WARREN, Ohio – The latest entrepreneur to take up residence at Brite Energy Innovators found his inspiration while on duty with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, and decided to locate his company in Warren after talking to the incubator’s CEO and president, a fellow veteran.
Tony Frisone, co-founder and CEO of CZAR-Power, took part in a media event Monday at the downtown Incubator, where he discussed the Tennessee company’s relocation to Warren. Also addressed during the news conference was Brite’s recent award of $571,355 in funds from the Cares Act.
The Akron native was an engineer officer searching for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, while stationed in northern Afghanistan during summer 2014. One obvious target of IEDs is convoys, and 80% of all convoys at the time were fuel convoys.
“Waging war is a pretty fuel-intensive business,” he said. “You need a tremendous amount of power for generators to provide electricity 24/7 and you need a tremendous amount of energy to power military vehicles, which are not exactly the most fuel efficient things on the planet.”
Taking note of the “giant fusion reactor in the sky affectionately called the sun,” he determined there had to be a better way to incorporate solar energy into power and electrify transportation. After returning from Afghanistan, he partnered with a friend, Nelson Wang, then studying for his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who for his thesis had devised a way to combine solar power and electric vehicle charging technology.
“As it kind of currently stands, you need a bunch of different power electronics to really harness a lot of clean energy technologies,” Frisone said. The combined systems cost about $21,000, which doesn’t cover the cost of solar or the batteries themselves. “We’ll never achieve a more sustainable future as long as we’re pricing most normal people out of participating in the clean energy revolution,” he said.
For five-plus years, the company has been working on condensing the five necessary systems into “one small box at better than a third of the cost,” although the current $6,000 price tag will probably come down “significantly at scale,” he said.
The company raised about $1.1 million and now is in fundraising mode to beef up the engineering and business operations teams, he said. Potential customers for the units include utilities and solar companies, as well as businesses and governments that operate electric vehicle fleets.
When trying to decide where to put the headquarters for CZAR-Power – “CZAR” stands for “Carbon Zero Advanced Research” – the Akron native settled on Brite because of his discussions with its president and CEO, Rick Stockburger, who served in the Army from 2003 to 2010.
Stockburger, who he described as “a pretty shameless advocate for the region,” told him about the developments taking place with Ultium Cells, Lordstown Motors Corp. and other aspects of the evolving Voltage Valley.
“In situations like mine, you’ve got a couple choices. You can either run away to the coasts and live in a world someone else built. Or you can go back home and put your flag in the ground and build something yourself,” Frison said.
“You all had a vision that the Mahoning Valley could be the best place in the world to start an energy company,” Stockburger said to the local stakeholders and reporters gathered at Brite. Now companies are coming from around the world to Warren.
“You are the embodiment of what we visualized 20 years ago, Tony,” said U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-13 Ohio.
“This is a great day,” added Warren Mayor Doug Franklin. He credited work by Brite’s leadership and by Ryan, who secured early funding for the Warren incubator, for laying “the groundwork for all the great work that we’re doing today in this building.”
Stockburger likewise credited Franklin for going “against the grain” by committing funds to the incubator.
“Not everybody at the time knew how good of an investment that would be. We’re seeing things like we’re announcing today as part of the fruition of that,” Stockburger said.
About two weeks ago, the Economic Development Administration announced that Brite has been awarded a $571,355 Cares Act recovery assistance grant to expand its programs and services. The grant funds, which are being matched with $155,699 in local funds, are expected to create 200 jobs, retain 150 jobs and generate $100 million in private investment.
“The Cares Act is about the pandemic, but it’s also about how we get out of this economic stagnation,” Ryan said. Entrepreneurs want to be here because of the “intellectual capacity” locally.
Last year, Brite experienced a fourfold increase in the number of inquiries for its services, Stockburger said. The Cares Act funds will allow Brite to bring on additional entrepreneurs-in-residence and other staff to assist companies, as well as to install a rooftop solar array for testing purposes.
“The market is telling us they want to do live testing on solar panels,” he said.
CZAR-Power has four employees and three interns, but Frisone anticipates the company’s internal team should be up to about 20 a year from now, and manufacturing employment should be about double that. The company has identified a couple suppliers, with the focus being on one in Michigan. The company is looking at potential local manufacturing options as well.
“It’s very important to me personally to make it in the United States,” he said. Risk factors such as geopolitics, supply chains and intellectual property theft provide business reasons to keep production domestic, he said.
CZAR-Power completed the third version of its prototype, and company officials last week began discussions with Underwriters Laboratories for safety and reliability certification, Frisone said.
Once certification is completed, a process he expects to take about four months, the units will be able to be sold anywhere in the United States, he said.
Pictured: Brite Energy Innovators client success manager Cole Simon, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, CZAR-Power founder Tony Frison, Mayor Doug Franklin and Brite President and CEO Rick Stockburger celebrate CZAR-Power’s relocation to Warren.
Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.