Portland startup’s new lighting allows founders to focus on battery-storage breakthroughs

El servicio dedicado para actualizar la iluminación de las startups en Portland facilita a sus líderes el camino hacia sus objetivos claves

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When Skip Technology relocated to Portland, it was lucky to find a space that had enough room for the huge battery components it designs. But old, inefficient fluorescent lights made it hard to see in the lab, so the startup partnered with Energy Trust of Oregon for an upgrade.

One of the big issues we need to solve as more renewable energy sources come online is the question of storage. How can we harvest clean wind and solar energy to help power the U.S. economy, then release it on demand?

Oregon startup Skip Technology thinks large-scale batteries are the answer, but these need to be quickly, safely and inexpensively produced from materials that are readily available.

With support from the National Science Foundation and other funders, the company is working on a type of battery that could meet those needs. Called a flow battery, it combines two basic chemicals, hydrogen and bromine, in a reaction that creates energy. To reach industrial scale, each battery would be the size of a shipping container. It could be customized to a customer’s needs and combined in a series to efficiently supply power to the electrical grid.

“This is a high risk, high reward sort of thing,” said Skip Tek co-founder Brennan Gantner. “The odds of success are low. But the payoff if we’re successful is very, very high. And we figured that if we have enough people trying these high reward projects, one of us is going to make it through.”

To bring its ideas to the next level, the startup first needed a large lab space to test and build the prototypes for its chemical batteries. Skip Tek started out in a lab at Oregon State University, but Gantner’s family lives in Portland. When his kids’ school went remote during the COVID-19 pandemic, the commute to Corvallis became a “nonstarter.”

“We basically decided we had to be in Portland,” he said. “And if we couldn’t find a chemical lab in Portland, we were going to build one ourselves. So that’s what we ended up doing.”

Skip Tek co-founder Brennan Gantner and his partners are betting on their ability to develop an industrial-scale battery from their retrofitted chemical lab in Portland

Skip Tek found a 5,000-square-foot site in Portland’s Central Eastside Industrial District that had high ceilings and roll-up doors that would allow the team to bring shipping containers inside.

“We were pretty lucky to find the space that we have, with a price tag that currently a two-and-a-half-person startup can afford,” Gantner said. Fortunately, the landlord would let them build it out as a chem lab.

The retrofit included safety features like chemical hoods and ventilation, new heating and cooling equipment, and an office area to house the team’s desks and the 3-D printers they use to make scaled-down models of the batteries. About the only thing it didn’t cover was the lights — old fluorescent tubes suspended about 25 feet above the lab floor.

“We had negotiated as hard as we could to get a lot of building improvements done,” Gantner said. “The lighting was kind of like ‘well, it’s not perfect, but fluorescents aren’t the worst thing. We’ve probably pushed the landlord as hard as we can, so if we have to cave on something, it’s a good thing to cave on.”

Skip Tek’s luck held, though. When the company moved into the new space in July of 2021, Gantner reached out to Portland General Electric to set up utility service. And a PGE rep mentioned that Energy Trust of Oregon might be able to upgrade Skip Tek’s lights at no cost.

Sure enough, the fluorescent lights in the lab were the kind that can be replaced with efficient LEDs for free through Energy Trust’s no-cost lighting offer for small businesses. “It was a happy, happy bonus that we got it done in another way,” Gantner said. “There’s literally almost no downside for us — it’s perfect.”

All told, Gantner spent about three hours on the project, from the initial assessment through having an electrician install the new lighting system. And the upgrade will save the company $600 a year on utility bills.

“We’re a very lean organization, so $600 is a good chunk of change for us,” Gantner said; it could cover a week of someone’s salary or allow the lab to buy another piece of equipment.

“As a startup, we don’t make any money right now. We exist solely on the money that we raised from investors or for grants. Any place we can save money and still be productive is absolute gold.”

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