UC Merced alumni venture into solar business

December 24, 2010 

UNKNOWN

Earlier this year, UC Merced professor Shawn Kantor released a study that said renewable energy projects slated for the Central Valley could bring more than 100,000 jobs to the area.

Three UC Merced alumni are working to prove that prediction true.

If their first foray into commercializing what they learned on campus proves successful, it could be a template for other businesses to follow.

Heather Poiry, 23, Kevin Balkoski, 26, and Kevin Rico, 23, are starting SunTherm Energy, which will provide solar thermal technology and service to commercial and industrial companies in the Central Valley.

Ohio native Poiry and Balkoski, from Menifee in Southern California, are master's students in mechanical engineering. Rico, from Azusa in Southern California, graduated with a degree in management. They said they wanted to start their company in Merced because of the potential growth opportunities for renewable energy in the Central Valley.

The three students met while studying under professor Roland Winston, a founding faculty member and a pioneer in nonimaging optics, a science concerned with collecting, concentrating, transporting and distributing light energy.

"My professor invented a technology that can perform just as well, and at times even better than, any solar technology today," Poiry said. "With other solar systems, they have to follow the sun all day. Our system does not have to follow the sun."

That will significantly reduce costs and allow for easy installation, she said.

Poiry and Balkoski, who worked closely with Winston as graduate students, are converting their research into products. Balkoski's master's thesis was the creation of a solar thermal system; Poiry's was the application of it in an air conditioning system.

"Our company, we're providing heat, and it's going to help the commercial and industrial sector that's dependent on natural gas," she said. "California is the second-largest consumer of natural gas. The primary consumer of natural gas is the food processing industry, and there's a large volume of that in the Central Valley."

The company's initial target market is food processors, but it's open to most industrial and commercial companies.

One application of their system could be in an almond processing plant. A lot of almond farmers use hot water to blanch their almonds, Poiry said. Farmers can use the solar thermal system to create that heat.

Since its founding, UC Merced's promise has been economic ripple effects from the hard-core research done in its labs and classrooms. To some in the city, that promise seems to be unfolding.

"This company is exactly what we hoped would happen with UC Merced being here," said Frank Quintero, development manager for the city of Merced.

"It's not what (SunTherm Energy) will do for the city, it's what it represents," Quintero said. "A common goal that Merced city, county and the Economic Development Corporation all share is generating entrepreneurship at the university level. The UC is good at research and develop, but we introduce the school to resources to bring those research-based ideas to fruition."

Although solar power systems have a reputation for being costly, Rico said SunTherm Energy is cost-effective.

The company promises to provide the same amount of power as natural gas, but with no emissions, so there are no fuel costs, Rico said. There's an initial cost, but the investment will pay itself back in four years, he said.

"Compared to a boiler, there's an upfront cost, maintenance cost and fuel costs. Ours has a very small maintenance cost," he said. "We're not looking to gouge the economy. We're looking to help the community by starting a business."

The company is still in the planning stages, but its founders hope to have their first customer in six months, Rico said.

SunTherm Energy is located at 2816 Park Ave., Suite A, Merced.

Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or

joppenheim@mercedsun-star.com.

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