NC Higher education: Short stopper

 In May 2016, NC Higher Education

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By Arielle Emmett

UNC Charlotte’s goal of becoming a world-class technology incubator doesn’t rest solely with Ryan Kennedy, but the co-founder of Atom Power LLC is on track to become a game changer. His goal is to push the analog circuit-breaker industry into the digital age with silicon-carbide breakers that enable building managers to see electrical networks buzzing around their properties before outages occur.

Atom Power expects to release its products in June. “Circuit breakers today are 80 years old and mechanically driven. They’re not smart at all,” says Kennedy, who compares them to rotary-dial telephones. “You can have [downtown Charlotte’s] Hearst Tower with 47 floors of pristine state-of-the-art lighting and electrical equipment, and everything is current except the circuit breaker.”

The new system can detect a short or overload about 16,000 times faster than current breakers. “What it means is you won’t have arc flashes [electrical fires] or short circuits,” he says. “They get snuffed out.”

Kennedy worked as an electrician for WB Moore Electrical Contractors for five years, which helped pay his bills at UNC Charlotte, where he earned an electrical engineering degree in 2004. He started Atom Power in 2014 with Denis Kouroussis, an electrical engineer at Santa Clara, Calif.-based Virtual Power Systems Inc., which makes software for data centers. Atom Power is based at UNC Charlotte’s PORTAL incubator building, adjacent to the university’s engineering college. PORTAL stands for Partnership, Outreach and Research to Accelerate  Learning. He now employs 10 people, including seven recent graduates from the Charlotte campus.

Skyscrapers may have as many as 5,000 analog circuit breakers. Electrical devices feeding the breakers, such as lights, pumps and motors, are now equipped with sophisticated sensors and power controls. But breakers are “choke points.” They can’t detect the location of an overload, interrupt the flow of current or detect which other breakers will trip in cascades during a failure, Kennedy says. “Right now, when a [conventional] breaker trips, you have no idea if you even have a problem other than your lights go out,” says Greg Crumpton, Atom Power’s chief marketing officer.

Atom Power’s breakers can work in concert with a computer or iPhone to show maintenance technicians a diagram of a building’s electric network, plus tons of data showing potential problems. The company has three patents pending, tied to the work of Kouroussis, the chief technology officer. Atom Power secured $1 million last year from an undisclosed Charlotte angel-investment group and is talking with others to raise money.

Penetrating a circuit-breaker market dominated by ABB Ltd., General Electric Co., Siemens AG and others won’t be easy. But Kennedy says he’s excited about Atom Power’s technology and potential. “We’re taking the lean startup approach,” he says. Slow is the right way to proceed, says Scott Blackman, president of SRK Innovation LLC, a Charlotte-based data- center consultancy.  “It’s a big idea, and the approach is pretty creative,” he says. “If [the company] started out selling 3,000-amp circuit breakers, I’d say, ‘Guys, it won’t work, people will never accept this.’” However, he adds, “once a client sees these smaller circuit breakers work, they will be asking for bigger ones and installing them throughout their facilities.” And that, Blackman says, would “revolutionize the marketplace.”

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