With a commercially viable product at the ready, new hires underway and a $750,000 Phase II National Science Foundation grant secured, Fayetteville-based startup WattGlass LLC can be counted among the promising ventures that sprang from Dr. Carol Reeves’ entrepreneurship program at the University of Arkansas.
Founder and chief technology officer Corey Thompson was getting his Ph.D. in microelectronics and photonics at the UA when he began taking graduate classes with Dr. Reeves, the university’s associate vice provost for entrepreneurship.
Although Thompson was working toward a technical degree, the interdisciplinary nature of his area of study allowed business classes to be counted toward graduation.
The arrangement worked well for his aspirations.
“I’ve always wanted to be on the business side of research and development — not really wearing a lab coat every day,” he said.
In his microelectronics and photonics studies, he took over an early-stage research project that aimed to create a glass coating for solar panels that made them self-cleaning by changing the way water interacts with the surface.
During his research, Thompson discovered that the silica nanoparticle-based coating also affected the way light interacts with the surface.
Seeing potential in the discovery, he spent the remainder of his Ph.D. studies working toward a balance between the two properties, in order to make the best glass coating product.
“It became a true engineering problem of optimizing both the surface wetting, self-cleaning and antifogging benefits, along with the optical transmittance of the coating at the same time,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Dr. Reeves’ venture development class, Thompson’s team was working on a business idea that was not panning out.
“We decided in a meeting that it just wasn’t going to go anywhere, that we needed to come up with something else,” he said, “so I raised my hand and said, ‘Well, here’s what I’m working on for my Ph.D. We can explore it and see where it goes.’”
From there, WattGlass’ predecessor, EverClear Coating Solutions, was born.
In 2013, EverClear won several awards, including first place in the graduate innovation track at the Arkansas Governor’s Cup.
All told, Thompson estimates the team won a little more than $20,000 that year.
“At that point it really was a big deal. We were excited,” he said. “To take something I had done in the lab and all of a sudden be able to convince people that it’s actually worth something was kind of amazing.”
A New Team
At the conclusion of the entrepreneurship course, the EverClear team dissolved, leaving the project solely in Thompson’s hands.
Many of his colleagues on the project graduated with an MBA at that time.
“You don’t really want to stay with a startup that you’re really not sure was going to work, when you could get a job in the real world and make a paycheck tomorrow,” he said.
Thompson, however, was still finishing his Ph.D. at the time and decided to team up with a couple of local entrepreneurs, stick with the glass coating project and see where it would lead.
That’s where WattGlass began. The company was officially formed in March 2014. WattGlass, a Genesis Technology Incubator client, is now located in the Arkansas Research and Technology Park.
Since Thompson graduated fall semester of that year, the company has been on a fast track.
When he completed his Ph.D., he was coating microscope slides. By June 2015, the team was coating glass panes that measured 3 feet by 5 feet.
While there is potential for other applications, WattGlass is mainly focused on solar panels right now, because Thompson, his advisers and other people working on the project all have a background in that industry.
“There are three or four major competitors in that space,” he said. “The thing that we do differently is using completely water-based and non-hazardous elements for the coating. And even while we are doing that, we are cheaper and perform better than the competition.”
According to in-house testing, WattGlass coating provides $5 in added value for each solar panel, while costing less than 50 cents per panel.
For the solar application, “the things we’re exploring now and really having to focus on are meeting all the industry certifications that we need to meet. It’s a pretty intensive process to go through,” he said.
The Arkansas Science and Technology Authority provided WattGlass with seed money in fall 2014.
Last January, it received a $150,000 Phase I grant from the NSF.
In June, ASTA gave the company $100,000, an investment that garnered a partial matching grant ($30,000) from the NSF as part of a Phase I grant.
“Phase I is kind of gift. It’s like here, have fun, let’s see what you can do,” Thompson said.
And the team accomplished a lot with the funding.
In August, it installed and is now monitoring a prototype of solar panels with WattGlass coating outside the High Density Electronics Center near the company’s offices in the tech park.
It also proved out the coating’s durability and heat tolerance on a small scale.
“Now, we’re really just trying to scale it and run with it,” Thompson said. “We’re hoping within the next couple of months that we’ll be able to do a pilot line with a glass or solar manufacturer at that point. We’ve really got a minimum viable product that’s ready to roll out.”
Meanwhile, Thompson has found other applicable markets along the way.
WattGlass currently fills orders on a very limited basis, and the first purchase order it filled was for lenses for LED lighting, like that found in gas station awnings.
“We weren’t targeting that, but it just kind of landed in our laps,” he said.
Many convenience store companies are switching to LED lights for energy reasons, and these lights have tempered glass that protects the lights from moisture and other environmental factors.
Coating both sides of the light’s glass with WattGlass’ product can produce 8 percent more light, which also keeps heat from building up in the module, Thompson said.
“As far as that goes, we’re ready to roll in that area. The [research and development] work is done, and it’s ready to go,” he said.
“The order that we filled was a test run to evaluate, and if it goes well it could result in a million units of glass that are 7 inches by 7 inches rolling out next year, so it could be a huge thing.”
WattGlass is also pursuing applications in the eyeglass and automotive industries, but those are still in the research and development phase, facing challenges that include a curing process that is too hot for polycarbonate lenses.
Besides himself, Thompson has one researcher on the payroll right now, but plans to add a second research engineer this month. “It will be exciting to have another pair of hands on-deck,” he said.
By the year’s end, Thompson hopes to add another employee.
Also in 2016, he will seek private funding for WattGlass.
Phase II of the NSF grant also means WattGlass qualifies for a secondary partial matching grant from the foundation.
If WattGlass raises $1 million in private equity, the NSF will match it with $500,000 in non-dilutive government funding.
“A lot of good things are happening. We are excited,” said Thompson, whose long-term career plans include helping other researchers bring products to market.
“What I’d love for my career to be is taking things that are rolling out of the university and research, scale it to a point to where I can hand it off to someone who is better at running a business than I am, and then start the process over with a new technology,” he said.
In the present, Thompson finds himself in new territory as the steward of the investments various entities and individuals have put into his idea.
“It’s kind of scary,” he said. “Having a science and engineering background, it’s a playground we don’t get to play in very often — fundraising, running a business and all that.”
But he likes it that way.
Also, throughout the process of building his company, Thompson and his wife of eight years, Katie, have been growing their family.
The couple now has a daughter named Madelyn, 1, and are expecting a son, due March 21.
The family resides in Springdale, just north of Lake Fayetteville.