Grand Forks Energy Technology Start-Up Participates in National NSF I-Corps Program

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Tau Drones, an energy analytics company, was accepted to and has started the National Science Foundation (NSF) National I-Corps Program. Tau Drones is a local company in Grand Forks, North Dakota, owned by Matt Dunlevy. The company evaluates commercial and residential buildings for energy efficiency. Karthik Balaji, Tau Drones’ Product Development Lead, says, “we are trying to automate the energy auditing process as well as make sense of why energy is lost from certain buildings.” Once Tau Drone’s understands why and where energy is lost they can provide the data to users along with recommendations to prevent further heat loss.

This project is an example of how university researchers and students can examine pathways to commercialize their innovation beyond the lab and transform it into a potential product, service, or business that impacts society.

Names from left to right: Sai Peri, Niroop Sugunaraj, and Debanjan Sadhukhan

The story behind Tau Drones’ work begins at the University of North Dakota (UND) with Dr. Prakash Ranganathan, a Professor of Electrical Engineering. Dr. Ranganathan developed a thermal imaging-based AI system in partnership with Mr. Dunlevy as part of the former ResearchND program. Dr. Ranganathan commends his research team and credits their role in the ResearchND project, including several graduate students and postdoctoral fellows (Dr. Debanjan Sadhukhan, Niroop Sugunarai (Ph.D. in EE), Dr. Youness Arjoune (Ph.D. in EE), Sai Peri (MS in Data Science)). Other collaborators identified by Dr. Ranaganathan include Michael Nord, Assistant Director, Energy and Continuous Improvement Services from UND Facilities & Management Department, Drs. David Flynn (Economics) and Gauthanm Krisnamoorthy (ChE). The process has continued to evolve and now focuses on semi-automated energy audits.

Tau Drones combines their unmanned aerial systems (UAS) expertise of its founder, Matt Dunlevy, with Dr. Ranganathan’s work on Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics to understand the energy consumption profile of buildings. Tau Drones takes this combination of elements to scan buildings and sense heat loss. The drone uses waypoints to regulate its flight patterns. Once the waypoints are put in by the drone operator, the building is scanned to identify where heat loss is occurring and the data is used to determine recommendations and cost savings. The information can then be given to building managers to help them make decisions to weatherize the building.

The NSF I-Corps Program helps university researchers and their partners with commercialization. The program features customer discovery interviews aimed at identifying product market fit and customer segments to determine potential market viability for university intellectual property. The National I-Corps Program is backed by The National Science Foundation (NSF). NSF is developing and fostering a national innovation network to lead scientific research regarding the development of solutions to benefit society. Participants in the National I-Corps program, like Tau Drones, receive $50,000 for customer discovery activity which usually consists of attending conferences and events to conduct hundreds of beneficiary interviews to better understand customer segments, target markets, and industry pain points. ​​ “Our NSF I-Corps partnership has helped several faculty and students at UND get a better understanding of where their technology and ideas intersect with market demand, said Amy Whitney, Director of the UND Center for Innovation.  “Tau Drones has shifted their business model as they learn more about their target market and how their technology alleviates customer pain points.”

Tau Drones was introduced to the NSF I-Corps Program by the Center for Innovation (CFI) at the University of North Dakota. The Center for Innovation collaborates with the Great Lakes Midwest I-Corps hub managed by the University of Michigan. The first step toward a National I-Corps program is acceptance into and successful completion of an I-Corps Hub regional program. Tau Drones completed the regional program in June and were recommended to apply for the National I-Corps Program. Tau Drones applied, interviewed, and prepared their team. The Tau Drones team in the National program consists of Dr. Karthik Balaji, Matt Dunlevy, Dr. Amy Whitney, the Director of CFI, and Dr. Michael Mann, the Associate Dean for Research for the UND College of Engineering & Mines. Regional I-Corps programs take place throughout the year and if other UND faculty or students are interested in participating they can contact the Center for Innovation.