THE HUB LAB
Ed Beardsworth, Technical Director
Hub Lab was in full swing from May 2008 until Spring 2010. This note is to provide a brief summary of the program's history and developments.
As an introduction to the intent and scope, here is the text we used in the early days to elicit leads and dealflow. It is still a very accurate characterization of the scope and purpose. We also did an interview with Cleantechblog.com in early 2009, which talked about the approach and philosophy. (attached below)
The Hub Lab Seeks New Science for Energy and the Environment
"The Hub Lab" is a new program whose express purpose is to find and invest in very early stage energy technology and research that has the potential to make a huge game-changing difference.
The Hub Lab is backed by an investor group with major energy and other assets throughout Asia. They are especially committed to the triple bottom line, and have invested actively in green cleantech funds in the US and Asia.
The program is motivated by a strong belief that the planet is headed for serious trouble, and that we need to look for dramatic and wholesale changes in ways to meet rapidly growing worldwide demand for energy and resources.
We look for situations where some initial funding has the potential to advance work on a new idea to a point where a better decision can be made about further support. It could well be something outside currently accepted thinking in science and engineering.
While most (venture) investors must understandably limit themselves to technology that shows a reasonably short path to commercial success, The Hub Lab is different. We want new science, and "extreme early stage", that is aimed at a very big and important target.
We are keeping a low profile to avoid being inundated by fringe inventors. (You'll not be able to find much about us online.) Instead, we quietly put out the word to the research and cleantech investor community. Please help spread the word (selectively). Send us those "science experiments" that you wish you could pursue and would be tempted to support if your investment profile or business model allowed it. Include big ideas that might have a hard time getting government R&D funding.
Specifically, we look for:
* Truly revolutionary
* The "Next Nuclear" (imagine in 1900, imagining nuclear power)
* Primary power or electric power generation, base load
Of interest, for example:
* Solid state heat to power breakthrough
* Storage breakthrough
* Cold fusion
* Permanent Magnet engines, Zero Point Energy, etc.
* "Aneutronic" fusion (Tri-Alpha, General Fusion)
* "New" nuclear, with short-lived radwaste (transmutation)
* Blacklight Power (in a class by itself!)
We are not interested in:
* CO2 capture that produces gaseous CO2,
(i.e. which requires sequestration, e.g. geologic)
* Fossil fuel extraction
* Solar Power
* Incremental or evolutionary advances for current technology
The Hub Lab's backers recognize the merits of all types of clean green endeavors, and are active through other investment vehicles. The Hub Lab, however, has a very specific focus to find and support true breakthroughs.
In all, seven grants were made.
Two involved revolutionary *non-semiconductor-based* approaches to solar electricity. Another is closing in on an experimental observation of a violation of (exception to) the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. We also took a run at cavitation induced cold fusion, and at harvesting zero point energy via the Casimir force. Another grant supported development of an analytical method to analyze turbulent flow, i.e. without doing computational fluid dynamics via numerical simulation. We also obtained credible measurements of an anomaly in the energetics of a magnetostrictive alloy which is also suggestive of a 2nd Law exception -- specifically the production of useful work without a temperature difference.
The work on these projects continues without Hub Lab funding, and each one represents an opportunity for pursuit to the next level.
Over the course of the two years, there were a great many encounters with researchers of all kinds, ranging from those with truly "out there" ideas, to perhaps less 'controversial but highly innovative in materials, combustion with no emissions, etc. We might well have supported any number of these, if more resources had been available.
We saw proposals such as:
-- A novel flywheel, intended for large scale energy storage
-- Solid state Heat to power, via at least 1/2 dozen new approaches to thermoelectric,, thermionic, and TPV
-- Broad contacts with many key figures involved in cold fusion/LENR
-- "Aneutronic" fusion
-- electromagnetic devices purported to demonstrate EM anomalies.
-- "Browns Gas"-- a variation on water electrolysis with remarkable properties.
-- hydrocarbons to carbonates via unique chemistries
-- Recasting of quantum mechanics, and special and general relativity
More generally, there is the entire host of research and entrepreneurial efforts in energy and cleantech, well suited to angel and early stage investment. New and additional sources of funding could be put to work in exciting ways.
The Hub Lab Seeks Revolutionary New Energy Science
[Interview published by Cleantechblog.com]
February 21, 2009
Last Spring, our friend and colleague Dr. Ed Beardsworth undertook a new assignment as the Technology Director of the Hub Lab (in parallel with his continuing role at Jane Capital). Given the Hub Lab’s mission, and Ed’s role in the cleantech industry as the consummate technology scout since the mid 1990s before cleantech was cleantech, it’s probably a perfect fit. I sat down with Ed recently to get the background and an update about “Hub Lab”. And had a chance to wrap up our discussion into a brief interview.
Ed, Can you share some of your background? You’ve probably seen as much of the cleantech sector as anyone.
I have a PhD in physics from Rutgers and started at Brookhaven National Labs, eventually moving into energy systems modeling. I have consulted for Nth Power, Jane Capital, and the Cleantech Group, among others. For about 10 years I ran a multi-client energy technology study reporting on new technologies at universities, national labs and later venture backed startups. For that UFTO study (which is about 600 research notes now available on Cleantech.org), I had a who’s who of the top 20 or 30 US and global utilities as clients mainly in their R&D and venture capital groups. Before that I spent a number of years at EPRI in a variety of roles.
What is the Hub Lab all about?
Hub Lab’s express purpose is to find and support very early stage – revolutionary – energy science and technology that has the potential to make a huge game-changing difference. It is motivated by a strong belief that the planet is headed for serious trouble, and that we need to look for dramatic and wholesale changes in ways to meet rapidly growing worldwide demand for energy and resources.
How revolutionary is revolutionary?
We mean really revolutionary. We have a very specific focus to find and support true breakthroughs. The great preponderance of investment and RD&D addresses incremental or evolutionary innovation. We look for opportunities to improve the chances of finding “new physics”. We sometimes talk about looking for “the next nuclear”. Imagine, in the year 1900, someone talking about a nuclear power plant. We haven’t reached the “end of physics”, so it’s practically a given that there are big new things around the corner, whether it’s in 5 years or 50. Hub Lab simply wants to speed up the search. And we’re comfortable looking outside currently accepted thinking in science and engineering.
There can’t be much hope of a return on investment, at least in a traditional sense. What’s the thinking?
Hub Lab’s backers have extensive holdings in energy and cleantech through standard investment vehicles. Hub Lab is a special set-aside, not focused on financial return, but on trying to make a difference. We look for situations where some initial funding has the potential to advance work on a new idea to a point where a better decision can be made about further support. The only strings attached to our initial grants are there to give us a fair shot at participating in those later stages if we want to.
So who exactly is the funding behind Hub Lab, and what sizes of investments are you making?
We’re discreet about identifying Hub Lab’s backers until we start the conversation with someone we’d consider funding. It’s a high net worth /family office in Asia. Our approach is to start with a small R&D grant. This gives us a chance to get to know our grantee, and for them to make some technical progress.
What areas are you considering, or not considering?
As long as an idea addresses primary, base-load, power or electricity generation, we’re ready to listen. We’re open to cold fusion, ‘over-unity’ devices, vacuum or zero-point energy — I can see your eyes rolling — but we did say “new physics”. I should clarify that the term ‘over-unity’ is a misnomer. Any extra energy has to come from somewhere, but it may be from a process we weren’t previously aware of or taking into account.
A bit less far out, we also look at what we’re calling “warm” fusion. Note that there are already two venture backed companies in that category. The problem here is that the hot fusion establishment has been far too good at blocking competition for research funding. But I digress.
OK, I’ll bite – digress.
Well, we could have a whole separate discussion about fusion. “Warm” fusion is reasonably respectable in scientific circles but it just hasn’t been able to get support. As for cold fusion, just about everyone snickers at the mention of it, but they shouldn’t. Something very real is going on, even though is still unexplained and still hard to replicate. It should’ve gotten a much better reception from the scientific and government community than it did, and we’ll see who has the last word. Watch for some new developments very soon.
What other areas are fair game for Hub Lab?
A bit closer to the ground, we like storage, but it has to be “something completely different”, where the cost and performance can leapfrog existing or near term technology. Likewise, any kind of solid state heat to power technology, but again, it would have to promise of an order of magnitude improvement over existing thermoelectric devices.
I understand you’ve also identified areas that aren’t of interest?
We’re leaving all things biological (biomass, biofuels, etc.) to others. Also solar and wind — the intermittency issue– unless it’s an amazing breakthrough. Most things fossil are not for us, nor CO2 separation, unless it ends up other than as a gas to be piped underground.
What kind of deal flow are you seeing?
It’s been amazing. Just by putting out the word and networking quietly with the research and cleantech investor community, we’re seeing a great many opportunities. We ask VCs to send us those deals they wish they could pursue but can’t. Our quick introduction often includes the comment that we’re one group you can talk to about your perpetual motion story. (“We will listen!”) At the same time, there’s a sizable fringe population of folks with grandiose ideas, visions and paranoid delusions, and we try to avoid them by keeping a low profile (no web presence, for example). Separating wheat from chaff is the main challenge. We are finding serious established scientists who are pushing the boundaries–those are our best candidates. We’d also like to broaden our reach around the world, particularly in Eastern Europe.
You’ve funded several deals already. What can you tell us about them?
Our first one is a challenge to the second law of thermodynamics. It turns out, that while no violations have ever been observed (such claims thus far aren’t generally accepted), the second law is a bit murky theoretically, and one can imagine situations where it might not hold. Our scientists think they may be able to demonstrate the harvesting of useful work from ambient heat, but without a temperature difference. An experimental observation like that would be truly revolutionary.
Another project takes as a starting point the well established concepts of the energy in the vacuum, aka zero point energy, and the Casimir effect. An alternative formulation of quantum mechanics predicts that an atom placed in a nano-cavity will have its atomic properties altered, which further suggests a possible way to harvest zero point energy.
We can’t say much about two more projects. They both are completely different ways to do solar power conversion — with no semiconductors.
Are you having fun yet?
Nobody should be allowed to have this much fun, but I’m OK with it.