Smart Windows Startup Using NREL Patents

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By James Lester

Smart windows have been slow to grab a foothold in the construction and energy efficiency industry. The recent development of electrochromic (EC) windows, often called “smart windows”, promise to make a big impact on building heating and cooling costs. They are ‘smart’ because they can be programmed to absorb and reflect a different amount of light throughout the day in order to cool or warm up a room. It is estimated that the technology can reduce heating and cooling costs by up to 35% for office buildings and improve natural lighting. Thus far, smart windows have been prohibitively expensive and only available in new construction projects or even more expensive retrofit projects. A new company, based in Boulder, Colorado and partnered with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), has big plans to change that.

e-Chromic Technologies, founded in 2011 by Loren Burnett, is developing and commercializing reflective electrochromic thin film based on patents exclusively licensed from NREL. The technology under development is suitable for retrofitting existing windows, use in new window units and other glass applications, which makes e-Chromic unique from competing smart window technology.

e-Chromic founder Loren Burnett, Vice President Joe Biden, US Senator Michael Bennet at NREL

e-Chromic was the first licensee under the US Department of Energy’s “America Next Top Energy Innovator” challenge, and is pursuing additional development of the licensed technology in partnership with NREL.

The relationship with NREL highlights the benefits of the lab’s mission to increase the speed and impact of technology transfer activities. These relationships, developed through CRADAs (Cooperative Research and Development Agreements) allow NREL to continue working with companies to refine and develop technologies and provides a path for its innovations to streamline into the private sector. NREL said for every dollar the DOE invests in a CRADA, it attracts another $8 in private investment.

“We enjoy an awesome relationship with NREL,” Burnett stated in a recent interview with Cleantech Finance. “In addition to world class R&D support under our ongoing CRADA, NREL has provided funding support and continues to be a rich source of introductions and contacts in the window and thin film space.”

The company recently announced the closing of $330,000 of its initial Series Seed financing round led by Amplifier Ventures, a seed stage venture capital fund based in the Washington, DC region. Several other angels also participated, and the company is continuing to raise towards its $600,000 goal.

“The company has made tremendous progress since we helped establish it two years ago,” added Jonathan Aberman, Managing Director of Amplifier Ventures. “The company has benefitted from a strong and continuing relationship with NREL, which has provided funding and support to continue to progress this important technology. The proceeds of the Series Seed will allow us to move technology from the lab to a product that can be commercially evaluated.”

According to e-Chromic, other smart window technologies (electrochromic, photochromic and thermochromic) turn dark when activated. Their dark surfaces absorb sunlight and re‐emit heat. This “heating problem” can reach 60°C. In order to prevent this heat from entering the building, providers of smart window technology must build their dynamic surfaces into the interior of new window units, making lower cost retrofitting impossible.

e-Chromic estimates that its technology will reduce air conditioner usage and its related CO2 production by ~35%. In the US, where electrical energy costs are relatively low, the payback period can be as short as 2‐3 years. Due to much higher costs for electricity in international locations such as Asia, India, Europe and South America, payback periods are measured in a few months.

E-Chromic’s technology applies an electric field to change the tint of a window, allowing users to wirelessly control transparency based on the time of day, temperature or exposure to sunlight, making windows a part of the “internet of things”. The technology can integrate with Android, iOS, and building energy managements systems.

The company believes its technology is cost effective because its proprietary reflective technology enables access to the retrofit market, which can greatly improve efficiency of existing windows. Its customization will allow seamless integration with existing form factors and building industry practices. The resulting commercial and residential market opportunity in the US is estimated at approximately $10 billion.

smart windows

Office building and residential buildings are not the only market in e-Chromic’s sights, Burnett told us. Burnett, who has successfully founded and exited several technology companies, see the automotive and consumer electronics industry as appealing markets for his company’s technology.

“The automotive industry has enormous potential for our reflective window technology,” Burnett said. “In order to meet increasingly stringent federal CAFE standards, automakers will look for ways to reduce A/C loads, a large contributor to a vehicles fuel economy.”

Burnett also sees the growing electric vehicle market as an ideal partner. The technology can even be used to help the nascent solar laptop and tablet market, in addition to the enormous commercial and residential building market. Burnett believes that these potential markets, and the company’s retro-fit advantage, should be appealing to any potential seed investor.

“We have established a very investor friendly valuation on our financing. This presents qualified early investors with the potential to achieve significant returns in the event of an early exit to a strategic buyer,” Burnett says.

According to Burnett, the company expects to fully commercialize is technology in the 1st quarter of 2016. Some of the key next steps for the company will be to develop a complete understanding of the sales and implementation process, and open 3rd party distribution with a concentration on large HVAC implementers, environmental control providers, ESCOs, the glazing industry and implementers of window films.

About the Author: James Lester is an energy and impact investing expert with over a decade of experience in energy finance, public policy, and measuring social and environmental impacts (SEI). He has authored a number of articles, publications, and research reports that provide sources and tools needed to promote investment in clean energy. He is Managing Consultant at Cleantech Finance and lives in Boulder, CO. Follow James on Twitter @cleantecfinance and @Impact_Invest0r.

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