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TBEIC Brings 6 Tenants to Downtown Warren Incubator

WARREN, Ohio — Progress at the Tech Belt Energy Innovation Center was slow at first, board President John Pogue says, but the business incubator has found its stride.

“We started from scratch,” the Warren attorney says. “I’d have to say we’ve made great progress.”

TBEIC, as it’s known, specializes in early-stage energy startups, Pogue says. It provides support to entrepreneurs in fields such as energy storage, energy generation, fuel cells and electricity or gas power.

“We’re focused on fuel cells, also in LED [light-emitting diode] markets, and we also have small wind turbines,” adds Rose Shaffer, manager of business development and marketing. “We have three companies focused on what kind of chemicals can be used to make new fuels.”

TBEIC has been operating nearly a year and a half. It has worked with more than 82 portfolio companies and has six tenants so far in the downtown Warren space, including the 40,000-square-foot main building and an adjacent 20,000-square-foot warehouse.

“We give them a basket of services that range from business-plan writing to searching for angel investors to venture capital,” Shaffer says. The incubator also helps with business development and access to testing for their services.

The incubator got its start with a 2010 earmark secured by U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-13 Ohio, that allowed the purchase and renovation of the former Kresge Building in downtown Warren, a “protracted effort” complicated by a federal government shutdown and other issues, Pogue says.

“At the same time, we began a program of counseling to companies,” he continues. Those services include help in securing funding, governance and assistance with generating primarily engineering concepts, he says.

The challenge of working with energy entrepreneurs is that barriers to entry are high because of factors such as the amount of money needed for product development and getting people to try new sources of energy, Shaffer says.

Two of the six tenants in the incubator are First Fuel Cells, which makes fuel cells for school robotics competitions, and Sky Harvest Energy Corp., which manufactures small wind turbines for residential and small-business use.

First Fuel Cells’ owners live and work in Cleveland but wanted their company’s main office in Warren because of the reputation of the Warren and Hubbard high school robotics teams, which Shaffer describes as “the best in the state.”

A Sky Harvest director who is from Warren heard about TBEIC and relocated business and sales operations here, although the manufacturing operation remains in Canada, she adds.

Recruiting tenants is “a process,” Shaffer says. A new company moves in about every quarter. “We’re constantly doing outreach and there’s several people that come and work from our incubator on a short-term basis,” she says.

One aspect of TBEIC’s mission is to work with local nonprofits as well as energy-based businesses, she adds, so 10% of the space is dedicated to non-energy enterprises.

One such company, Game Changers, provides leadership and peer mentoring services for students at risk of not graduating from high school.

A major advancement at the incubator will take place this summer. By August, TBEIC expects to have installed $500,000 in testing equipment funded by grants from the state of Ohio and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

“Right now there is no testing going on inside of the building,”Shaffer says. “However, our mentors are partnering our companies with local companies to test their products. … In the coming months we will have a shared resource center and a shared certification lab where companies will be able to test their service and their products.”

The testing and certification equipment is expected to attract more tenants. Among the companies considering taking space is MegaJoule Storage LLC. The Cleveland startup is developing high-performance capacitors for power quality and energy storage.

“We’re the kind of company [TBEIC] envisioned serving,” says Herb Crowther, president of MegaJoule Storage.

TBEIC has helped MegaJoule find funding and provided networking opportunities with other energy companies, Crowther says. MegaJoule has produced prototypes of its hybrid capacitors, which “are getting the performance that we were trying to achieve,” he says.

“We’re setting up a lab at TBEIC when the equipment is finalized,” he adds. The firm also is seeking funds to construct a plant, potential sites for which include the Mahoning Valley, he says.

Another tenant is Alios 3D LLC, an additive manufacturing and design firm with, at first glance, no obvious connection to an energy incubator.

Additive manufacturing is “an energy-saving process,” Jeff Keel, Alios 3D CEO, says. As opposed to traditional subtractive manufacturing methods, additive manufacturing saves money, effort and time “right off the bat,” he says.

The company makes prototypes for the manufacturing sector “but we also get into some architecture and some other areas where you wouldn’t think of 3-D printing or manufacturing, for that matter,” Keel says. The company also prints models from CAT scans.

Alios 3D has doubled its sales in three quarters. “Now that’s on a smaller scale because it’s a startup, but the whole idea is to push more into the metals market, which is a growing area,” he says.

The company has access to technology that offers a “mega-fast version of 3-D printing” that cuts print times from seven hours to seven minutes, he remarks.

TBEIC is seeking additional funds from sources such as the Western Reserve Port Authority, Shaffer says. “Our goal is to provide economic development to Trumbull County and, obviously, to the city of Warren,” she says.

With community support, “we’re able to have more entrepreneurs come into the building and offer them more services.”

Pictured: John Pogue is president of the TBEIC board. Rose Shaffer is manager of business development and marketing.

Copyright 2019 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.