Startup Phononic raises $44M for solid state heating and cooling

Semiconductors have transformed many modern industries (computers! LEDs!) and if startup Phononic has its way it will change heating and cooling, too. On Wednesday, Phononic announced that it’s secured a series D round of $44.5 million in financing to help get more of its next-gen heating and cooling products out there in the market.

Phononic's heat pump compared to a traditional compressor.

Phononic’s heat pump compared to a traditional compressor.

The company is using thermoelectric materials — which are semiconductors that can turn heat into electricity — to create products that can make use of wasted heat (like in a car engine or power plant flue) or use electricity to remove heat (like in a refrigerator). Phononic has been pretty solely focused on next-gen cooling products up to this point, and the team has made things like solid-state heat pumps that can be used in compressor-free refrigeration units (a super quiet, efficient fridge) and fan-free cooling products for electronics like servers and computer graphics cards (a computer that doesn’t turn on a noisy fan when hot).

Phononic is currently shipping products for those electronics customers, and it will also start shipping a quiet efficient refrigerator for labs, research centers and medical facilities next year. The company has also been working on residential products — a quiet home wine chiller and replacements for window-mounted air conditioners — with a partner in China and plans to introduce those residential products in early 2015.

Clearly North Carolina-based Phononic’s thermoelectric materials have a lot of applications, but figuring out the killer products that could take off commercially will be the next step for the company. This latest round is intended for growth and scale. Here’s an interview I did with Phononic CEO Anthony Atti in 2011 when they were first developing the technology behind these products.

Phononic received a $3 million grant from the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program to work on the technology and later raised funding from Valley investors Venrock and Oak Investment Partners. To scale the residential-focused tech Phononic is focused on Asia, and in its Series C round brought in Beijing-based Tsing Capital.

Phononic's heat pump at the company's facility

Phononic’s heat pump at the company’s facility

The Series D round was led by Eastwood Capital Corp, the Wellcome Trust and a syndicate made up by WLR China Energy Infrastructure Fund, Tsing Capital, Venrock, Oak and Rex Health Ventures. Phononic has raised about $78 million to date.

First Solar’s former President-turned-investor Bruce Sohn and “Anthony Fadell” (I’m thinking this is Nest Labs CEO and investor Tony Fadell) are listed on the latest SEC filing, indicating they could also be investors. I’ll update this when I hear back from Phononic on whether or not Fadell and Sohn are investors. Nest was also backed by Venrock.

Other startups are working on using thermoelectric materials to capture waste heat at oil drilling, mining and power plant sites. Alphabet Energy recently launched the world’s first industrial scale thermoelectric generator, which captures waste heat from the exhaust stack of a diesel generator, and converts that heat into usable electricity. When installed in an offgrid remote location, the product can significantly reduce the amount of diesel fuel needed.

While Alphabet Energy scales up thermoelectrics on a large scale, other startups are using thermoelectrics to go small. Stealthy Silicium Energy is looking to develop thermoelectrics for wearable computing that can increase battery life.