April 22, 2024
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New Energy New York: Building back better at Binghamton

Coalition sets out to make upstate a global hub for battery manufacturing

Alejandra Y. Castillo, assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, talks with Nobel Prize laureate M. Stanley Whittingham during a New Energy New York tour of iM3NY's Gigafactory in October 2022. Alejandra Y. Castillo, assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, talks with Nobel Prize laureate M. Stanley Whittingham during a New Energy New York tour of iM3NY's Gigafactory in October 2022.
Alejandra Y. Castillo, assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, talks with Nobel Prize laureate M. Stanley Whittingham during a New Energy New York tour of iM3NY's Gigafactory in October 2022. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.

When M. Stanley Whittingham accepted the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019, it set in motion a course of events that will ripple across the U.S. economy and beyond.

Whittingham, a chemist, was working at Exxon Research and Engineering Co. when he invented the first rechargeable lithium-ion battery in the 1970s. In the years since, including decades on Binghamton University’s faculty, he has continued innovating, mentoring younger scientists and pushing for the adoption of renewable energy on a large scale. Now a huge government initiative is poised to make upstate New York an epicenter of research and manufacturing for energy storage technologies.

“I’ve been in the lithium battery business for exactly 50 years now,” Whittingham says. “That technology got shipped to Asia. And we have to correct that. Almost all of the intellectual property is American, a little bit of it is British. We have great academic strengths here. We have great startup companies here.”

Whittingham’s technology is the centerpiece of a new $113 million effort called New Energy New York, or NENY. It aims to bring battery manufacturing back to the United States while boosting the upstate New York economy, with projects focused on workforce development, equity, innovation and the overall supply chain. NENY, one of just 21 initiatives funded across the country through the Build Back Better Regional Challenge, is a coalition of more than a dozen upstate institutions led by Binghamton University.

“Resurgence of the region is the real driver,” says Per Stromhaug, associate vice president for innovation and economic development at Binghamton and an architect of the NENY proposal. “That’s the whole point of place-based economic development. You create this new, resilient economy based on technology that’s really needed in the future.”

Binghamton’s approach is already gaining national interest. The Brookings Institution, a public policy organization based in Washington, cited the University in a recent report about federal place-based industrial policies.

“Catalyzing and growing clusters requires investing in talent, research and development, entrepreneurship, and infrastructure,” Brookings wrote. “But regions often struggle to marshal the fiscal, political and institutional capacity needed to … act at a multi-system scale. Operating at a multi-system scale requires a quarterback organization to coordinate goals, strategies and investments across those systems. Many types of entities can play this role, but research universities are natural candidates due to their relatively large scale and critical role in fueling innovation ecosystems.”

The report noted that “Binghamton University is seeking to reorganize the Southern Tier area of upstate New York into a hub for battery manufacturing and energy storage. The university’s multi-system approach will advance the cluster’s talent pool, supply chain and supportive physical infrastructure.”

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Binghamton has secured a lease for the Battery-NY technology and manufacturing center at a former IBM Corp. property in nearby Endicott, though it may be another 18 months or so before the facility is up and running.

When it does open, Whittingham has a clear view of his priorities for Battery-NY. The center will make materials in a more cost-effective way, including moving from batch processing to a continuous process. He also hopes to eliminate the use of organic solvents and switch to polymers that can be cured at a lower temperature.

“The goal,” Whittingham says, “is to cut the cost of present batteries by 50 percent, which means we’ve got to have a cleaner process.”

Other elements of NENY are taking shape much more rapidly.

The coalition licensed a workforce development package from Europe that will help get battery trainees ready for work. A pilot program that started in March drew nearly 100 participants.

“There was huge interest,” says Stromhaug, who initially considered capping enrollment at 20. “I’m very excited about this program.”

Stacey Johnson, the University’s director of workforce development for NENY, expects to see trainees graduating from the NENY Battery Academy this fall.

The program will have two tracks — battery technician and battery expert — with offerings for teenagers still in high school as well as community college students and even people with graduate degrees. In the pilot program, students and instructors are going through the classes together and providing feedback about what courses should be prerequisites and which topics may lend themselves to hands-on labs or virtual learning.

Johnson focuses on removing barriers to participation. There are stipends for bus passes and ride-sharing services, for instance, so that the lack of a car wouldn’t keep someone from taking the courses. The technician training might be offered in 12-week sessions, with just a few hours required per week, so that people can jump in without having to leave their current jobs or schools.

Johnson says the goal is to create a process that has the best result for the learner. The groups involved, including SUNY Broome Community College and Broome-Tioga BOCES, are taking a less fragmented approach than she often sees.

“New Energy New York gave us the reason for these silos to come down,” she says. “It was permission that didn’t exist before this.”

Another initiative will offer summer stipends for college students to get experience with new businesses. The first call for applications attracted 200 students.

“It’s a value-add for our startups, who are struggling to find talent. And it is a value-add for the students to have that experience,” says Olga Petrova ’05, Ph.D. ’09, the University’s director of entrepreneurship and innovation partnerships and another key player in the NENY grant application.

She says a fellowship program promoting diversity in cleantech will launch soon as well.

“Having hands-on experience does help you get your first job,” Petrova says. “If they can’t get paid to have that first internship, they’re already at a disadvantage.”

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Improving educational and professional opportunities is a thread that winds through all of the NENY projects. Johnson is eager to get veterans and refugees into training programs. Her colleague Ebony Hattoh, associate director of equity and justice for NENY, aims to grow entrepreneurial offerings for people of color, low-income residents and other underrepresented groups.

“The climate is ripe for this,” Hattoh says. “I noticed during the pandemic how many people were tapping into their entrepreneurial spirit. The goal is to get them to be as self-sufficient as possible.”

Hattoh, a small business owner and coach for minority and women-owned businesses, notes there are already dozens of startups participating in the diversity accelerator program at the Koffman Southern Tier Incubator in Binghamton.

Some firms may plug into energy storage efforts, but it’s not a requirement; the region will also have a need for all kinds of other services as the industry expands. Hattoh is working with food businesses and graphic designers, a travel agent and a disabled veteran who’s interested in providing self-defense courses.

She’s also setting up a business mentor network to provide peer-to-peer guidance and working on helping participants get access to banking and other financial services.

“Folks who don’t have this business acumen are learning from someone who is more experienced,” she says. “We want to see a unicorn come out of all of this!”

When people who work in business development talk about unicorns, they have their eyes on a billion-dollar startup. And with audacious goals like that, the entire NENY coalition is looking at ways to bring technology from the lab all the way to market launch.

NY Battery & Energy Storage Technology Consortium (NY-BEST) will lead efforts related to the supply chain, while the Koffman incubator is partnering with Activate Global and The Clean Fight New York on technology commercialization and startup growth. There are also programs for late-stage startups and fellowships for recent doctoral graduates who want to go through prototyping and proof-of-concept work.

“We’re looking at the entire battery supply chain, energy storage in general,” Petrova says.

Stromhaug says NENY has already elevated Binghamton University’s profile and is eager to build additional partnerships in research, innovation and manufacturing.

“I really hope this will accelerate the region,” he says. “People and startups will feel they need to be here. There are so many assets here that they will say, ‘We need this, we need the expertise.’ That’s really something I look forward to and I think will happen. We can work with those companies that are on the national map, with technology that everyone believes in.”

Johnson envisions a day when people aren’t talking about incremental improvements in the upstate economy, but rather a time when communities in the region are no longer defined as disadvantaged at all.

“The work we’re doing can change lives,” she says. “It can be generational change.”