A clear vision for India’s truck drivers

COVID-19: How start-ups are coping in the crisis

The Shell GameChanger programme provides seed funding and expertise to start-ups with ideas that could help shape the future of the energy industry. Inside Energy speaks to three entrepreneurs at different stages of the programme about the challenges of building a business during a pandemic.

By Jamie Willett on Jun 8, 2020

Dianna Liu, CEO ARIX technologies

“You must stay focused on your mission”

Dianna Liu

Founded in 2017, ARIX Technologies builds robots to collect data on corrosion.

“I was working as a field engineer at a refinery in New Orleans, USA, when I decided to start my own company.

I realised that the current technology to safely monitor corrosion in pipes was not ideal. It is mostly done by humans hanging from ropes or standing on scaffolding. I wanted to make their jobs easier and safer.

Anything that is metal will corrode. Corrosion impacts renewable energies, infrastructure, like bridges, or even the pipes bringing you water.

ARIX Technologies builds robots, which pipe inspectors can drive remotely to get data on corrosion. The inspectors’ expertise is still absolutely crucial, but now more efficient.

I had started a venture before, which made this easier. I taught myself to code and that led to my first foray into entrepreneurship when I was 11 years old, making an online game. It is still running today, 19 years later.

Finding the right partners is the hardest part of any start-up. I went to Yale University for an MBA, but also to find a team of brilliant engineers. We won two awards from Yale which gave us seed money.

The COVID-19 pandemic means that, for safety reasons, we have not been able to do demonstrations or jobs recently, which has pushed back our milestones. But corrosion will happen whether people are allowed on site or not, so we are focusing on the long term. We are coming out of this with a new and improved robot design. Our initial goal was to let people drive the robots remotely from the ground. But imagine if they could drive them from the safety of their offices or even their own homes.

Through any crisis, you must stay focused on your mission. Any financial success will be welcome, but deep down our North Star is helping people do their jobs more safely.“

Curriculum vitae

Duke University, USA, BSE, Mechanical Engineering, Biomedical Engineering

ExxonMobil

Yale University, USA, MBA

ARIX Technologies, President and Founder

Mark Russell, CEO HyperSciences

“We can step back and plan the right path to take” 

Mark Russell

Founded in 2014, HyperSciences aims to use a drilling technology to access geothermal energy. 

“As a kid I used to climb on the roof of our house in northern Idaho to look at the stars. Being a space nut is not something you choose. You just look up and that is what you think about an awful lot.

I worked at Jeff Bezos’s space company, Blue Origin, before leaving to join my family’s mining company.

My ‘aha!’ moment came when I was sitting on a drilling rig, 10,000 feet (3,048 metres) underground at 2am. I thought ‘what am I doing?’. I had the idea of merging my background in aerospace and mining to help revolutionise both industries. 

HyperCore technology uses chemical energy to launch projectiles through a long tube. As the projectile flies through the tube it combusts natural gas and air, creating a shockwave, which it rides before exiting the tube at high speeds – approximately 2 kilometres per second.

We can harness the extreme speed of these projectiles to break rock faster and at a lower cost.

HyperSciences grew through crowd financing. We raised $10 million, the 17th largest crowd equity finance round ever.

In the short term, this technology can help companies drilling for minerals. But using it to produce geothermal energy is what gets me out of bed in the morning. Geothermal energy is the equivalent of having a seven-megawatt power plant under every building. But we are currently not capable of drilling deep enough to access it everywhere around the planet. Our technology changes that. We can cost effectively get down to extreme depths – greater than 7 kilometres below the surface.

This can resolve a lot of complications in the energy industry. Geothermal energy is a clean source of energy, and it is available 24 hours a day. We imagine a future where new buildings, communities and cities have power plants in every basement, or on street corners. This removes the possibility of a single failure taking the system down.

It is always tough building a company and coronavirus has created a difficult environment. But as an entrepreneur, I try to look at everything as an opportunity. Not being in such a rush to deliver hardware since we have limited access to our office and test labs has given us the chance to step back and plan the right path to take. It helps to focus on being good at one thing. For us, our core capability is the HyperCore technology. It means at Mach 5 – hypersonic speed – we can fundamentally break rock differently.”

Curriculum vitae

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, USA, Aeronautical Engineering

Stanford University, USA, Aeronautics and Astronautics

The Boeing Company

Blue Origin, Crew Capsule Manager

Russell Mining, Project Director

HyperSciences, CEO

Mike Simpson, CEO Cheesecake Energy

“We are developing virtual versions of our system to help anticipate any problems”

Mike Simpson

Founded in 2016, Cheesecake Energy is developing a compressed air energy storage system.

"Everyone knows it’s not always sunny and the wind doesn’t always blow, so you have to be able to store energy to make it available at the right time. But storage remains a big barrier to using more renewable energy.

For example, lithium-ion batteries, which are used in electric cars, are efficient and compact. However, they are expensive and they take a lot of resources to manufacture, which makes them less suited to storing large amounts of energy.

The core of Cheesecake’s technology is storing electricity in the form of heat and compressed air. We use surplus renewable electricity to compress air. As the air is compressed it heats up. We extract the heat and store it in shipping container-sized tanks full of gravel. The air is stored in steel pressure vessels.

To store more energy, we can simply use more rocks and larger pressure vessels, for relatively little extra cost. Regular batteries do not have the same flexibility.

We are currently in talks with a local council to provide an energy storage system for a bus depot in Nottinghamshire in the UK. Electric buses do their routes during the day, then all need to charge up at the same time overnight within 6-8 hours. This would overwhelm a normal grid connection. Instead, Cheesecake’s system can charge up slowly during the day, then deliver the power when it is needed.

In the early days, getting access to funding was a challenge. Hardware start-ups require a lot of funding to get to the point of actually building stuff, unlike with an app. We had an idea and some slides, but we had to convert that into money and build a team. That was hard work, and not the technical work that we were keen to get on with, but it paid off. The initial vote of confidence from Shell GameChanger was really important, and from there it snowballed.

What sets us apart is how much we rely on off-the-shelf equipment. We haven’t designed new compressors from scratch – we take old truck engines and modify them. There are no exotic elements in our system: it mostly consists of steel, gravel, and air, which also means the environmental impact is minimal.

It is also a very safe system. The world has been storing gas in metal containers for many decades, so we understand how to manage the risks.

Due to COVID-19, we have put physical testing on hold for now, but we are continuing to work on the design and to have parts manufactured for testing later in the year. We have also introduced a ‘digital twin’ approach, developing virtual versions of our system to help anticipate any problems.”

Curriculum vitae

University of Cambridge, UK, Master of Engineering

Rolls-Royce 

University of Nottingham, Research Fellow

Imperial College London, PhD (2016 – Present)

Cheesecake Energy, CEO

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