Riches in the Niches of the Wake
A path to exploiting unserved niche markets around big industries.
Wake is a low-pressure region immediately behind a solid moving body. It makes it easier for followers to move forward with a lot less energy. You can see wakes in a flock of geese flying in a V-shape pattern; one goose is front and center, leading all the others. Bicyclists riding behind others in a high-speed race conserve energy with the same strategy, as does a car using the slipstream created by the lead car in motor racing.
In cycling, the bicyclist riding behind conserves energy, especially at higher speeds. In Motor Racing, along a long straight stretch, a car following close behind another uses the lead car's slipstream to close the gap between them.
As they plow through a large industry, established businesses leave many smaller niches unserved in their wake. This provides lucrative opportunities for an observant entrepreneur — with market knowledge but fewer resources — to serve and dominate. It is akin to having created a business with no competition.
Entrepreneurs, opportunities need not be restricted to doing something new and building a nascent industry! Often there are niches in the wake of existing large and established industries for you to make your mark.
Electrical power is a big business, and one of the most basic human needs. The challenge is to move away from an almost complete reliance upon fossil fuels. Several opportunities to generate renewable energy have opened up. Since sunlight is a perpetual resource, solar power is a leading renewable.
Solar power is generated by photovoltaic conversion, where electricity is converted directly using solar cells or by concentrating the solar energy to generate heat stored. On-demand, it drives a steam turbine to generate electricity. Hurdles include availability when the sun is not shining, economical storage, and generation at a competitive price.
One promising approach to storing heat is to melt and then freeze (phase change) an inorganic mixture of salts. Researchers tried to do this for over 40 years, but because inorganic salts expand when they melt and need a large area for effective heat transfer, they failed. The U.S. Department of Energy set up a challenge to solve this very problem.
Terrafore Technologies of Minneapolis, founded by Anoop Mathur, chronicles one journey of riding the wake in a large established sector of the economy. He won a $2.5 million grant from the DOE to make a major technology breakthrough that had been elusive.
Mathur has over 35 years of industrial experience developing and directing advanced technologies at Honeywell with a team of over 80 technologists in the U.S., India, China, and Romania. With over 25 patents and several awards, including Honeywell’s highest award for technology and business excellence, he had managed large programs for government agencies and Fortune 500s. He was well-versed in current and emerging technologies.
He spent five years researching utilizing expertise and facilities at top-tier institutions such as Southwest Research Institute, Jet Propulsion Lab, Rocketdyne, and the University of California.
The longstanding limitation of inorganic salt expansion was overcome by ingenious 10mm or 15mm capsules with open space inside.
The open space allows the salt to expand and provides a large area for heat transfer. Efficient heat transfer requires very high temperatures. These capsules work at up to 850 degrees Celsius.
Since other phase-change approaches had failed competitive tests, Mathur has become the go-to for this specific niche. He wrote a chapter on thermocline thermal energy storage for a book published by Elsevier and has filed for three and received two international patents on thermocline thermal energy storage.
With a further $250K grant from STTR, Mathur set out to evaluate the commercial potential of his method of thermal energy storage. They found the Capsules:
- enable a 33 percent cost reduction compared with other storage practices.
- Make it economically feasible to run small-scale power systems with mini-towers or a solar dish.
- They are light and can be factory-installed in the mini-tower, with very little site work.
- Capture thermal energy waste at existing utilities and other industrial plants.
Terrafore also looked for other inexpensive materials for storing thermal energy. A solid reject from the mining of ores, called ‘Cobber Rejects,’ was a promising candidate because of its high capacity, high density, and meager cost.
The trends in the marketplace have also moved in a favorable direction.
Photovoltaics are at a point where they are more economical than concentrating Solar Power.
All power grids are experiencing rapid changes in their load because of the increase in renewable energy. Several 40GW+ large coal plants have been decommissioned and replaced by smaller, more responsive power plants.
Terrafore received a $250K grant from STTR to evaluate thermal energy storage integration in the next-generation power plants to make them responsive to these load ramps.
Some states consider mandating newer natural gas water heaters in a new construction with thermal energy storage built-in.
MN DEED partially funded the development of such a system.
Anoop Mathur, with all the research-based test results, is looking for investment to scale-up and
- make the capsules in large quantities,
- retrofit the system within the existing power generation and consumption approach, and
- fit them in process industries and new power plants.
Jeff Bezos said that the important question is, “‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ . . .because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.” A high-probability route to success is finding a niche in the wake of existing industries satisfying the most basic human needs.
Anoop Mathur has found a niche of thermal storage in the wake of the gigantic power industry that will continue for a long time as it satisfies the most basic human needs.
A version of this article first appeared in Twin City Business Magazine.
To see other opinion columns go to medium.com/@rajivtandon.
Dr. Rajiv Tandon is executive director of the Institute for Innovators and Entrepreneurs and an advocate for the future of entrepreneurship in Minnesota. He is an adviser to fast growth Minnesota CEOs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.