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BRITE energy pulling renewable tech to Voltage Valley

WARREN — What Apple did for the iPhone — combine a cellphone, camera and internet-ready computer into a single device — is what CZAR-Power has done for clean tech power electronics, and now the startup is doing it in Warren.

On Monday, BRITE Energy Innovators introduced CZAR (Carbon Zero Advanced Research)-Power to the public and announced the company as a recent portfolio addition.

The company has relocated from Tennessee to Warren, what many believe is ground zero for Voltage Valley, the nickname to describe the rapid shift in the Mahoning Valley’s economy toward clean technology, energy storage and electric vehicles.

BRITE; Ultium Cells, the General Motors / LG Energy Solution partnership to mass produce battery cells for electric vehicles; and Lordstown Motors Corp., which is trying to launch and electric pickup truck this year; are leading the transformation.

It was those factors, including the sales pitch from Rick Stockburger, BRITE president / CEO, that resulted in CZAR co-founder and CEO, Akron native Tony Frisone, to settle his company in the Midwest, not on either coast.

“To be quite frank, in situations like mine, you can either run away to the coasts and live in a world that someone else built or you can go back home and plant your flag in the ground and build something yourself,” Frisone said.

CZAR-Power’s device combines solar and home battery inverters, an electric-vehicle fast-charger and other safety and communication systems into one 2-by-1-by-6-inch unit with multiple ports for residential and commercial application.

Frisone estimates the component parts, excluding solar panels or batteries, separately would cost more than $21,000 to install. But CZAR-Power’s device cost about $6,000.

“That (higher) price is, quite frankly, ridiculously too high and we’ll never achieve a more sustainable future as long as we are pricing most normal people out of participating in the clean energy revolution,” Frisone said at BRITE’s downtown headquarters.

The company, cofounded with Nelson Wang, an MIT graduate, in 2015, has developed three versions of the device using $1.1 million in investments. It already has preorders for 3,500 but needs Underwriters Laboratories (UL) safety and reliability certification to start production. That, Frisone said, he expects within the next four months.

The company has four employees and three interns. It has identified suppliers, top among them a company in Michigan, but Frisone said he and Stockburger are scouting local manufacturing companies to assemble the device here.

Overseas manufacturing, specifically in China, Taiwan or South Korea, is the most cost efficient, but brings with it supply and geopolitical risks not worth taking.

“I have no interest in putting that supply chain or geopolitical risk into the manufacturing process. I have no interest in taking the risk from an intellectual property theft perspective and then also, flat out, I just think it’s the right thing to do, be made in America if you can, and we can,” Frisone said.

Conceptually, CZAR-Power was developed in the summer of 2014, when Frisone was in northern Afghanistan while serving in the Army. There as an engineer officer looking for roadside bombs — mostly set to attack convoys, 80 percent of which were transporting fuel — he realized how significant fuel is to power generators and fuel-inefficient military vehicles.

“As I was out there sucking in heat with my guys, I realized this is kind of stupid. We’ve got this giant fusion reactor in the sky affectionately called the sun, and there has to be a better way to incorporate solar into our power and electric grid.”

He contacted Wang, his friend, and the two stood up the business around technology Wang was studying for his thesis at MIT — how to combine solar power through a converter and electric vehicle fast-charger.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Howland, called Frisone and his company the “embodiment” of what was visualized when BRITE was set up more than 10 years ago as the Tech Belt Energy Innovation Center: “a local boy done good, left, served his country, had an idea, had some ambition, had good contacts” who wanted to come home to develop the business.

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