Under New CEO, Ebullient Seeks to Put Its Cooling Tech into Vehicles

Just as the cell phones people walk around with all day have become de facto computers, automobiles too can now be seen as roving computing devices—ones that might be vulnerable to hackers, even.

As cars become more high-tech—a trend that’s almost certain to accelerate with the continued development of electric and driverless vehicles—automakers will need to ensure they prevent the circuit boards, processors, and other computer components inside of cars from overheating.

That could mean a business opportunity for Ebullient, a Madison, WI-based startup that makes liquid-based cooling systems for computer equipment. Up to this point, the company has mostly focused on selling its technology to data center operators trying to keep their servers cool. Now, Ebullient’s interim CEO, Dave Trettin, says it is eyeing the automotive industry.

“We always knew automotive was an emerging channel for us,” says Trettin, who says he has served as Ebullient’s interim CEO since April.

Carmakers have traditionally used air cooling to keep infotainment systems and other electronics from running too hot, he says, but some manufacturers are now looking more closely at liquid-based systems. “Computer power is increasing, which is generating larger amounts of heat. Traditional air cooling methodologies are no longer sufficient” in certain settings, Trettin claims.

Ebullient’s previous CEO was Tim Shedd, who co-founded the company in 2013 to commercialize technology he developed while he was an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Shedd is now only serving as Ebullient’s chief technology officer—a title he already held, according to his LinkedIn profile—and he says he’s still involved with Ebullient on a day-to-day basis. However, he’s no longer in Wisconsin. Shedd says he recently joined the faculty at Florida Polytechnic University as an associate engineering professor.

Trettin says he aims to shed the “interim” from his title in the coming weeks. “I think it’s mine for the taking,” he says of the chief executive job at Ebullient. It would be his first official CEO gig.

Nick Boyarski, Ebullient’s chief operating officer, says in an e-mail that the company’s board of directors will appoint a new CEO, likely by the end of October.

Ebullient currently has an eight-person team when counting full-time employees and contractors, says Trettin, who is based in Atlanta. Shedd says that he and others on the team “anticipate keeping Ebullient based in Madison, but we are keeping our options open.”

Trettin declined to reveal the names of Ebullient’s current or prospective customers, citing nondisclosure agreements. However, he says that over the past several months, the startup has met with companies of various sizes to discuss installing liquid cooling systems in vehicles. Some of the firms are based in foreign countries, such as Portugal, he says.

Ebullient currently has six “very large customers” that Trettin says will make up the majority of the company’s sales volume in the short term. It also has about a dozen other customers that place orders less frequently, he says.

Before leaders at Ebullient became interested in selling its systems to companies in the auto industry, the startup mainly concentrated on removing the heat generated by racks of computer servers in data centers. Many tech companies, such as Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) and Facebook (NASDAQ: FB), either own these types of facilities or lease space in them. One of Ebullient’s clients is a hardware manufacturer that counts Facebook as a customer, Trettin says.

With Ebullient’s cooling system, an air-conditioning liquid refrigerant is pumped through tubes to copper plates mounted directly on computer processors. The fluid undergoes a “phase change” by partially boiling into a vapor, which allows more heat to be captured, Trettin says. (The word ebullient means “boiling.”) The heat then continues traveling through tubes until it is released into the surrounding air—either inside or outside of the data center, he says.

The system uses 3M Novec fluid to cool computer components. The 3M-made liquid would not harm any of the equipment in a data center in the event of a leak, which is not the case with water, Trettin says.

Many of the data centers operating today are cooled by large air conditioning units. Ebullient’s system—which comprises a box-shaped fluid distribution unit that can be placed at the bottom of a server rack, tubing, and other equipment—still takes up space. However, it’s generally less space than is needed for an air cooling system, Shedd told Xconomy last year. Part of Ebullient’s sales pitch is that switching to liquid cooling allows data center managers to put more servers in, save energy, and lower their electricity costs.

Several other businesses sell liquid-based cooling products for server rooms, including Calgary, Canada-based CoolIT Systems and Asetek, based in Denmark. Both companies’ systems are water-based, which Trettin says increases the risk of components being damaged or someone getting electrocuted if fluid leaks out. Other approaches include immersing equipment in a mineral oil blend, as Austin, TX-based Green Revolution Cooling does.

Boyarski says that to date, Ebullient has raised a total of $2.7 million in outside equity funding. Trettin says the company is not actively pursuing additional financing, and its plan for now is to grow through revenue and retained earnings. However, “that’s not to say we won’t entertain [the possibility of raising another round] if a big investor came to us,” Trettin says.

According to Boyarski, Ebullient has been granted nine patents and has submitted another 26 applications to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Ebullient’s intellectual property represents a barrier to entry for would-be competitors seeking to develop similar “direct-to-chip” liquid cooling technologies that don’t use water, Trettin says.

Shedd says part of the challenge in ramping up sales for Ebullient and other liquid cooling system vendors is getting organizations to consider an alternative to air.

“In the end, our competitor is just inertia,” he says. “People have been using air [to cool components] since the invention of the computer. [Our goal is] getting people to think differently.”

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