SmartSpark aims to ignite interest in energy circles
Prof's start-up firm working on extending battery life, efficiency
Date of publication in the Champaign, Ill., News-Gazette: May 30, 2004
By DON DODSON
Copyright 2004 The News-Gazette
CHAMPAIGN – Phil Krein has got energy – and patience, too.
Krein is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois, and he has been working on energy-processing technology for 15 years.
This year, he and some colleagues formed a company, SmartSpark Energy Systems, to expedite new methods of processing electrical energy and using it more efficiently.
In practical terms, that means building batteries that last longer, developing lower-cost ways to convert alternative energy into electricity and getting maximum efficiency from energy sources.
Krein has no illusions about SmartSpark becoming an overnight success, but he's confident the company will have a lasting impact.
"We'll be a small firm in 2005," he said. "We may not be so small in 2010."
SmartSpark opened its doors in the UI's EnterpriseWorks building in January, and its first full-time employee started two weeks ago.
"We're expecting an initial ramp-up in 2004," Krein said. "By the end of the year, we'll be selling things and working actively with major clients."
SmartSpark recently hired an interim chief executive officer, Neil Kane. As an "entrepreneur-in-residence" at the UI Research Park, Kane works with several start-up companies needing management expertise.
Kane, a UI mechanical engineering graduate, said he has spent four years commercializing technology from universities and federal laboratories.
From his experience, Kane said, "Academic-led startups do better and make smarter decisions with a seasoned business person involved."
At this point, SmartSpark is exploring a variety of innovations, but focusing on three in particular:
– Improving the performance of rechargeable batteries by "balancing" the electrical charge across a series of batteries. The "Batteq" balancing system could yield benefits for the automotive industry. It could also be used in computer and communications backup systems, battery-operated power tools and light electric vehicles such as golf carts and scooters.
– Developing "PulseLink," an energy conversion technology that is more reliable, has fewer parts and costs less than existing conversion technologies. PulseLink could be used in converting energy from sources such as solar panels or fuel cells. Among the potential customers: military markets and high-end residential developers.
– Developing a control method, "ripple correlation," that gets maximum efficiency out of energy sources, whether it be a solar panel or an electronically controlled motor in a home appliance.
"The energy savings could be substantial," Krein said. "That technology could have a significant national impact on energy consumption."
The battery-balancing project is the one closest to product stage, Krein said. The ripple correlation project is "farther down the line," he said.