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Winner Spotlight: Exergyn Creates a First-of-Its kind, Hot Water Engine

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

In the energy space, countless companies are trying to cut down on waste. Yet, low-grade waste heat is not a common area of concentration, making Irish startup Exergyn’s solution especially unique. The company converts waste heat into electrical or mechanical power. It does this through an industrial engine running on hot water. Exergyn is, according to its founders, the first industrial engine of this kind ever pursued.

CEO Alan Healy gave the winning pitch in the energy category of Challenge Cup’s Dublin competition, and, after the pitches, explained how the engine works, why it has huge market potential and the drastic savings it can produce.

What’s the problem that your engines are addressing?

We’ve developed an engine that runs on hot water. There is just so much low-grade wasted heat, which is hot water. Every engine is losing 30 to 40 percent of its efficiency through the radiator. But you also have waste heat in things like nuclear. You’ve got data centers. You’ve got marine. You’ve got geothermal. So there’s a massive scope. When you include the exhaust, there’s enough waste heat produced each year that it could power Europe for 12 years.

You’ve been at this for three years, I’m assuming, to prove Exergyn’s technology works and to ready it for the marketplace. More specifically what’s gone on during those three years?

We were taking it from an idea on a piece of paper to actually building an industrial engine, so you’ve got a quite a bit to do. We’ve been just building up the elements, testing the various elements and materials, building IP, getting bigger and bigger to the stage where we’ve got an industrial trial going on.

We’ve also been keeping under the radar because we didn’t want any big companies to know what we were doing. Now we’re happy to speak about everything we’ve done.

On the subject of IP, you mentioned it’s key for your startup. There aren’t any obvious competitors, but IP is critical in protecting all of this work you’ve done so no one can just swoop in and build an engine like yours. What kind of protections do you have?

As we put this together, we’ve come across very simple problems because we’re the very first people to do this on an industrial scale. You find things like how do you deal with pressure in the system. When we solved simple problems like that we realized we should patent those, so we patented all of the big ideas and the workarounds along the way. It just means that anyone trying to copy us is just not going to be able to take the approach we have without infringing.

Since day one we tried to be best in class for IP even though we’re a small Irish company. We said, “Let’s have everyone document their ideas as we go.” We keep those in notebooks and sift through them every week.

Who is your ideal customer that will get the most use out of these engines?

There are so many markets that what we are trying to do initially is to target those (that) will value it most. We’re looking at people who use industrial engines 24/7, don’t make use of their waste heat and ideally get a high price for their electricity. So particularly in Europe, where people are using renewable gas … it just makes huge sense for them. We hook up to them, and they get a payback in less than three years.

During the five-minute pitch you showed a map to tout the fact that you have data for 7,000 sites across Europe. What’s the significance of those sites?

If we say that bio-gas is our first market, we wanted to map every single site, all of our possibilities. At the moment it’s even more like 8,000. We just wanted to see where the sites were established, what they’re using, the price they’re getting for their electricity—things like that. We have that data. So we can look at any site and go, “Okay, there are 100 sites in the U.K. like this. This is the number operating on 400 kilowatts.” We can get a very, very full picture of the value we can bring and the size of the market. You’ve just got to know that when you’re targeting a market initially.

What is your background and the background of your team that led to this endeavor?

I’ve got a very commercial background. I’ve worked on many different things. Actually among my experience I’ve worked at Goldman Sachs, I’ve worked at startups. I actually wrote a couple kids’ novels as well. One of them was set in the future around climate change. It’s actually a humorous novel, and I go to schools and talk about it.

So part of me said, “It’s all very well going and talking about it but let’s try and make a difference.” So I had come up with a variation of the three-prong plug and was looking for some engineers to help me put it together, and I came across my partners Barry (Cullen, now Energyn’s commercial director) and Kevin (O’Toole, its CTO).

At the end of it we worked very well together. I said, “Let’s set up our own company, get all the rights and build our business plan.” We pivoted and moved in a different direction. Then we raised money and got more team members. Now we have 16 team members. Quite a few of them are working on the basis of options. We have nine that are working on a full-time salary. People are supporting this more and more.

My partners, Kevin and Barry, by the way are Ph.D.s in thermal dynamics and in the materials we’re using. So they are really experts in the deep technology of this. I’m bringing a lot of the other experience of it. We’re a really good triumvirate.

Why compete in Challenge Cup?

The first word was part of it: It was a bit of a challenge, to be honest. I kind of thought, to distill your message into one minute was exciting. The idea, too, of it being an international competition was great, and it just seemed like we could get our message out and get access to maybe new investors and potential partners that we wouldn’t have come across otherwise.

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Dena Levitz is traveling to almost all of the Challenge Cup cities to cover the competition and analyze startup ecosystems around the globe. Dena joins 1776 after finishing the first…