Russ: Hi I’m Russ Capper and this is BusinessMakers USA, brought to you by Insperity, inspiring business performance. We’re in Charlotte, North Carolina today and my guest is Ryan Kennedy, Co-founder and CEO of Atom Power. Ryan welcome to the show.
Ryan: Thank you.
Russ: You bet. Tell us about Atom Power.
Ryan: Atom Power is a startup company that was formed in 2014 to address some challenges in the world of commercial and industrial power distribution.
Russ: And so we’re talking about maybe circuit board type power distribution?
Ryan: Yeah, so our core product is in circuit breakers but we make the panel boards that the circuit breakers sit in as well as all of the software and firmware that ties it all together, so we’re both software and hardware.
Russ: What is different about your hardware and the traditional board that I would look at?
Ryan: It’s a pretty big deal actually. The circuit breakers are solid state, which means that they use semiconductors to switch the flow of current instead of mechanics which had been done for about 100 years now.
Russ: Right, wow.
Ryan: So it’s a whole different way of doing things.
Russ: Well I know I’ve paid attention to power distribution and protection and stuff several times and it’s a fascinating category that I think a lot of people that are in these commercial buildings don’t realize what’s going on in there too. So is anybody else using solid state to do this?
Ryan: Not that we’re aware of. It is something that’s been sought out for a long time though. There are patents that go back to the 80s, I think there’s one from the 70s as well, to look at doing this. There are companies – and big companies – that have tried to but it’s really only until the last say 7 or 8 years that the technology has been there to do it now.
Russ: And I know you describe yourself as a startup, you’re early stage, you’ve raised money and you’re continuing to raise money, is that right?
Ryan: That’s right.
Russ: And so why if I had a commercial building would I want your product instead of the traditional circuit breaker board?
Ryan: Well it’s not going to apply in every situation. In some cases you never want to control power, you never really want to even meter it and that’s okay. But where we differentiate is in this product – there’s actually a big problem in commercial buildings today in a thing called arc flash. If you’re familiar with OSHA they now have standards on how much energy can come out of a building in a fault event, what the workers have to do to maintain that building and what they have to wear, but it’s all prescriptive to reduce injury in the event of an arc or a flash event. In other words when things go boom; when things go wrong.
This is the only product that completely mitigates that. We have interesting videos on our website to where we’ve take 2 big hot wires together and hit them together at 480 volts and there’s not even a spark. Our breaker trips instantaneously. That’s one, we have built in metering inside the same circuit breaker and there’s other things like surge prevention and all kinds of other electrical engineering greatness if you will built into the box.
Russ: Okay, but the basic advantage is probably mostly in the safety category, is that right?
Ryan: Safety and remote controls. You can remotely control the breaker, open and close it repeatedly in millions of operations; today that’s really not possible. There’s a technology gap in commercial industrial buildings to where actually controlling the circuit breaker is very difficult. It takes – believe it or not – machines to actually open and close the breaker if you do want to remotely control that. So what folks do is they put all this ancillary equipment around them, around the breakers, around the power distribution system to be able to control it so it costs a lot more and you’re controlling it outside of the one device that it all flows through. So it doesn’t make sense today really.
Russ: So do you actually have your product installed in commercial buildings today?
Ryan: Not in commercial buildings. Our installations have been pre UL. So UL is kind of the – Underwriter’s Laboratories is really a requirement for us and for anybody to go into the commercial, industrial, or residential space with a circuit breaker. So our products have all been installed in military applications as well as with military contractors and then also on DC – DC and not AC in energy storage. And a lot of those applications don’t require certain listings so that’s where we’ve been, military and DC.
Russ: And how are they performing?
Ryan: Very well actually. There’s an apprehension in using semiconductors long-term, product that’s always on, so we’ve done a lot of testing – a lot of failure testing – and of course the field installations and pilots are very important to help us learn with customers instead of just in-house.
Russ: Well I’m not an electrical engineer like you but it seems like if they failed it wouldn’t be any worse than a traditional manual breaker switch breaking and closing the circuit, or could it be worse than that?
Ryan: That’s right. Because it’s not mechanics, it’s semiconductors it’s kind of magic happening from the consumer side so they don’t know how it works. So we have to make sure that there’s a comfort level to say this is going to be reliable for X amount of time and we’ve got a lot of data, both simulated and real life data that shows that we’re going to perform for at least 20 years on our products.
Russ: Cool. I’m curious, what kind of investors have you attracted so far?
Ryan: Early on it was private equity and then once we got some traction on the actual product which was a commercially viable solid state circuit breaker we attracted investment from the other circuit breaker manufacturers out there.
Russ: Wow, the traditional circuit breakers manufacturers.
Ryan: That’s right, that’s right.
Russ: Well that’s meaningful then.
Ryan: It is, yeah. It’s a strategic investment and we tend to work very well with them and ask for help when we need it and things like that so it’s a good relationship.
Russ: So I’m always curious about this about startup entrepreneurs and particularly you’re more in the inventor category almost, but what triggered the idea in the beginning to turn this into a solid state function?
Ryan: It was a combination of things. My own background is about 24 years in the commercial power distribution space. I was 5 years as an electrician working on many of the high rise buildings in uptown Charlotte and one of the first things I saw was an arc flash event about 2 weeks into the electrical trade. It was big, it actually blew the electrician away from the panel he was working on, and I happen to be right to beside him.
You look at that and you kind of wonder – I mean look back at when you were 18, you think that things are pretty safe; that things just won’t happen like that. It turns out thought that that problem was a problem then and it’s still a problem today, it hasn’t really changed much. While being in the field I decided to go to college and through that whole process I found out that really I wanted to learn how to control breakers but also make then safe. Then I figured out you couldn’t really control circuit breakers – you can’t control the stuff where you need it the most, which is at the breaker level, and then they’re really unsafe too.
So it caused me to want to say let’s figure this out and in 2004 I built my first prototype. The technology wasn’t there, it was big, heavy, expensive, inefficient, didn’t work. And then in 2014 some enabling technology happened, I became friends with some people who were smarter than me. So we put together – I got them together and said do you think it’s time we build a commercially viable solid state breaker? DO you think we can do it? The only way we found out was to build a prototype, which we did, found out it worked very well and then got our first round of funding at that point.
Russ: So you were a practicing electrician before you became an electrical engineer.
Ryan: Yeah, hardhat and tool belt for about 5 years.
Russ: That’s impressive. Speaking of 5 years, where would you like to see the company 5 years from today?
Ryan: We’re not trying to take over the world. We’re not trying to replace every breaker that’s out there. What we are trying to do is make a difference in those pain points; having this almost autonomous electrical system that’s safe. So we certainly want to see installation, but there’s nothing outside the realm of partnering with some of our investor companies to say how can they help. Because our mission is to get this out into the marketplace because it’s the right thing to do. We think that we can do that with the partnerships that we have, the investors we have, so definitely large scale adoption. But we want to use that so we can look at other spaces to apply this; residential being one of them and others.
Russ: It also seems like when you really start getting traction you might be a great acquisition target.
Ryan: Yeah, could be. In our business plan our idea is that we’ll make decisions on what are we going to volumetrically distribute the product and accelerate the product. One could be acquisition sure. One could be a ground up 20 year approach, one could be licensing. There’s many different ways to do that.
Russ: Ryan I really appreciate you sharing, it’s a fascinating story.
Ryan: Oh thank you.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Ryan Kennedy, Co-founder and CEO of Atom Power. And this is BusinessMakers USA.
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