Gustavo can be reached at either one of his positions:
You can also follow Gustavo on Twitter @gooseq007

Gustavo Quiroga is the Sustainability Manager at Allston Brighton CDC and Co-Founder of RePlant Building Solutions. He has a BA in International Studies with a Global Security Focus from the University of Wiconsin-Madison and a LEED GA certification from the US Green Building Council.

JULY 2011: Erica Mattison on Sustainability in Higher Education.
Mass Energy Lab CEO, Mo Nariani connected with Special Projects Coordinator for Campus Sustainability at Suffolk University, Erica Mattison, to gain an inside perspective on the challenges faced in greening college campuses.

Starting in the summer of 2006, Mattison began serving as Suffolk University's first Recycling Coordinator. Working with multiple stakeholders, she coordinated the overhaul of the campus' sparse recycling program. In 2007, her role expanded to include a broader range of issues pertaining to sustainability, such as green building practices and improving efficiency of existing facilities. As Special Projects Coordinator for Campus Sustainability at Suffolk University, Mattison's specialties include: incorporating sustainability principles into campus planning and operations, implementing ongoing educational programs, working with stakeholders to bring about heightened awareness and organizational change.

In the first, in our series of interviews with cleantech, energy efficiency, and sustainable design professionals, Mattison talks about driving sustainable change at Suffolk University.

NARIANI:  What are the major challenges facing sustainability managers for institutions of higher learning?

MATTISON: Generally speaking, the major difficulties it seems institutions grapple with are funding, time, and the political will to bring about change. A commitment to investing in intelligent building design and systems for new buildings and ongoing investments in energy conservation measures for existing buildings are essential to move a program forward.

In terms of time, many campus sustainability staff feel like there are many demands on their time and not enough hours in the day or people to share the workload. Frequently, there's one, full-time staff person with support from a few student volunteers or part-time staff. To help meet the needs of the campus and to keep improving, it's very helpful to have a committee of committed people contributing their time and advocacy.

As far as political will, it is necessary to harness the interest of the students and employees in order to generate the momentum needed to overcome the status quo. By raising awareness and encouraging involvement, you may be able to secure the advocacy that is so important to bringing about change. The efforts of just one person are unlikely to transform an institution's culture to one that places a high value on conservation. I have seen that efforts are most effective when they involve a broad spectrum of stakeholders.

NARIANI: Have things evolved over the last 5 years?

MATTISON: Five years ago, I started as the University's Recycling Coordinator and soon after became the University's first Sustainability Coordinator. I've seen an amazing evolution at Suffolk and at many other schools. The way I got involved in environmental initiatives was as an evening graduate student. I started advocating for the University to expand its recycling program, which was inconsistent and hardly visible. After a few months of conducting research and advocating in a volunteer capacity, the new Director of Facilities Planning & Management, Gordon King, hired me to coordinate the program's expansion. I later found out this was a similar story to many higher education sustainability staff across the country. Up from the 5% of the waste stream that was recycled when I started, we now recycle about 40% of our waste stream, and have also composted several tons of material since we started that initiative in 2007. As for our energy, we have taken several steps to reduce our usage and save money. This goes for efficiency projects involving equipment, as well as conservation initiatives that involve educating our building occupants. For instance, we hire Eco-Reps to serve as environmental peer educators in the residence halls, distribute stickers for people to post on their computers as a reminder to turn them off, host internal competitions to encourage building occupants to conserve, and participate in national competitions. Because schools continually have new students, it is important to foster educational outreach and engagement efforts year-round, year in and year out.

NARIANI: How engaged are Students/ Faculty in process of greening the campus?

MATTISON: The population with students is ever-changing so we keep working to get them and keep them engaged. We have a Sustainability Committee that has grown and grown over the past year and before there were only a few members, now there are over a 100! We now have sub committees - including waste reduction and recycling, buildings and energy, and special initiatives. These are chaired by dynamic individuals who play a major role in driving initiatives. We are constantly thinking about  how to take interests that exist, bring them together, and direct them so that we can achieve our goals. It’s key to coordinate efforts and collaborate across departments so that we can maximize our effectiveness. 

NARIANI: What are some fun facts about you?

MATTISON: I am trying to start an adopt-a-tree program my neighborhood. I also love Latin dancing!

Erica Mattison is the Sustainability Coordinator at Suffolk University. She has a BA in Psychology from UMass Amherst, A Masters in Public Administration from Suffolk University and is currently pursuing her JD at Suffolk University.