Staying cool is making us hot. And the demand isn’t chilling, either.
“Cooling protects people from rising temperatures, maintains food quality and safety, and keeps vaccines stable and economies productive,” states a report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Most hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants are greenhouse gases and have a much higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide. By 2050, the UNEP predicts cooling will account for more than 10% of projected global emissions.
That’s why Icorium Engineering Company is blazing a trail in recycling refrigerants. The spin-out company from the University of Kansas designs separation systems to handle complex refrigerant mixtures. Refrigerants, like those used in air conditioners and grocery store coolers, are being phased out because of global warming concerns, and the technology to separate the refrigerant mixtures and reuse the components in new products hasn’t existed. That is until Kalin Baca, Ph.D., MBA and Professor Mark Shiflett teamed up at KU.
“I did my Ph.D. on refrigerants with ionic liquids and all of the physical property measurements for that, specifically solubility and diffusivity,” said Baca, Icorium’s co-founder and chief operating officer. “We’re providing equipment that can actually separate them back into their component parts. That allows them to be reused and recycled, both as refrigerants but also other materials. It’s a really important way to keep a circular lifecycle for refrigerants.”
Hear how Icorium Engineering Company got its start in a research lab at the University of Kansas.
Validate and Accelerate
While earning her Ph.D., Baca participated in the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (NSF I-Corps) program, an entrepreneurial training program focused on moving research toward commercialization. After getting validation through that experience, Icorium was founded and granted an NSF Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Phase I award in 2023.
After participating in KU Innovation Park’s Accelerator program, Icorium moved into its own office space and there’s no sign of the momentum cooling down. “We foresee this company having commercial contracts in 2024,” said Shiflett, Icorium’s co-founder and chief science officer. Shiflett is also a Foundation Distinguished Professor at the KU School of Engineering. “I worked at the DuPont Company for 29 years, working on commercializing a variety of different products, including refrigerants. My intention when I came to the University of Kansas was to become a professor and teach students how to do the same thing.”
Shiflett is no stranger to innovation. He’s an inventor on 46 U.S. patents and has published over 130 articles on his research. He says he used to tell people that his greatest accomplishment was a refrigerant mixture that replaced chlorofluorocarbons, gases linked to the depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer. Now, it’s his students. “Having my first student to be able to create a company and watch how that company has grown so rapidly in less than a year has been just extremely rewarding,” he said. “In the future, air conditioners will be charged with recycled refrigerant, and Icorium is going to be able to make that possible.”
Perks of the Park
When KU Innovation Park reached out to Baca about its Accelerator program, she saw it as an excellent opportunity to get grounded. “Having access to the office space and having access to the analysts and other park resources at that early state was just really helpful,” she said. “It helped alleviate some of the normal pressures at that stage where if you don’t have that community around you, it could be even more stressful.”
The combination of the Park’s expertise and support from KU made the transition from research to market easier to manage. “That process has been a learning experience,” Baca said. “All of the people who we’ve been working with on all sides have actually made the transition pretty seamless, as seamless as I think it could have been.”
For Shiflett, the Park is a huge help in launching companies that spin out of the University of Kansas. “There are resources at the Park to help us with everything from marketing to filing patents,” he said. “It’s been very beneficial to us to be able to start our company here at KU Innovation Park. And I look forward to doing it over and over again with more students like Kalin.”
A special thanks to Max Jiang of the KU School of Engineering for additional footage.