Partners in Power

Published Winter 2015-16
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To find the best energy-efficient equipment for its building upgrades, BlocPower often has to cast a wide net. But when the team needed a way to regulate steam radiators, which are common in New York City and notoriously wasteful, they found a solution just twenty feet from their desk. Fellow Columbia startup Radiator Labs, which shares a workspace with BlocPower at a New York State–sponsored clean-energy incubator, was working on addressing exactly that problem — remarkably, becoming the first company ever to do so. 

The idea came to Radiator Labs cofounder Marshall Cox ’13SEAS when, as a student, he was living in exactly the kind of building that BlocPower is looking to update: a crumbling New York City prewar with steam heat. There was no way to control the temperature in his apartment, which was so hot that Cox kept the windows open even during a blizzard. But when Cox came into the lab one day grumbling about his building, he picked the wrong person to complain to — his adviser, Ioannis (John) Kymissis, an associate professor of electrical engineering.

“I don’t really tolerate complaining,” says Kymissis, who became Radiator Labs’ cofounder and technical adviser. “We’re engineers. It’s our job to fix these kinds of problems.”

Kymissis encouraged Cox to build a prototype of a radiator cover that would insulate the radiator and trap heat. The cover, which Cox calls a Cozy, has a built-in thermostat. The apartment owner sets the thermostat to the desired temperature, and the Cozy releases only the heat needed to keep the room at that temperature.

“The physics is actually pretty simple, so we weren’t surprised that it worked,” says Kymissis. “But we were amazed that we were the first to develop and market it.”

Based on the initial prototype, Radiator Labs raised some seed funding, which it used to bring the simple technology of the Cozy into the information age: now, not only can tenants control their steam radiators, but they can do it with an app on their smartphones. In whole-building installations, the Cozies “talk” to the boiler using radio waves, telling it how much heat it needs to produce to maintain temperatures.

At a university largely made up of century-old buildings, Cox had plenty of options for testing his technology. And after initial tests were successful, Columbia Facilities became one of Radiator Labs’ first clients.

“Students love to have more control over the temperature in their rooms,” Kymissis says. “And it amounts to a significant savings in heating costs.”

Radiator Labs has now won several major entrepreneurship contests — most notably, the 2012 MIT Clean Energy Prize, which came with a two-hundred-thousand-dollar award. With that money and a completed PhD in hand, Cox was able to turn his attention to running the company full-time. He is now juggling several clients — mostly building-management companies and large institutions like Columbia and NYU, though individual tenants or homeowners can also order the Cozy. And, of course, he is providing the technology to BlocPower, to help public- and affordable-housing residents save energy and lower costs.

“The relationship with BlocPower has been fortuitous for everyone,” Kymissis says. “We’re different pieces of the same puzzle.” 

Read the related article Power for the People: http://magazine.columbia.edu/features/winter-2015-16/power-people


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