Small biz tech-startup: ION Engineering LLC

INITIAL LIGHT BULB:

As postgraduate students in chemical engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Jason Bara and Dean Camper researched ionic liquids — essentially liquid salts made up of predominately charged particles. The pair found that ionic liquids worked quite well filtering carbon dioxide and other contaminants from gases.

Bara and Camper collaborated on ION’s core technology before spinning the company off via CU’s Technology Transfer Office with the help of colleague Christopher Gabriel and serial entrepreneur Alfred “Buz” Brown as chief executive officer.

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Dean Camper, Jason Bara & Alfred “Buz” Brown

“What initially struck me was the technology — that, and the markets,” says Brown, a recent transplant from Houston. “They’re both dazzling. But also the team: These guys are incredibly bright and very hard workers. They’re young, but they’re rock stars.”

ION now employs seven people in Boulder, with plenty of startup experience on their collective résumés. “I’ve done this many, many times,” Brown says. “I’ve been on dozens of boards and involved in 50 startups.”

IN A NUTSHELL:

ION’s technology offers less expensive, more efficient methods for capturing carbon dioxide and processing natural gas, Brown says.

The former applies to coal-fired power plants and other industrial polluters, especially in light of a federal push toward so-called “clean coal” technology. “There is no process that’s economical enough to be cost-effective around the world,” notes Brown, citing a current cost of carbon capture at $50 to $70 per ton, not including sequestration. ION’s preliminary research indicates that its technology could drop that to $20 a ton.

As one coal-fired 500-megawatt plant produces 3 million tons of carbon dioxide in a given year, “This is not an inexpensive endeavor,” Brown says.

As for the latter market, Brown says 40 percent of the world’s natural gas preserves are contaminated with carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, describing the current water-based process as “extremely inefficient,” not to mention pricey. “Our guys replaced water with an ionic liquid. It has unbelievable solvent properties and it doesn’t evaporate.” Brown says the method is 25 percent to 35 percent less costly than the status quo and requires only minor retrofits at existing natural gas sweetening plants.

Dave Allen, associate vice president at the CU Technology Transfer Office, is bullish on the company’s chances. “We at Tech Transfer think that ION Engineering has high potential,” Allen says, “because it brings together a number of important forces: market pull, top-level science, a quality management team and a financial environment that is receptive.”

THE MARKET:

Natural gas processing is a mature, global market. “It’s in the $20 billion-plus range worldwide,” Brown says. If implemented on a global scale, carbon capture represents an even bigger market: U.S. plants emit nearly 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the burning of coal in a given year, about one-sixth of the world’s total.

FINANCING:

ION’s launch was self-financed by the founders, and it landed a $100,000 investment from the CU Technology Transfer Office. Brown hopes to tap into $2.3 billion of federal funding from the stimulus package “that’s directly applicable to what we do” in the coming months. “We think we’re in the right place at the right time.”

“It’s doing something you can go home at night and feel good about. You can make a difference in the world with this kind of business.”
— ION Engineering CEO Alfred “Buz” Brown