Interview with Dr Alexander Suma – CEO of IBISPower ‘Invented in the US – funded in Europe’

Categories: Meet the researchers

IBIS Power company, founded in November 2012, is currently testing and finalizing our new wind turbine PowerNEST- a product with a captivating history throughout Europe and the United States. In 2016, the first fully functioning PowerNEST’s will be implemented in Dutch urban environments to supply their owners with renewable energy. This is a big step for the company whose ultimate goal is to bring our modern society back in balance with nature.

Dr. Suma, would you please tell our readers about yourself and your connection to the US?

In 2007, I was finalizing my two Masters degrees in Eindhoven and I was informed about a scholarship opportunity to go to Florida for three months. This scholarship was organized by The Netherlands South Florida Scholarship Foundation (NSFSF). I applied, got accepted, and selected the College of Engineering at the University of Miami for my studies. Although it is a great location, I chose it predominately for the inspiring professor with whom I was in contact with – Dr. Antonio Nanni. I worked closely with him for three months. At the end of my scholarship period, he asked me to come back as soon as possible to start my PhD in his group. I was honored, accepted and went through the process in the most accelerated way possible in order for me to be able to start my program six months later.

In the US, my study was focused on the “Chemical and Acoustic Emission Evaluation Studies of Concrete Bridges” in a Marine Environment. I was partially funded by a student assistantship scholarship as well as partially funded by a fellowship from a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant called RB2C. I finished my PhD in three years.

During my PhD, which was purely engineering, my architecture fingers were itching, and I came up with the idea of PowerNEST (at the time called IRWES). I spent all my free time working on PowerNEST with a team of researchers from the mechanical engineering department. The University of Miami strongly supported my plans by immediately filing patents, assisting me with streamlining my plan, in addition to pitching investors and angel investors. Furthermore, they put me in contact with very interesting people – such as the Governor of Florida, Bill Clinton, CEO’s of the largest construction companies and capital investors.

Was returning to Europe your first choice after you completed your PhD or were you also thinking about staying in the US?

Going back to Europe was not as easy as I anticipated. Everything was going so well in the US as I had built up such a good network and team. However, my decision was clear. My two kids Sarah and Ruben had moved back to Europe earlier and I wanted to live close to them. In the beginning, I had to get readjusted to the European way of life. In the US, people are very optimistic and business minded whereas in the Netherlands it was much harder to secure and get opportunities. The business culture is different. It was very hard for a “new comer”. Nevertheless, we succeeded in receiving a FP7 (Framework Programme 7) Marie Curie Fellowship. Dr. Rossella Ferraro could work under this grant to further develop PowerNEST and started working with me at Eindhoven University of Technology. We received many awards and recognitions - things started to move forward really well. Within a year, we were awarded the Dutch STW Valorization Grant (Phase I and II) which truly helped us to start and grow as a company.

What motivated you to go back to Europe (funding, collaborative opportunities, good research environment, family reasons etc.)?

My children were the biggest motivation for me to go back to Europe. However, the Marie Curie Fellowship was a huge financial breakthrough and therefore an overwhelmingly convincing reason to potentially work in the United States again. One of the setbacks of the US was that it was not sustainability-minded at the time (far behind Europe). It was only in Europe that we were able to get funding to further develop the PowerNEST technology that was vital to moving forward with our plans. The Urban Environment department at the Eindhoven University of Technology was strong in the field of applied research. They were also working closely within that market already. So we worked with Professor Faas Moonen who specializes in the industrialization of construction. This was our next step towards developing this innovation after having done the fundamental research at the University of Miami.

Tell us please about IBIS Power?

The company inherently believes that renewable energy solution can be much more intelligent, efficient, integrated and aesthetically pleasing. The company in its efforts to challenge the status quo of science and engineering has combined solar and wind energy technology to upgrade PowerNEST towards an architecturally attractive renewable energy solution for high-rise buildings in urban environments.

PowerNest is the breakthrough solution to overcome all shortcomings of existing renewable energy technologies. It is a rooftop-mounted, elegant structure with an internal turbine thereby making smart use of aerodynamics. To that end, it is more efficient than any free-standing small windmill as well as more efficient per square meter than solar panels at 20 metres or higher. The R&D program combines simulations in Computational Fluid Dynamic (CFD) for aerodynamic studies and Finite Element Method (FEM) for structural optimization together with full-scale prototype testing and validation. This has led to more efficient technology with optimized product parameters. We are now able to supply a full roof solution for a building of 5 levels or higher in a combination of wind and sun being over three times more effective than an only-solar solution. Solar can bring a building up to three levels off-grid while we are opening the market for buildings of more than 10 levels to become zero-energy.

You applied for and were awarded funding from Horizon 2020 - SME Instrument. Please elaborate on this project. Why was this funding crucial?

In December of 2014, I received a message from the European Commission that we received the SME Phase II grant. We received the highest score amongst the European Union applicants: 14.35/15.00 with all categories scored as excellent with regards to innovation, business plan, and potential impact for Europe. This was big news for a company at the time consisting of three employees plus an intern. We were ecstatic! Within three months, we grew our staff to twelve people. In addition, we were able to build the very first PowerNEST in full operation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4Is6nKOMmc.

You mentioned earlier that the idea was born in the US yet came to fruition in Europe. Do you consider your transatlantic experience important for your career? If so, why?

Yes, the transatlantic experience has been crucial for my career. The US operates differently than Europe. It’s a great lesson to learn for everyone whether in science or business -- to see how things are done in another cultural environment that has different beliefs and points of reference. I still really enjoy moving and travelling to new destinations. I always like to learn from other cultures as well as how they do things in their culture. Currently, I am focused on my collaboration with the University of Miami, talking to customers, partner companies and attending conferences. We are excited about installing the very first one on a building in the US. We are eager to be able to offer our solution to US and Canadian high rises.

Would you encourage our readers in North America to collaborate with Europe in research, science and innovation? In your opinion, why is it important?

I believe that research, science and innovation have no borders. It’s really only implementation that has borders due to the different legislative systems... In my opinion, Europe and the US are not working closely enough together at all. We have the potential to do so much more and we should be doing so much more. I especially feel strongly about EU-US collaboration when it concerns climate change. Ideally, the whole world should share their knowledge and advancements in real time in order to accelerate the energy transformation sector.

What would you recommend to Europeans who are currently based in North America that have an excellent innovative idea and wish to start their own company?

I would recommend searching for peers and support where you currently live. If you have a great idea, don’t keep it to yourself. Instead, share it with people who can help you grow it. It is very hard to be knowledgeable on everything so find the people with expertise you need such as patents, finance, and business development. In general, the US is friendlier in the early stages in terms of locating funding. On the other hand, Europe offers greater possibilities in certain fields (e.g. renewables). Try to take the best of both and always maintain your connections on both sides of the Atlantic. Never wait with starting a company as even the best ideas have an expiration date.