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Updated: May 30, 2024

Husson University steps onto national stage in clean energy technology

Brien Walton of Husson University stands in the White  House next to a sign. Photo / Courtesy Husson University Brien Walton, director of the Richard E. Dyke Center for Family Business at Husson University, recently participated in a White House roundtable on tackling the climate crisis through development of clean energy and climate technologies.

Brien Walton, associate professor of entrepreneurship and director of the Richard E. Dyke Center for Family Business at Husson University in Bangor, recently participated in a White House roundtable focused on tackling the climate crisis through development of clean energy and climate technologies.

The invitation came after he won the national EnergyTech University Prize competition, hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Technology Transitions, for his idea for an innovative, hybrid climate and clean energy incubator and accelerator

The win led to a second phase of competition, which garnered second place and an invitation to share his plan with senior staff from the White House, DOE, the National Science Foundation, universities, venture capital firms and law firms. 

The award allows Walton to match existing clean energy plans and patents from DOE-affiliated research facilities with emerging businesses or technology clusters to commercialize the research while also implementing educational activities to engage more students in energy technology commercialization and entrepreneurship on Husson’s campus under the guidance of a DOE mentor.

Walton, an investment strategist, also chairs the Maine Venture Fund’s board of directors.

“My expertise is in business development, so I bring fresh eyes to the problem of climate change technology and an emphasis on sustainable business planning,” Walton said.

Q&A with Brien Walton

We asked Walton about the status of climate change technology. Here’s an edited transcript.

Mainebiz: What is climate change technology?

Brien Walton: Climate change technology, or climate tech, encompasses a wide range of technologies and innovations to address the challenges posed by climate change. Essentially, it involves developing and implementing solutions to mitigate the impacts of climate change, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the changing climate. Examples would be renewable energy such as solar, wind, hydroelectric and geothermal power; electric vehicles and battery storage; energy efficiency efforts such as LEDs, smart cities and automated sensors to track the efficiency of solutions; and carbon capture and storage.

Other items worth mentioning include climate adaptation technologies, which include flood-resistant infrastructure, drought-tolerant crops and early warning systems for extreme weather events; and climate data and monitoring technologies, which provide accurate monitoring and data collection that are essential for understanding the impacts of climate change and evaluating the effectiveness of mitigation and adaptation measures. 

MB: How do you help to commercialize the research?

BW: Think of me as a 'technology matchmaker.' I go through the proprietary intellectual property the Department of Energy has compiled, which the public cannot access. For example, the Department of Energy has thousands of patents in its repositories and coming out of its 17 national labs. Still, they need someone external to the organization who understands intellectual property law, understands industry market dynamics, is willing to help DOE forge public-private partnerships with compatible entrepreneurs, and, quite frankly, someone they can trust to take the lead in New England and see it through.  

By 'seeing it though,' I am referring to the fact that once the technology and the entrepreneur have been identified, they will need help in adopting the technology in growing their business, and that is where my business planning background comes into play, because I will be incubating and accelerating the companies regardless of their stage, facilitating professional advisory services, providing investment and financing support, establishing metrics for performance, and developing a customized, management consultant-level type of experience. In effect, I create an individual incubator around each innovation or entrepreneur and help get them from idea to market or from market to exit, depending on their respective growth stage.

This is part of what makes my approach unique, because most incubators do not customize programming or allow entrepreneurs to receive support for up to three years. Combined with engaging multimedia programming and unprecedented access to industry resources, this is truly an innovative approach.

MB: Could you provide an example of this work?

BW: I have worked with large greenhouses like Vertical Harvest, a company that has relocated to Maine and built an $80 million facility in Westbrook that sequesters carbon with the energy-efficient combined heat and power plant. I help companies like Vertical Harvest navigate the challenges of relocating and securing funding sources so they can provide food to eliminate the fresh produce challenges along the East Coast.  

One project I am particularly excited about is a group called Agricultural Conversion Systems in Ohio. They are very interested in moving to Maine due to the abundant industrial space, relative ease of doing business in Maine, and the fact that I advised the CEO on a different professional matter several years ago. ACS has a process that allows the conversion of waste plastic and tires without releasing toxic fumes into the air. This is important because there are over 300 million tires in landfills across the country, essentially one tire for every person in the United States. Eliminating that waste in an environmentally friendly way is a massive benefit to the environment and climate because traditional methods of destroying plastic and rubber are notoriously bad for the environment.

MB: What’s on the horizon?

BW: I could spend an entire day analyzing the future of the field. Three core technologies that I have heard Mainers discuss are: 

  • Solar photovoltaic technology: The future includes advancements in efficiency, durability, and integration with energy storage solutions. Innovations such as perovskite [a family of high-performance and low-cost materials] solar cells, building-integrated photovoltaic, and solar tracking systems are expected to reduce costs further and increase adoption.
  • Carbon capture and storage technologies: The future involves innovations in capture efficiency, cost reduction, and utilization of captured CO2 for industrial applications. Advancements in direct air capture and carbon utilization technologies offer promising pathways for scaling up carbon capture and storage deployment and achieving carbon neutrality.
  • Smart grids: The future includes grid resilience, modernization, and flexibility advancements. Innovations such as advanced grid analytics, distributed energy resources, and blockchain-based energy trading platforms are expected to transform the electricity grid and enable greater integration of renewable energy sources.

MB: Any other developments?

BW: This hybrid incubator and accelerator will be based at Husson University, but we want to collaborate with all Maine schools, entrepreneurs, and anyone serious about solutions to climate and clean energy challenges. We also welcome collaborations with financial organizations affiliated with the industry, especially corporate social responsibility programs and conservation-aligned foundations. 

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