Engineering Market Momentum
For a world that demands solutions for power and efficiency, the Maryland Energy Innovation Institute is bringing products out of the lab and into the market.
Imagine: stronger-than-steel wood that replaces metal in cars and planes and slashes steel production emissions. Lightweight, long-lasting, and backpack-sized non-flammable battery packs that soldiers and rescue workers carry with them wherever they go. A compact, cordless air-conditioning robot that follows you on a muggy summer day, keeping you comfortable while drastically reducing the cost and environmental impact of cooling huge office or warehouse spaces.
These are no musings of a thought experiment. They are all clean-energy inventions well on their way to becoming market-ready products, thanks to a deeply collaborative institute at the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering.
Established in 2017 by the Maryland General Assembly, the Maryland Energy Innovation Institute (MEI2) was founded to support the development of clean-energy technology innovations from companies and universities across Maryland, thereby boosting economic growth and jobs in the state’s clean-energy sector.
The institute supports entrepreneurial engineers and scientists working on technologies poised to revolutionize the energy industry. From groundbreaking energy research, to seed grants that enable demonstration of the technology in working prototypes, to accelerator programs that prepare fledgling companies for the crucible of the open market, MEI2 offers a range of clean energy business development opportunities.
Building Energy Innovation Hub in Maryland
"Tech transfer isn’t easy under the best of circumstances,” says Ellen Williams, Distinguished University Professor in UMD’s Department of Physics, former director of ARPA-e from 2014–2017, and MEI2 advisory board member. “But it’s especially hard for academics who haven’t had experience in that environment. MEI2 supports academics in understanding what is needed to go beyond a great technology to make it real."
The energy sector is a particularly difficult arena for new technologies to gain a foothold in, Williams adds. But a novel strength of MEI2 is that it is agnostic about the kinds of technologies it supports: batteries, fuel cells, heating and thermoelectrics, energy harvesting and propulsion, renewables, carbon capture, and even work in public policy.
As a state, Maryland ranks first in per-capita university research and development (R&D) expenditures, and second in overall per capita R&D spending—however, most spending has focused on health-related technologies. Huge opportunity exists for innovation in clean energy technologies, which include a broad subset of arenas: grid modernization, energy storage, carbon sequestration, clean fuels, electric vehicles, artificial intelligence and automation, and nuclear power.
The mission of MEI2 is to bring together business, industry, and academic leaders to take advantage of opportunities in those spaces with in-state researchers and entrepreneurs leading the way. If the institute’s first three years of labors are any indication, MEI2 is well on its way to assisting the transformation of Maryland’s energy economy.
In other words, MEI2 is a scaffold: a fertile plot for growth. But the seeds must come from inventors, business leaders, thinkers, and network builders across the state—a diverse cohort of people and ideas to build out the vision of a cleaner, more efficient-energy future across not only Maryland, but the world.
The Power of a Seed (Grant)
Open to all academic institutions in Maryland, annual seed grants are awarded by MEI2 at two levels: phase 1 grants up to $100,000, and phase 2 up to $200,000 for projects that received prior seed funding. Since 2018, 13 companies and university researchers have received funding from the seed grant program, including partners at Morgan State and Johns Hopkins universities, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
Technologies and ideas run the gamut. The 2020 recipients included a dynamic fabric that can automatically regulate heat passing through it, keeping wearers warm or cool as needed; in 2019, the Roving Comforter (RoCo) air-conditioning robot received its second round of seed funding; in 2018, seed support went to an effort between Johns Hopkins University and the company NanoDirect to develop large-area quantum dot solar cells for buildings. Another seed grant recipient Ion Storage Systems was able consequently to raise $8M in private investment and became one of Maryland Future 20 start-up Companies.
The Energy Innovation Seed Grants are open to "all full-time tenured or tenure track faculty members at any Maryland state academic institution or Maryland companies affiliated with and commercializing inventions created by those faculty." If you are interested in partnering with us, please contact Cathy Stephens (email@example.com) for more information.Energy Innovation Seed Grant Program
Launched within MEI2 in 2019, the Maryland Energy Innovation Accelerator (MEIA) has three levels of support for budding companies: pre-accelerator, for concepts that are still lab-based but whose inventors think may have market potential; launchpad, for researchers with published work and working prototypes or processes interested in a launching a start-up but not sure where to go next; and the full accelerator, for startups that are looking to get their first private investment for product launches.
MEIA currently hosts 10 startups, including Alchemity, whose technology converts methane to fuels using a highly efficient single-step reactor, and PulseIQ!, an energy management and information service company that leverages big data and analytics to reduce costs and optimize climate control systems in older structures.
To support or mentor future start-ups, please contact Brian Toll (firstname.lastname@example.org).Maryland Energy Innovation Accelerator
Clean energy isn’t just a Maryland concern; it’s a global need. International partnerships are key to bringing benefits to people well beyond state boundaries.
A joint endeavor established in 1977 by the U.S. and Israeli governments, the Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation, or BIRD, provides matchmaking and support for researchers and companies involved in a variety of sectors, including renewable and alternative energy. The international partnership underscores another dimension of deploying new energy technologies: that teamwork, on a variety of levels, is critical to making the dream work.Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation
Whether in heat, or cold, or in tiny spaces, the need for portable, potent wire-free power is greater than ever.
The MEI2-housed Center for Research in Extreme Batteries (CREB) is growing the capacity to realize more of these technologies in the open market. A guiding principle of the center is open access: fostering connections to accelerate research in advanced battery materials, technologies, and techniques—and many more players are needed to accomplish these goals.
In 2014, after years of partnering on a series of successful projects and publications, Chunsheng Wang, the R.F. and F.R. Wright Distinguished Chair in UMD’s Departments of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering and Materials Science & Engineering, and Kang Xu, a senior chemist at the Army Research Laboratory (ARL), had an idea. What might happen if there were even greater collaboration between local institutes? If industry could be brought in to advise on what was needed? If some of the discipline’s brightest minds could weigh in on the direction of the research?
Thus CREB, a consortium of UMD, ARL, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology and directed by Wang, was born. The steering committee includes members of the Argonne National Laboratory and Stony Brook University, and 2019 Nobel laureate M. Stanley Whittingham, whose research was critical to the development of the lithium-ion battery.Center for Research in Extreme Batteries