From Grad Students to Green Tech Gurus, Vital Academic Connection Fuels Renewable Energy in New York’s Southern Tier

Kenneth Skorenko knew he'd leave Binghamton University in 2015 with a Ph.D. in hand. What he didn't realize was he'd also be leaving with a shared patent, a new green tech company and a lofty title: chief technology officer. 

And it was all because of a single class.

"I took an electrochemistry class taught by Dr. Nikolay Dimitrov and he asked us to come up with a new theory and test it in our research lab," remembers Skorenko, whose business ChromaNanoTech is now part of a growing sector of renewable energy companies in New York’s Southern Tier.

Skorenko's eureka moment didn't come in a vacuum. After graduation from Union College in Schenectady, he was introduced to the idea of passive solar technology, while working with Crysta-Lyn Chemical Company. Passive solar technology works to block excessive heat from entering windows, doors and skylights while allowing light to pass through, ultimately reducing air conditioning usage and costs. That partnership was funded by the State University of New York’s (SUNY) pioneering Strategic Partnership for Industrial Resurgence (SPIR) grant, a program that helps area businesses collaborate with SUNY engineering students and take advantage of the state-of-the-art testing facilities in their university labs.

Southern Tier: A Green Energy Hub

The future of green technology is unfolding in New York. The industry’s innovators are tapping the Southern Tier to discover the next big breakthrough.

As Skorenko, Binghamton University and Crysta-Lyn Chemical learned, pathways between schools and the real world are ideal for sparking creativity. 

"When I started the SPIR [grant], I'd been testing a lot of things but nothing really worked well," Skorenko recalls. "When I got the assignment in [Dr. Dimitrov’s] class, I came up with an electrochemistry experiment that directly linked to the work I was doing at Crysta-Lyn Chemical. In the process, I discovered this new, inexpensively created nano material. I've since improved on the material to block up to 50 percent of heat but not light, to significantly reduce air conditioning loads.”

Skorenko’s new company, ChromaNanoTech, led by Binghamton University research professor of chemistry, material sciences and engineering and chief executive officer Dr. Bill Bernier, has gone on to win a coveted 76 West Award, putting $250,000 in research and development money into the startup's reserves.

Other key factors in Skorenko's swift transformation from student to startup CTO include company CEO Dr. Bernier's early recognition of his results.

"I thought we had a nice paper but [Dr. Bernier] told me, 'No, we've got a patent,’” says Skorenko. “He saw that we could actually generate a company out of it."

The SUNY Research Foundation played a critical role, connecting Bernier and Skorenko with a patent lawyer and helped every step of the way.

"They made the whole process so simple," Skorenko says. "In fact, we were the first Binghamton company to get an exclusive license for our patent. We worked hand-in-hand with Binghamton's Research Foundation’s operation managers to develop it. They really care that we will succeed as a company.”

The SUNY Research Foundation, which works with the academic and business leadership of SUNY campuses to support research and discovery, also allowed Skorenko to attend workshops with area entrepreneurs to hone his business pitching and sales skills.

Although the nano material is not yet available for consumer use, ChromaNanoTech is scaling up its operations to make its innovative product as efficiently and inexpensively as possible, and the breakthroughs keep coming.  So do the Binghamton students, including the Binghamton and Broome Community College engineering and business school students the company has hired.

"These students are really motivated. We give them real hours and a real paycheck, too,” Skorenko says. “We're about to apply for more grants and about to buy more equipment. We're making not only a new material but a new way of processing it, which means discovering new ways to deal with nano materials. We're coming up with very competitive and disruptive technology that has a lot of potential. That makes me so excited as a chemist.”

Skorenko says what excites him most about the burgeoning green energy sector in New York and across the world is just how many people are ready for a change. “There’s a growing focus on products that increase energy efficiency within the industry itself but also from consumers,” says Skorenko. “We all still want them. They’re real now, and they’re the future.”  

Timing is key for Skorenko as well. “What we also know is they’re long overdue so we need them now,” he notes. “These started as tiny specks – so small that if I sneezed in the labs, they would be gone. That’s why I'm just so jazzed to see this ramp up to large-batch production… It’s mind boggling, but I love it."