In our continuing series on Leaders & Influencers, we chat with Dr. Justin Reed, co-founder and CEO of C-Motive, a manufacturer of next-generation electric motors and generators.
What made you decide to found C-Motive?
(Co-founder) Dr. Dan Ludois and I met in the Electrical Engineering department at UW-Madison while in graduate school, and from the very beginning of our thinking about this business, Dan was seeing a big push for wireless power transfer—charging your cell phone or a car without wires, for example. We wanted to apply the idea of wireless power transfer inside an electric motor and eventually set our sights on an electrostatic motor. C-Motive grew out of that idea and we founded the company, along with Micah Erickson, in 2012.
We started with the technology. We knew what was possible with high-performance machines in the marketplace and saw the electrostatic motor as a totally different way of doing the same thing. Our C-Machine doesn’t use steel, copper coils, or rare-earth magnet materials. Instead, the C-Machine is lightweight and uses different lightweight metals. It operates especially well at low speeds, while standard electric motors work well at high speeds. Our motor eliminates large amounts of wiring and uses smaller cables because of the way it’s run.
How did you use the startup/entrepreneurial community here in Madison to help you get started?
We’ve participated in a number of programs and opportunities through the UW Business School. In 2009, we presented at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurial Bootcamp (WEB) while we were in graduate school, and later participated in the G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition, among others. In 2012 we graduated from the Weinert Applied Ventures in Entrepreneurship (WAVE) class, an applied practicum in starting and growing entrepreneurial businesses. We pitched C-Motive at the conclusion of the course and received a very substantial investment.
Are there challenges to being a manufacturing startup in a SaaS-focused environment?
We’re not a typical Madison startup, that’s for sure. And we’re not really typical for Wisconsin, either. I can count on one hand the number of electric motor start-ups there are in the United States. We did win second place in the 2012 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, which generated some good interest from the public and the State of Wisconsin. Wisconsin has a strong history of manufacturing, but it’s been in decline, so there are some possibilities for applications here.
Fundraising has been difficult for us, and because we’re in a unique space, it’s not easy to find investors. Having more potential investment in the advanced manufacturing space would be very helpful. Most of our funding at this point has come through the state or federal government. We earned a Phase 1 SBIR grant in 2014 and a Phase 2 grant in 2015 from the NSF. For each of those, we also received matching funding from Center for Technology Commercialization (CTC) state funding. And we continue to apply for more grants, but hardware is expensive and takes time, so ideally we’d have a mix of grants and investments.
Any books, blogs, or podcasts you reference for your business?
I’m in a constant state of learning, and have gotten more intent in self-learning since starting C-Motive. I read a few books when we were starting out, but there’s not much in terms of content for our particular type of business. I listen to a lot of podcasts on general entrepreneurship and self-improvement of skills. There are a number of good blogs that are specific to hardware startups, but many of those hardware startups, like Fitbit, aren’t applicable to us. We’re much more industrial and not a consumer device, but there are still bits of information I can glean from those kinds of hardware startups. I learn a lot from our board of directors, too, which includes entrepreneurs.
What’s next for C-Motive?
We are still in the R&D phase of the C-Machine and have 18 months left to do that per our NSF grant. We’re not doing a ton of marketing yet, but our goal is to create the world’s most torque-dense and powerful electrostatic motor. We’re excited to have a product ready for testing and validation.
Visit Fine Point Consulting for more information about the great tools and services we use to help businesses like C-Motive succeed.
New Motor Under Development by UW-Madison Spin-off
Article Written by: David Tenenbaum
Published by: The University of Wisconsin News
Date: September 8, 2014
A tabletop motor using an entirely new driving principle is under development at the headquarters of C-Motive Technologies, a start-up business that is commercializing technology from the College of Engineering at UW-Madison.
“We have proven the concept of a new motor that uses electric fields rather than magnetic fields to transform electricity into a rotary force,” says company co-founder Dan Ludois, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the UW. The distinction may sound minor, but it could solve a number of practical problems while saving money, he explains.
Actually, the concept is not entirely new: Benjamin Franklin and others described and built motors based on electrostatic forces back in the 18th and 19th centuries, but none achieved practical operation. Since the widespread adoption of electric motors a century ago, magnetism has been the only practical source of rotation. Magnetism is easier to exploit than electrostatic fields due to the properties of naturally occurring materials and simple engineering techniques. However, new advances in materials, mechanical engineering and advanced manufacturing may enable electrostatic motors.
In 2011, while Ludois was finishing a Ph.D. thesis at UW-Madison, he realized that instead of relying on magnetic fields, he could achieve a similar result by manipulating electric fields to create a motor based on electrostatic attraction. The new technique, he realized, could deliver major advantages in weight, material cost, operating efficiency and maintenance requirements.
In the motor on display, nested stationary and rotating plates are held hairs-width apart by a unique air-cushioning strategy. An electric voltage delivered to the fixed plates creates an electrostatic field that attracts the rotating plates in a way that forces them to spin.
“A charge builds up on the surfaces of the plates, and if you can manipulate the charge, you can convert electricity into rotary motion or transfer electric power from one set of plates to the other,” says Ludois.
This type of coupling can be used “to power things that move without touching,” Ludois adds.
The breakthrough relies on electronics that precisely control a high-voltage, high-frequency electric field and fluid mechanics to keep the surfaces close without touching. “Nothing is touching, because you are using electric fields to couple the stationary and rotating parts,” Ludois says. “There is no contact, and no maintenance.
“Rather than magnetism, we are using the force that hold your clothes together when you take them out of the drier — electrostatic force. This technique can power anything that needs to move, and that you don’t want to touch while it’s moving.”
Because motors and generators are essentially mirror images of each other, the invention may first meet the market in the form of a generator for wind turbines, an application for which C-Motive Technologies received a Small Business Innovation Research grant for development and research from the National Science Foundation in 2014.
By saving weight and materials, and boosting efficiency, the new design should give the company a bottom-line advantage. The new design avoids the use of precious “rare earth” metals and substitutes aluminum for the more expensive copper found in magnet windings of conventional motors and generators.
When C-Motive was founded, Ludois and co-founders Justin Reed and Micah Erickson were all Ph.D. students. “It’s really hard to beat the world, especially when you start out as three graduate students,” Ludois says.
C-Motive has had its share of help from UW-Madison. Two years ago, the idea won two awards in the G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition, run through the Wisconsin School of Business. C-Motive has also received $100,000 in seed funding from the Weinert Applied Ventures in Entrepreneurship course, another School of Business resource.
In 2011, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation supported Ludois and his colleagues for patent protection on the discovery, giving them the leverage to pursue additional funding. After six months in the Metro Innovation Center on East Washington Avenue, C-Motive is now housed in an office/lab space near Stoughton Road in Madison to house its five full-time employees, including two of the three founders.
Ludois devotes his evenings to C-Motive, but spends his days in the academic world at UW-Madison.
“I remember as a student, everybody talked about the Wisconsin Idea, that the bounds of the university extend beyond the bounds of the campus,” Ludois says. “Looking ahead, I hope to be part of that ideal by translating my research as a faculty member into society at large. For me, on a personal level, that would certainly bring my efforts full circle.”
Article Courtesy of David Tenenbaum at the University of Wisconsin Madison News
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