The startup with a big mission: to reinvent energy

Most entrepreneurs will tell you, the path from a startup’s inception to accomplishing a sizable goal — say, obtaining a sizable portion of a target market — is never a straight line. You can always count on bumps in the road, as well as unexpected opportunities.

Much of this is true for International ThermoDyne (ITD), a Charlotte-based startup out to change how we capture and use energy.

Paul Solitario, co-founder of ITD, says as much in explaining the journey of the company’s two products: PhelTex and Opal.

Solitario and Tim Risser founded ITD in 2014, after learning about the promising technology behind PhelTex from a friend who was trying to license and commercialize the technology from a Wake Forest professor.

“[PhelTex] is cloth-like material that has the ability to harvest heat and motion energy and convert that energy to electricity,” Solitario says.

Simply put, this technology could eliminate the need to charge small items — like your FitBit or Apple Watch.

After raising a seed round of funding and hiring their first employee, the co-founders had a falling out with their professor partner. That same week, through a contact, the ITD team learned about a small team at the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) researching the exact same technology.

Not just similar — the same exact technology.

But rather than forcing ITD to confront serious competition, the situation posed a serious opportunity.

“These guys are material scientists. They are world class. That week, their boss had come into their office and said, ‘Enough with the primary research. We need to find a practical application for this technology,’” Solitario explains.

The stars had aligned: ITD had the practical application, while NREL had the primary research. So they formed a partnership and have been working on the technology for the past three years.

Being that PhelTex is a cloth-like material, the ITD team learned a significant amount about the apparel industry and wearables. They found the biggest problem for wearables was the need to consistently charge them.

“The average life of a FitBit is about six months, and not because the FitBit breaks. It’s because people get sick of charging them,” Solitario says.

They studied the issue, spoke with some wearable technology companies and concluded that, even though a short battery life requires frequent charging, the main driver of the issue is that the device is always on — even if it’s in standby mode.

In identifying the need for improvement, the ITD team developed the Opal, a simple piece of wearable technology that transmits over a few milliseconds when activated.

“If you were to put this in a pair of running shorts and run a marathon — so it [goes] off all the time — the reality is, it would only be on for a few seconds because it’s only transmitting for milliseconds and then turning itself off,” Solitario says.

In apparel, this wearable could last seven to 10 years.

The co-founders spoke with a few companies within the apparel industry, but after realizing the industry is notorious for its long sales cycles, they shifted their focus toward the construction space.

Solitario and his team first experimented with Opal in safety vests. The thinking was that this technology could track who was and was not wearing a safety vest.

After testing it in safety vests with a construction company in Atlanta for a few weeks, they validated the technology’s capabilities. And the construction company discovered more valuable benefits. The company was interested in Opal’s ability to track workers’ daily hours, as well as their movement across a job site.

With this, ITD quickly changed Opal’s value proposition — however they still incorporate safety as an added benefit.

To keep things simple, the technology was made into a sticker material that could go on hard hats.

“Before you go on the site, you have to go to a safety seminar, and it’s typical at the end of the seminar for them to give you a sticker for your hard hat to show that you’ve [attended] the class,” Solitario explains.

With Opal’s beacons, the sticker will send short-signals to receiving stations around the job site. This way, construction supervisors can track, real-time, where workers are on site and which workers are wearing their hard hats.

If there is a disaster on the job site — a fire, a crane collapse, etc., — they can quickly account for everyone on the site, even if someone does not make it to the emergency gathering spot.

The real value to construction managers is cost control.

“About 50 percent of the cost of the job is labor,” Solitario says.

Traditionally, a site supervisor walks around at the start of the day and asks each sub-contractor how many workers they have on the site for that day. A majority of the time, sub-contractors give a ballpark number.

On large job sites, there can be 500 workers all involved at different points across the project’s life. So, estimating daily workforce numbers can add up to a significant amount of excess labor costs.

Or, if the average worker is 15 minutes late, over the course of a multiyear construction project, that adds up to days or weeks of additional labor expense.

“We can give them [reports] by the minute who’s on the site,” says Solitario.

This newfound, real-time data feeds into several metrics that are extremely important to the construction industry: current and previous number of workers on the site, average number of hours per worker, total man hours, turnover rates, etc.

All of this data feeds into the ITD analytics platform, so site management can view its key performance indicators in real time.

It sounds simple, and the technology is. Solitario will be the first to tell you there are more advanced IoT (internet of things) devices in the marketplace.

But it’s simplicity that will drive Opal’s success because there is no learning curve — no teaching required. All the workers must do is wear their hard hats, which is a job site requirement.

Between PhelTex and Opal, ITD is in front of significant opportunities.

For PhelTex, ITD is driven to finalize its research to develop commercially viable products. For Opal, the company is focused on ramping up two large construction customers.

Solitario has been involved in the Charlotte investment banking and entrepreneurial scene for a number of years now. UNC Charlotte has been a great partner, he explains, and ITD is based out of UNCC’s Ventureprise space.

For other startup founders, his recommendation boils down to a few points: Don’t bet the farm. Find a partner, and have patience, as well as a sense of humor.

You can learn more about PhelTex and Opal on the ITD website.

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