8 Thermoelectric Generator and Cooler Startups
When we first came across the word “thermoelectric,” we didn’t think it sounded like a very exciting technology, but in fact it’s really one cool concept. The idea is that you can use chips (yes, computer chips) to transform extreme temperatures to electricity or vice versa. You can actually take electricity and then convert it into heat (thermoelectric generator) or cold (thermoelectric cooler) using a chipset. As you can imagine, you’d have to get the cost of producing these chips pretty low before you could begin replacing your air conditioning unit with a compact little box of chips.
One reason we find thermoelectric technology interesting is because it’s been around for a long time and yet it’s now something that venture capital is investing in because of nanotechnology. Traditionally, thermoelectric generators and thermoelectric coolers have been made out of expensive and rare materials. Here are just some of the old school players in the thermoelectric space:
- A company called Align Sourcing has been manufacturing and selling thermoelectric products for 35 years.
- Japanese company Ferrotec is a $370 million publicly traded Japanese company which sells thermoelectric modules.
- Gentherm (NASDAQ:THRM) is a $1.2 billion publicly-traded company that sells thermoelectric solutions for car seats among other things.
- A Chinese company called P&N Technology sells a variety of thermoelectric modules.
- A Michigan based company called TE Technology has been selling thermoelectric cooling modules since 1989.
Certainly there are even more companies selling thermoelectric solutions as well, but despite this fact, we still have a number of well-funded startups looking to disrupt this space by using nanotechnology. Here is a look at 8 of these startups.
Founded in 2009, North Carolina based startup Phononic Devices has taken in almost $118 million so far in 7 funding rounds with the latest round of $30 million closing just 10 days ago. Their current products on offer include a compact freezer and a compact fridge that use a thermoelectric cooler. Both of these products are targeted at the healthcare industry for controlled storage of pharmaceutical drugs, vaccines, and medical devices. If you’re going to sell a refrigerator for $2,500, it better do some pretty cool stuff. The Evolve refrigerator offers lower operation and maintenance costs, superior temperature control, and it doesn’t make a sound. Here’s what the technology looks like according to Phononic:
“With the continued development of thermoelectric materials that conduct both heat and electricity with applied current, however, we’ve taken our SilverCore™ technology a step further. Our use of compound semiconductor materials and resulting high performance devices, when used in conjunction with innovative thermal exchange systems using non-toxic refrigerants, provides a refrigeration solution that meets the diverse needs of residential, healthcare and life sciences, and commercial end-users.”
We’re not surprised to see some nanomaterials being used. Aside from selling high tech fridges, Phononic offers their core thermoelectric chip technology called Silvercore which can be customized to any form needed.
Founded in 2009, Alphabet Energy has taken in $49.5 million so far to develop a “waste heat recovery technology”. Their latest Series C funding round closed in July of this year and included General Motors as an investor which is fitting considering their thermoelectric generator solution targets the auto industry by promising 5% fuel efficiency by turning car exhaust heat into electricity. Here’s what they say about their technology:
Today, low thermal conductivity can be achieved by creating nanoscale features such as particles, wires or interfaces in bulk semiconductor materials. These nanoscale features lower the thermal conductivity of the semiconductor and do not effect their strong electrical properties.
Here we see that nanotechnology is being used to create cost effective thermoelectric solutions that can scale. In addition to targeting the auto sector, Alphabet Energy managed to scale their technology and build the world’s most powerful thermoelectric generator which turns waste heat like gas flares into electric power. This is why Canadian natural gas giant Encana (NYSE:ECA) and the $100 billion oil technology company Schlumberger (NYSE:SLB) are lead investors.
Founded in 2011, Silicium Energy has taken in just under $9 million to develop a thermoelectric material that uses silicon nanowires to turn waste heat into electrical energy. Again, we see another company that is using nanomaterials to transform a technology that has been around for decades. These guys and gals want to use body heat to power wearables and they’ve convinced renowned VC firm Khosla Ventures and a well known $100 billion materials company called 3M to invest in their vision. Not too much else is made known about this company other than their “About Us” page which shows that they’re throwing some serious intellectual firepower at this thing.
Whenever a company doesn’t say who runs it or who invested in it, we automatically get suspicious and think to ourselves that we’re likely to see it debut as an over the counter stock. Sheetak appears legitimate though as they received funding from ARPA-E, a United States government agency tasked with promoting and funding R&D for advanced energy technologies. The CEO and founder, Uttam Ghoshal, was the founder and CTO of Nanocoolers which burnt through nearly $20 million in venture capital money before closing their doors. We don’t know how much funding if any he’s secured this time around but let’s hope second time is the charm.
Founded in 2000, Evident Thermoelectrics started out developing quantum dots for LEDs and then switched over to developing nanomaterials for thermoelectric applications. Last year the Company bought GMZ Energy, a startup that burned through $25 million in venture capital funding from some pretty big players to develop thermoelectric coolers and thermoelectric generators before getting acquired. Here’s what Evident had to say about that:
With recent acquisition of GMZ Energy, Evident has broadened its materials capability and IP portfolio including nano-structuring process for half-Heusler materials.
Evident Thermoelectrics is currently selling their “Evident Skutterudite Test Kit” if you’ve got $2499 burning a hole in your pocket and you want to play around with their technology.
Update 09/28/2018: The Evident Thermoelectrics website no longer functions.
Founded in 2011, ThermoAura Inc. is a nanomaterials company that markets a high-performance nanomaterial called NanoWave which is specifically designed for thermoelectric energy conversion applications such as electricity harvesting from waste heat and solid-state refrigeration. So far they’ve taken in $1 million in a seed funding round which closed this past April in addition to grants that have helped fund their research.
Founded in 2009, Swiss startup greenTEG has been developing their technology at ETH Zurich since 2002. While they don’t talk explicitly about using nanotechnology, a peek at the bios of their employees lead us to believe that something nano is going on there. GreenTEG’s product portfolio includes laser detectors, heat flux sensors, and customized sensor solutions for OEMs. The Company’s gTEG® Thermoelectric Generators are not yet commercially available.
We were on the edge about throwing in Transphorm because we just weren’t sure they qualify as a “thermoelectric” company but we’re going to trust the smart minds at GigaOm and add them to our list. Transphorm has taken in an astounding $211 million to develop gallium nitride (GaN) products that reduce power waste during power conversion. Basically, any application that converts AC to DC and DC to AC is a possible solution for their GaN technology and that potential has them backed by heavyweights like Google Ventures, KKR, and Fujitsu which makes sense since they acquired Fujitsu’s GaN business back in 2013. Transphorm partnered with Enphase (NASDAQ:ENPH) back in 2011 to develop a solution for solar power conversion and has had 8 funding rounds to date. Investors have to be clamoring for some sort of exit soon.
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