Incubator of the Year: Heat is on at Advanced Thermal

Advanced Thermal and Environmental Concepts Inc. was born when its chief executive officer, Michael Ohadi, decided to go beyond his research into cooling and refrigeration and apply it to a business model. This Best New Incubator Company joined the University of Maryland College Park’s Technology Advancement Program, TAP, in 2001.

Located on the university campus, ATEC develops cooling and heat exchange and transfer products for use in electronics, refrigeration and automotive applications.

“Essentially, all of our projects we subcontract back to the university to help develop or obtain fundamental data we use in our projects or concepts,” said John Lawler, the company’s president and technical director. “It’s nice to be right here in terms of meeting with the researchers and graduate students.”

Two of ATEC’s recent hires came from the university’s graduate student body, and Lawler said the firm also makes use of the testing facilities available on campus. In addition, Ohadi, a UMd. professor of mechanical engineering, is never more than a few hundred yards from the office.

“The faculty can’t give their full time to run a company … but he’s still a technical leader in the company and maintains a high level of interest,” explained Ed Sybert, director of the TAP incubator program. “He can look in on the company on his lunch break or before and after class.”

Sybert said Lawler, who has had significant experience in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, devotes his full attention to being president of the company.

“The partnership is a good one,” Sybert said.

When looking at applicants for the TAP incubator, “we look for innovative technologies that can capture either a niche market or significant marketshare of an overall market. This is a very novel technology that has brought applicability in a couple of niche markets,” he said.

Company officials believe their technology has many different applications. As high-powered computer workstations and servers become increasingly miniaturized, for instance, they generate extra heat, which the company hopes to combat. The company’s products can also control frost accumulation in grocery store freezers.

“The basic technology that most of our concepts start from is the application of electric fields to a fluid, and therefore getting it to move in some way,” Lawler said. “The basic concept is a miniature pump, getting fluid to mix better than otherwise or getting two fluids to separate better than they would otherwise.”

“The elements of heat transfer haven’t changed in many years,” he said. “With very little additional power input, we can improve the heat transfer rate, allowing things to be smaller and more efficient in terms of their size.”

While ATEC has been successful in getting government research and development contracts, Lawler said the company is also looking to bring product into the marketplace, and recently began seeking outside venture capital to make that happen.

“They have developed a diverse staff in order to cover the breadth of their technology. They have equipped the laboratory to conduct the small-scale experiments necessary to support their product design,” Sybert said. “[They need to] continue to solidify relationship with university resource people as well as commercial technological partners.”

TAP receives a 1-percent equity stake in the company in exchange for every year ATEC remains in the incubator.

“Since we’ve only physically been here eight or nine months, at some point they like for you to graduate and move out. I assume in two years we’ll consider that,” Lawler said. “If we’re successful with fund raising, we could grow out of this space."

Published June 25, 2002