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The future is BRITE: Energy tech advancements in the Mahoning Valley

Career opportunities and emerging technologies call boomerangs home
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Michael Drenski grew up in Trumbull County. At 24, he graduated from Youngstown State with a bachelor’s degree in physics. Because of a lack of opportunity here, he left. 

His next step was attending grad school in New Orleans at Tulane University. A lot of the work he and his colleagues had been doing in the energy tech sector attracted a great deal of attention from the chemical industry. After graduating, he co-founded and led a university research center.

Drenski continued that work until 2012, when he spun that research into a successful start-up company, Fluence Analytics, also based in Louisiana. He ran that up until June of this year and continues to be affiliated with the company.

Because he’d been living over 1,000 miles away, coming home was a rare treat reserved for holidays. But the distance—and the demands of running and growing a company—took him away from family and friends for too long; he wanted to be closer to them.

In 2020, as was the case for many, things slowed down at work. Drenski was able to come back to Ohio more regularly. “We were up here quite often and realized that we were able to work remotely for the company without actually having to go in every single day. That helped us make our decision that now is a good opportunity to head back home and set up,” he says.

The company he’d started would also be relocating to Houston, so it was truly the perfect time for Drenski to make the move. After two decades away, he moved back to Northeast Ohio.

He looked forward to starting new things and getting involved with local energy sector projects. “I was looking into different projects and opportunities in Northeast Ohio and I found out that BRITE is doing quite a few interesting things in Warren with the research and start-up companies. It was actually a very good fit for a lot of the things I’ve been doing for the past 15 years.”

His career has certainly been impressive. A lot of the work he has done over the years has been in polymerization reaction and characterization techniques, much of that in the energy tech sector. He has worked to improve efficiency in the polymer industry and the techniques that are used to make better polymers.

“We’re not going to get away from polymers, we’ve kind of already settled on that,” Drenski explains. “The best we can do now is to improve the way we’re doing it so that we’re not wasting so much money, so many materials and producing a lot of waste.”

Several emerging technologies are being worked on right here in the community. There’s a big push right now with batteries at the Lordstown plant. Congressman Tim Ryan has been working for a long time to get sustainable manufacturing back in Northeast Ohio, Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley. 

In fact, years ago, Drenski and his colleagues were in Washington, D.C. accepting an award. Congressman Ryan was there giving a speech about the new energy sector and how to improve manufacturing. It immediately sparked Drenski’s interest because he was clearly doing a lot of interesting things to try to help the Northeast Ohio area. 

“I was like wow, things are actually starting to take place up here, because back in the early 2000s, when I was leaving, there wasn’t much, unfortunately, for somebody with a physics degree graduating out of Youngstown State. It was like, well, there’s not much to do because there’s not a lot of opportunity up here, so what’s the next step?” he says.

Earlier this summer he started working as a technical lab consultant at BRITE Energy Innovators, a non-profit energy tech incubator in Warren known to be a landing place for new ideas and moving the community forward. BRITE gives a lot of support to the tech industry in general—not just specifically energy tech. 

The company is hoping to help out start-ups working on energy technologies with emerging battery technique, “just because a lot of that stuff’s here in the Northeast Ohio area now,” he says. A lot of the batteries are using polymer films and the materials that go into these research projects are coming from the chemical industry, so Drenski hopes to help improve those techniques as well. One of his roles is to see where else they can help improve efficiency and energy consumption overall.

“The lab at BRITE contains hardware and equipment that is extremely expensive and difficult to get a hold of,” he says. “What we’re offering is the ability for start-up companies with limited funds to do research projects that they would otherwise not be able to do. Normally they’re relying solely on subsidies from the government and grants to help them out.”

The lab allows start-up companies to actually get off the ground and not have to worry about using all of the money they were just awarded to do these research projects. It is especially useful for testing batteries, grid interactive devices and smart devices.

Another bonus of working with a start-up incubator like BRITE is that they are extremely helpful and offer valuable mentorship; they have gone through this process before and can help those who are new to it. “They’ve got great ideas and grand visions,” says Drenski, “it’s just that a lot of us are coming out of the education system without a big picture of how the industrial system works. That’s, in a general sense, what the laboratory is for.”

The community can look forward to several quality-of-life improvements as a result, including fewer power outages and exciting new technologies such as electric vehicles. Drenski also believes this kind of work can improve the commodities available for people and help move us away from waste, consumption and pollution. 

“We’re doing pretty good here in Northeast Ohio, but I lived in the south for 20 years and I saw a lot of impoverished places where people could use a lot of improvement in their living conditions. I think the only way we’re really going to do that is just to bring everybody up overall,” he says.

Drenski is definitely pleased with the direction things seem to be taking currently.

“After the number of years that I was away, and the unfortunate stigma that I had with the Northeast Ohio area in manufacturing with Packard, GM and Lordstown—all the layoffs and everything that was going on—I’m very happy and impressed with all of the things that they’ve been able to do recently, trying to bring manufacturing and technology back to the space, as opposed to hey, we’re just going to build cars,” he says.

“There’s something else we can do in this area to use the intelligence and the capabilities of this manufacturing town. If you grew up here, everybody in this area has it ingrained in them to build and do things; that’s why I think it’s so hard for people to move on from building cars and doing what their parents and grandparents did.”

He hopes to open the eyes of younger generations to the fact that there are many other things to for them to do. They can go out and explore new industries and new job sources and make a better living for themselves. 

Many who left for professional development are once again coming home. Drenski is one of several successful professionals who have returned to the Mahoning Valley after spending decades elsewhere, thanks in large part to the career opportunities and emerging technologies in the community. 

“When I started out at BRITE, I wanted to build something that gave people a reason to stay in the valley, come home to the valley, or come to the valley and fall in love with the opportunity to be here for the first time. Mike is a great fit for what we are continuing to build, and he and folks like him will help accelerate our continued growth as an organization and region," says Rick Stockburger, President and CEO.

BRITE Energy Innovators was founded in 2010 as the state’s only energy incubator, serving entrepreneurs and start-up companies in the energy sector. They are a third space for industry, academia and inventors to come together and build a more resilient energy future. The company is located in Warren because they believe this is a community that has great ideas and builds them. While their mission is focused on supporting energy innovation in Ohio, their reach is nationwide. 

For more information, visit BRITE Energy Innovators.
 

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