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Cooling tech company heats up with NSF small-business award

In the battle against climate change, tech startup Heat Inverse is aiming to revolutionize cooling technologies and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than a gigaton.

Franco Mora, left, and Romy Fain are pictured at the 76West Clean Energy Business Competition.

The company is led by CEO Romy Fain, Ph.D. ’17, and thanks to a $225,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Heat Inverse is set to scale up and pilot its technology with customers.

While a doctoral student in electrical engineering at Cornell, Fain developed a thin film that produces cooling temperatures without generating any waste heat. Realizing the technology would be a boon for the traditionally energy-intensive cooling and refrigerant industry, Fain started to work on commercializing her research.

At Cornell, Fain was introduced to multiple entrepreneurship programs. She completed an NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) short course and learned how to conduct customer discovery – a method of interviewing potential customers to determine if a technology meets their needs.

Upon graduation, she officially launched Heat Inverse and was accepted into the SBIR Phase 0 pilot program, which trains and supports early-stage startups as they apply for and secure funding.

“The NSF I-Corps and SBIR Phase 0 programs not only gave us the opportunity to find customers, but more importantly, they taught us how to find customers,” Fain said. “We are continuing to use the skills we learned in the program to dig deeper into our initial market, but also to investigate potential future follow-on markets.”

Heat Inverse’s initial customer market is the refrigerated trucking industry. Conventional cooling technologies are big contributors to global warming; by applying Heat Inverse’s films atop transport trailers, the company expects to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 20 million metric tons per year, and reduce fuel costs for trucking companies by 25%-80%.

Cornell impacting New York State

The additional markets Fain has identified for her thin-film technology includes construction, consumer vehicles, battery storage and solar energy systems.

Fain had planned to launch Heat Inverse in San Francisco, but while completing her doctorate, she was attracted to the Southern Tier’s strong startup ecosystem. She recently pitched her business plan as a semifinalist in the 76West Clean Energy Competition.

Winners in the competition, including the $1 million grand prize winner, will be announced in the fall. As a condition of the award, winning companies must either move to the Southern Tier or establish a direct connection with the Southern Tier, such as a supply chain or job development with Southern Tier companies.

“I realized what a fantastic place this is to start a business” she said. “Loads of smart people, affordable real estate, Cornell resources close by, manufacturing in the region, lots of New York state money going into clean tech and economic development, and the quality of life just can’t be beat. And Rev: Ithaca Startup Works is such a great location to work.”

Fain credits Rev, the city’s startup incubator, with supplying the majority of the company’s networking contacts. She said she appreciates the guidance of the incubator’s entrepreneurs-in-residence.

“They continue to give us excellent advice and warm introductions to all of their connections,” she said, “keeping Heat Inverse accelerating in the right direction.”

Casey Verderosa is a writer for the Center for Regional Economic Advancement.

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Rebecca Valli