Manufacturing and Technology Committee Chair
Unique Electric Solutions LLC
Meeting the “Grand Challenge” of Renewable Energy Research
There’s the accepted concept of retirement, and then there’s Jim Smith’s version of retirement. Having recently retired from his role of Assistant Vice President of Economic Development at Stony Brook University and Outreach Director of the Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center (a position he has held since 2007), Jim is now committed to advising start-ups and growing companies while still maintaining an active board position at CEBIP.
A self-described “engineer’s engineer,” Jim has more than 30 years of senior business management experience running global engineering and manufacturing businesses (USA, China, Europe and the Middle East). It’s that combination of engineering and business that he believes will be of most benefit to the nascent companies that are part of CEBIP.
“There are a lot of ways to skin the cat of commercialization—of making a product or service—which is the ultimate goal of all these companies. That’s what makes it complicated and why the success rate is generally pretty low,” he said. “My experience has given me a good sense of the easiest path rather than the hardest for these companies to follow to find a way to commercialization and eventual profitability. Otherwise, they may spend a lot of additional money, whether it’s their own or an investor’s, getting there.”
As for the projects that most intrigue and excite him, they involve what he calls the “grand challenge”: the ability to develop technologies that can generate and utilize electricity from 100 % renewable resources while still providing consumers with the low cost and reliability they have come to expect.
“CEBIP is fostering many of these types of technologies and I see lots of opportunities,” Jim said. “There are challenges involved, but they are all opportunities and all heading in the right way for our kids. We are all going to benefit in so many ways if we can meet this grand challenge, and the next generation is going to have a dramatically improved environment and quality of life.”
The current “grand challenge” involves Unique Electric Solutions LLC (UES), a tenant at Stony Brook’s Advanced Energy Center, for whom Jim will serve as senior advisor in both engineering and manufacturing capacities. UES has partnered with UPS to convert the company’s New York city truck fleet from fossil fuels to purely electric.
While there is a prototype all-electric UPS truck at the Energy Center, “there are still quite a few steps to make this more cost effective and bring it to high volume production,” Jim said. “The goal is to bring it to high volume production in the state of New York and to find vendors and suppliers in the entire supply chain from the state of New York so we can maximize suppliers and manufacturing within the state. The folks at ESD (Empire State Development), at NYSTAR (NY Science Technology and Research) and NYSERDA (NYS Energy Research & Development Authority) are instrumental to this mission and provide support mechanisms at every step in the maturation of these fledgling companies. This is unparalleled by any state in our great nation.”
He admitted his timeline is aggressive—pre-production beginning in four months and high rate manufacturing in one year – “but if we don’t approach these new technologies aggressively, we will fail to be competitive in this very dynamic market”.
Looking back at his decade at the Advanced Energy Center and the companies whom he has advised as well as those he is currently working with, he noted that the only commonality among them is their desire to succeed. “Everything else -- the markets they are entering, their price points, their manufacturing style and financing -- is so different.”
And it’s those differences that he finds most rewarding and intriguing. While he acknowledged getting a great deal of satisfaction from sharing his knowledge, “I am also very technically stimulated by the complexity and the advancement of some of their technologies. These are very highly technical folks who have developed or are trying to develop very highly technical ideas and products. And what follows from that technical stimulation is to apply my business acumen and experience that I’ve acquired over the years to finding the shortest and least costly path to market.”
Equally invaluable, he said, is the assistance the companies gain from their affiliation with CEBIP as well as the considerable amount of New York State resources in the areas of science, development, technology development and manufacturability. “With CEBIP and all these types of assistance programs, we have dramatically upped the success rate of these companies to way above the statistical norm for small start-up companies -- at least four to five times the success rate you would have without these levels of assistance of experts coming in to help almost on a daily basis.”
But he also stressed that company owners must learn how to effectively manage change. “I’ve always said that my real job at any of the companies I’ve run globally has been about the same thing: managing change. The markets change, the customers change, financial conditions change, environmental conditions change, cultural issues around the world change, and it all has an effect on your business. The minute you realize your business is about managing change, and then helping your employees and associates to manage change, that is how you generate success.”