With each of our innovator stories, we get a chance to meet the people behind EU-funded ideas, which have the potential to change our future for the better.
With that in mind, we spoke with the winner of the Kickstarter Category at the Innovation Radar Prize 2022, Alejandro Datas. He’s an Associate Professor at Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, where he developed, through the AMADEUS project and subsequent initiatives, a thermophotovoltaic battery capable of storing large amounts of energy for long periods, having high energy density, high global efficiency and using abundant and low-cost materials. Out of this project, Alejandro co-founded a spin-off, Thermophoton.
Universidad Politécnica de Madrid is listed on the Innovation Radar and was supported by the EU with €106M so far. Alejandro’s solution in particular has received an overall €9M via different R&I projects, i.e., AMADEUS, NATHALIE, THERMOBAT and SUNSON.
Tell us more about yourself and your work?
I am an Associate Professor at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid and a Research Scientist at the Instituto de Energía Solar of the same university. I have been researching thermophotovoltaic energy conversion since 2005. Since 2012 I have been pushing the development of thermophotovoltaic batteries to contribute to solving the variability problem of solar and wind power generation technologies.
In our group we typically start with new ideas, do preliminary calculations to quantify their potential, and then we build the first lab prototypes to test their practical feasibility. If successful, we also try to transfer the technologies to the industry.
What problem is your product solving and what makes its solution unique?
Battery price forecasts for the next few years are still too high, so we need to find a cheaper storage solution so that variable renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar, become a large part of electricity generation.
Therefore, storing energy as heat instead of electricity arises as a promising cheaper solution. Even if there is an efficiency penalty when converting heat back to electricity, the low cost of thermal energy storage is an important advantage. Besides, the heat stored may not need to be converted to electricity, as heat corresponds to about 50% of the global energy demand.
In this context, our innovation is a latent heat thermophotovoltaic battery that stores the surplus of renewable generation and produces combined heat and power on demand. The value proposition is the supply of a cheap system that has high energy density, high global efficiency, and can produce clean heat and electricity on demand.
Currently, two similar ideas are being developed in the United States by a Californian startup, Antora Energy, in which Bill Gates and Chris Sacca backed VCs invested $50M, and by the MIT in Boston. These projects are trying to store energy in graphite blocks at high temperatures, while we use fused silicon. The advantage of silicon is that it can store much more energy per volume unit. This means that our solution can have a smaller size and therefore also smaller investment costs.
What’s the biggest impact EU-funding has had on your journey so far, and can you specify an outcome?
The impact of EU funding has been tremendous. Overall, our EU projects have been funded with a total amount of almost €9M. This funding is enabling us to engage with many brilliant scientists and engineers all around Europe, who are bringing their expertise in many different aspects of the technology.
Our first coordinated project, AMADEUS, was funded by the European Innovation Council in 2017. This project was essential, as it enabled us to conduct the first proof of concept experiment of our technology. Just after the end of AMADEUS, in 2021, we got additional funding from the EIC to conduct the market assessment of the technology within the project NATHALIE Project. More recently, we just got additional funding from the EIC and CINEA to conduct the pilot demonstration of the technology within the THERMOBAT and SUNSON projects, respectively.
All these activities funded by the EC are producing valuable results, some of which will be exploited by a recently established startup Thermophoton, which is also an outcome of these projects.
What are the main difficulties you tend to face as a scientist when you try to take your innovation out of the lab and bring it to the market?
The first difficulty is to get the required funding to further develop the technology. But this is being mitigated significantly through our recently granted EU projects. The second most relevant difficulty was engaging the correct partners to start the company. Building a technological startup requires finding the proper business profiles that you don’t typically find around universities. Then, the next difficulty is to engage the investors that the company needs to start the pilot production of the technology. We are still working on this last one.
What is your greatest achievement so far?
Probably the fact that I have been able to convince so many great people to work around this technology. Everything else is a consequence of that.
How do you see yourself making a difference in the future?
I hope I can continue thinking about new ideas and pushing them during the first steps of their development. If some of them are successful, I would also love to contribute to bringing them to the market.
Why was participating in Dealflow.eu’s Innovation Radar Prize 2022 e–pitching event so important to you?
We had the opportunity to show our technology to several investors and innovators across Europe and some of them approached us after the event requesting more information.
What did it mean to you to win the KICKSTARTER category?
The visibility we got is simply amazing. We were contacted by investors, journalists, and scientists all over Europe, all of them requesting more information on our technology. After winning this award, it seems like our technology is being taken more seriously.
What are the next milestones in your go-to-market journey to achieve success?
We still need to develop the pilot demonstration within the EU-funded projects. In parallel, we are actively searching for investors to accelerate the development of our startup and build a pilot production line of our technology
The aim of innovator stories is to highlight and share with investors and relevant stakeholders in the industry, insights, and unique stories from some of the most innovative EU-funded project that Dealflow.eu is proud to support.
If you are an investor who wants to connect with Thermophoton, please feel free to reach out at [email protected]
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