Sunday, December 4, 2016

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Walsh (third from right) poses with his team at an informational fair. Walsh (third from right) poses with his team at an informational fair.

Growing a Greener Business

An SDSU sophomore is redefining energy production with help from SDSU's Zahn Innovation Center.
By Hallie Jacobs

John Walsh was born with the entrepreneurial spirit. 

At the ripe age of 15, Walsh started a company that designed software for restoring files. The success of that company eventually led to dabbling in the real estate business even though Walsh wasn't old enough to buy property. After working in real estate, Walsh found that he could unite his passion for sustainability and knack for working in property management. 

With help from SDSU's Zahn Innovation Center, the Los Angeles native was able to kick-start his business, Grow Energy.

Grow Energy aims to create a more sustainable world by harnessing the power of natural resources. Walsh and his team are using abundant algae-based energy generation systems to power residential and commercial buildings — similar to how solar panels work. The systems are a cheaper and more efficient alternative to solar and traditional energy sources.

"I was always interested in biofuel, alternative energy and sustainability," said Walsh, a sophomore studying finance. "I wanted to find a way to take my interests and turn them into something profitable and sustainable."

Algae fuel is an alternative to fossil fuel that uses algae as its source of natural deposits. Harvested algae release carbon dioxide when burnt, but unlike fossil fuel, the carbon dioxide is taken out of the atmosphere by the growing of algae and other biofuel sources.

How it works

Grow Energy created a process that is able to collect light energy and optimally distributes energy into a photo bioreactor, which grows algae.

The company's method is a more efficient way to grow algal biomass — traditional photosynthetic methods yielded a fraction of what Grow Energy's systems are able to create.

The process takes the algae and is continuously harvesting, separating and drying it. The biomass is stored solar energy, or, an "organic battery." Then, the biomass is burned and turned into heat energy.

Why it works

"The biggest problem with biofuels today is the energy required to extract the oil," Walsh said. "That's why biofuel companies are having a difficult time competing with oil."

Oil doesn't require any energy to extract. There are drilling and refining processes, but converting it into usable energy is simple.

That's where Grow Energy comes in.

The process is cheaper, faster and easier to sustain, and doesn't drain Earth's natural resources, Walsh explained.

Zahn Center success

Grow Energy is working with engineers in Texas and France to develop a full-scale prototype. Walsh and his team are also on the hunt for property investments on which to test the systems.

Thanks to help from SDSU's on-campus incubator, Grow Energy has been able to expand rapidly. The company lists an impressive board of directors, including Bill Richardson, the former United States Secretary of Energy.

"The Zahn Center has been fantastic," Walsh said. "A lot of the services they provide are pro bono, which have really helped take our business to the next level."

About the Zahn Innovation Center

The Zahn Innovation Center is a commercial and social incubator that supports SDSU innovators and aspiring entrepreneurs — students, faculty and staff from any major or department on campus — as they transform their ideas into companies. 

These individuals are organized into teams working on commercial and social enterprises as well as projects resulting in positive social impacts.

Members of the Zahn Center are able to access a multitude of resources once admitted into the program.  The resources are pro bono, and a large portion of them are courtesy of SDSU alumni.