NYC-Based Radiator Innovation Wins MIT Clean Tech Prize

When Marshall Cox moved into graduate housing at Columbia University, he immediately ran into a problem that many New York City residents suffer: His apartment was too hot. He couldn't adjust his radiator because all of the heat for the building came from a single steam generator. So the only way he could get some relief was to open a window. Sometimes he got so desperate he turned off the radiator, but then he'd wake up freezing and have to crank it back up again.

As a result of the experience, Cox, who expects to complete his Ph.D. in electrical engineering this year, invented a temperature-regulating slipcover for steam radiators. And on May 1, his company, Radiator Labs, won the MIT Clean Energy Prize and took home $200,000 to help get the business off the ground.

The device was designed to address the core problem with steam heat, which is that it's impossible to distribute evenly. That's because unlike most homes, where the temperature on different floors can be controlled independently, most old apartment buildings have only one "zone," meaning their steam units are programmed to send the same amount of heat to everyone.

The slipcover intelligently controls how much hot air flows into a room. Using electronic sensors that are attached to the cover, the device releases heat into the room via a small fan, based on how much is needed to keep the room at a steady, comfortable temperature. The system needs to be plugged into a power source, but it uses only about six watts of electricity.

The company's research group first tested the technology in the place that inspired it: Cox's apartment. It went so well that the company is now planning a large pilot for the upcoming winter, which will be run in a New York apartment building that has yet to be selected.

The first version of Radiator Labs' device uses a standard wall-mounted thermostat, but the company has big plans for future iterations. Cox is developing a building-wide system that would connect to the Internet and allow apartment residents to control their heat via the Web or their smartphones. The founders plan to market their technology both to building owners and to individual consumers.

Now the company is one of six startups vying for the National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition, a new prize sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Cox will pitch his plan to venture capitalists and energy-industry executives at an event in Washington, D.C., on June 13.