Kettering University scientist aims “to rebuild Flint one company, one job at a time”
By Beata Mostafavi
K. Joel Berry, head of the mechanical engineering department and the fuel cell center at Kettering University. (File photo from 2006)
FLINT, Michigan — He’s been called the city’s “fuel cell father,” spending long hours in a Kettering University basement lab researching, designing and testing technology he believes can help save Flint.
And now the driving force behind Kettering’s fuel cell center, K. Joel Berry, is being recognized as one of the state’s most promising entrepreneurs.
The scientist’s three-year-old Kettering spinoff company — Global Energy Innovations, whose product can power commercial buses, military bases and homes on clean and efficient natural gas — is carving a spot as one of the leaders of Michigan’s future economy with back-to-back awards.
The startup company garnered attention in January, when it beat out more than 200 other companies in a prestigious contest that identifies the best new technologies coming out of Michigan. GEI won first place in the new business category of the Great Lakes Entrepreneur’s Quest Michigan Business Plan Competition, along with a $5,000 prize.
Then in April, GEI, housed in Kettering’s TechWorks incubator, which Berry helped build, became the first Flint business to be named one of Michigan’s 50 Companies to Watch.
“It signifies that I’m doing something right,” Berry, 54, said with a laugh. “It’s a validation that the state values our technology and sees a future for our company to be a partner in the rebuilding of Michigan. It is a recognition that we are working to rebuild Flint one company, one job at a time.”
But for Berry, the accolades are also a sign of how far he’s come in a longtime quest.
It all goes back to that eco-friendly, electricity-producing battery called the fuel cell, which is slowly changing the way the world is powered and holds untapped potential in alternative energy and the economy.
You could say it’s become Berry’s love affair.
The engineer still believes in the dream that has helped earn him his visionary reputation on campus: to see Flint become the Midwestern hub for fuel cell research and development.
“We created the automobile in Flint,” said Berry, whose office is just feet away from the acres of the now-barren Chevy in the Hole, a General Motors site that was once home to bustling automobile factories. “It would be a shame if this new energy technology completely bypassed the birthplace of the automobile. I want to see Flint and Kettering become part of the next revolution of energy technology and become a leader.”
It was Berry who pushed for the $5 million in U.S. Economic Development grant money five years ago to build the incubator and the new Innovation Center, another pet project that officially opens in August. It will house Swedish Biogas International and provide research space for other companies.
He pushed forward with his ideas again and again despite false starts and disappointments along the way, such as stalled funding and a dashed dream of partnering with Delphi Corp. to produce fuel cells commercially in 2006.
“There are always roadblocks and nonbelievers and those who think you are wasting your time and those who think it will never happen, and so it’s always sweet when we do achieve success,” he said.
As the head of Kettering’s mechanical engineering department, Berry, who came to Flint in 1973 to attend Kettering (then GMI), wants to help President Stan Liberty mold the private engineering school into a training ground for fuel cell technology and development.
“Much of the innovation and entrepreneurship momentum we have today has its roots in Joel’s efforts,” said Neil Sheridan, Kettering’s TechWorks director.
And now Berry’s research is hitting the marketplace. GEI creates custom commercial fuel cell systems that require efficient and near-zero emissions and run silently for the commercial truck market. The company also is working on a U.S. Department of Defense project to help power an Air Force base in Florida.
Berry, who has invested $2 million into GEI through personal money and grants, hopes someday to create hundreds of local jobs.
“I think that Joel Berry will be regarded in history as the father of fuel cell employment in Flint,” Sheridan said.
Roughly 200 companies were nominated this year for the five-year-old Michigan’s 50 Companies to Watch list, which honors only second-stage companies that have six to 99 employees, work with at least $750,000 and are growing — not just surviving.
“There are many good companies in Michigan, but judges are looking for a company’s ability to really take off on a product and how they are going to take it to the next level,” said Joy Kitamori, manager of the program, which is offered through the Edward Lowe Foundation, a Cassopolis-based group that supports entrepreneurship.
“They are leading the way in their marketplace, attracting dollars into the state, making a place for themselves globally, adding jobs and are at the forefront of creating innovation.”
She said second-stage companies are a backbone, accounting for 11.1 percent of the establishments in Michigan and representing 35.7 percent of the jobs in the state.
GEI impressed the panel of judges, which includes representatives from the small-business community, Kitamori said.
“They’re a really good example of a company that’s made use of its community resources, a spinoff of Kettering that grew out of the incubator and that is commercializing innovations created right here,” she said. “It appears their products are being sought globally and are on the cusp of making a difference in how energy is used.”