Founder and CEO Gary Ong with the Celadyne Technologies team.

Illinois hydrogen technology startup wins multicultural innovator award

A lot of cleantech innovations show promise but are not quite there yet. Hydrogen fuel cells are one innovation that experts say still needs work before achieving widespread adoption. Illinois-based Celadyne Technologies is developing membrane technology to improve the efficiency and costs associated with hydrogen production, use, and storage.

“When people say hydrogen is inefficient, they’re not wrong,” said Gary Ong, founder and CEO of Celadyne Technologies. “But it’s not like we can never fix the limitation. It’s a limitation imposed by materials in these systems. We found a new set of materials that allows us to dramatically improve the efficiency of these devices.”

Last month, Celadyne Technologies won the inaugural Nicor Gas Multicultural Innovator Award and intends to use the support to continue technology development and scale the business.

How it started

Ong founded Celadyne for a simple reason: “The core idea is to use this technology to make fuel cells a lot better,” he said.

The business began in 2018 in Austin, Texas, when Ong was doing graduate work at the University of Texas and founded the business with a former advisor. They were accepted into the Chain Reaction Innovations program at Argonne National Laboratory the following year and moved to Illinois.

The startup’s first product is a replacement for traditional proton exchange membranes, a semi-permeable polymer that separates the anode and cathode sides of the fuel cell to aid with electricity generation. The new nanocomposite works under low humidity and higher temperatures, and it is touted as half the cost of competitors’ materials.

This component is so important to hydrogen fuel cells that modern terminology actually incorporates it into the larger name: proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells.

Getting recognition

The Nicor Gas Multicultural Innovator Award provides a $25,000 equity and inclusion grant from Naperville, Illinois-based Nicor Gas and Chicago-based Clean Energy Trust. The award is intended to support clean energy technology startups with a minority founder or CEO. Celadyne will receive 12 months of business mentorship in addition to the funding. 

“While the award applicants varied widely this year, they were all extremely well-suited to win. … We decided on Celadyne Technologies because we knew we could provide meaningful mentorship to Gary as Celadyne works to de-risk the technology,” said Erik Birkerts, CEO at Clean Energy Trust. “We were also attracted to Celadyne’s potential role in the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

Ong references the well-known lack of diversity among tech startups and says awards like this help by providing opportunities.

“I think the question we have to ask ourselves is: Why do you want diversity in startups?” Ong said. “The way I see it, you want it because we run on the assumption that the diversity of backgrounds and the diversity of culture is what gives the diversity of ideas. Startups are really just an accumulation of ideas.”

Celadyne will benefit from the mentorship to improve strategy and enter new markets, Ong said. “It’s very important to add a lot more details to [the innovation] and have it validated by people who have been in the hydrogen industry for a long time,” he said.

The funding will allow the startup to expand and is especially welcome considering “access to capital is always a big challenge.” 

What’s next

Celadyne is still in R&D mode. Ong anticipates identifying additional applications for the membrane product, which can be catered to a customer’s specifications. The team potentially could develop additional product lines for use in other parts of the fuel cell.

Next year is scheduled to be a time for scaling the product out of the lab, and the startup could be ready to enter partnerships in 2023. Once the product is more developed, the team will decide the best way to commercialize it: continuing to make the product themselves or moving on to a new project after licensing the technology to partners.

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