Commercializing technology, improving society

Yushan Yan’s new laboratory in Newark is just starting to show signs of life — vibrancy that state and University of Delaware officials hope will springboard innovation in coming years.

Yan is a new engineering professor at the university, and arrived here this summer with a 16-person crew: nine early-career scientists and seven eager doctoral candidates. They followed the renowned energy researcher across the country, from the University of California at Riverside.

Some had hung a sign in their new space at the Delaware Technology Park, a nonprofit campus for start-ups and established business: “Welcome to Yan’s House of Science.”

The house goal: commercialization. Yan, who has already licensed technology to start-up commercial ventures, says he hopes to market fuel cell membranes and catalysts that can help cheaply convert hydrogen into power for homes and cars, and lead to efficient batteries for clean energy storage. It’s technology that could, theoretically, create a bounty of clean energy jobs in Delaware and elsewhere.

“I really want to commercialize technology that can improve society,” said Yan, who is

Yushan Yan

New University of Delaware professor Yushan Yan set up a new lab in Delaware Technology Park to teach and pursue fuel cell technology. / THE NEWS JOURNAL/ROBERT CRAIG

working on technology to replace platinum in fuel cell materials to drive down their price. “We don’t wish to build a ninth floor on an eight story building. We want to start from the foundation.”

Some say Yan’s recruitment — and his $1.9 million setup, financed by the tech park campus and paid for by a lease to the university — is yet another manifestation of the school’s foray into state economic development. Babatunde A. Ogunnaike, a professor and interim dean of the university’s chemical engineering department, said “a significant part of the driving force” behind Yan’s recruitment was that the professor has skill in commercializing research ideas.

Yan has licensed technology to Los Angeles-based NanoH20, a venture-funded company that manufactures permeable membranes to desalinate water. Yan also serves as a scientific adviser to the company.

Delaware officials have already attempted to capitalize on Yan’s move to Delaware, wooing another firm, a startup fuel cell materials company called OH Energy that was co-founded by Yan using technology developed in Riverside. OH Energy is also considering space in Rochester, N.Y., according to Yan and others.

Delaware’s natural resources secretary and a prominent economic development voice here on energy matters, Collin O’Mara, said in a recent interview, “I’m most excited about bringing another nationally renowned scientist in the field to Delaware. We’re building an ecosystem to become a global leader in fuel cells,” O’Mara added. “The important link is by having Dr. Yan here as well, there might be other technologies that may be commercialized.”

Companies like DuPont and Ion Power already develop fuel cell materials locally, O’Mara points out. And California fuel cell maker Bloom Energy intends to use millions in state subsidies to build a manufacturing facility on university-owned land off Del. 896 in Newark, at the site of a former Chrysler assembly plant.

Having commercial leaders close is beneficial, Yan said last week.

“Before, I could call them and they might talk to me,” Yan said. Now they’re his audience during events at the university’s engineering school. “They’re stuck there for an hour,” Yan quipped.

David Weir said courting researchers like Yan, who are successful at pursuing ideas with market potential, is critical to creating a broader atmosphere of entrepreneurship at the school. Weir is a former vice president of global research and development at DuPont who now runs the school’s Office of Economic Innovation and Partnership. The office, established in 2008, helps faculty researchers develop business plans and pitch their ideas to investors.

In an interview last week, Weir said the university’s efforts are bearing fruit, citing the school’s recent commercial partnership with the power company NRG Energy. UD and NRG have partnered to form “eV2g,” a vehicle-to-grid project that will attempt to mine and distribute power stored in electric cars.

“You’ve got to get good people here into Delaware,” Weir said. “This has got to be a place where innovative, creative energetic people want to come and work. If you do that, then the rest will follow.”

Including, very literally, brainy students.

Robert Kaspar, 22, a graduate student studying fuel cell membranes, followed Yan to Delaware, even though that meant re-taking five graduate courses he had already completed in California. Kaspar praised Yan’s enthusiasm and attention to his students.

“He’s convinced that the work he’s doing is going to make a difference,” Kaspar said.

Contact Jonathan Starkey at 324-2855 or jstarkey@delawareonline.com.