UT researcher named 30 Under 30

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Charlie Upshaw, mechanical engineering postdoctoral fellow, was recently named a Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient in energy. 

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Webber Energy Group

Charlie Upshaw was pleasantly surprised when he opened an email this January to find that Forbes had named him one of their 30 Under 30 recipients.

The 30 Under 30 award recognizes innovative and entrepreneurial individuals enacting change in their community. Forbes recognized Upshaw, a mechanical engineering postdoctoral fellow, for his work in energy research.

For his postdoctoral research, Upshaw designed a home system that collects and cools rainwater during the night to help reduce air conditioning energy loads during the daytime. Upshaw said he wants to build smart residential buildings capable of efficient energy use.

“What I see is a move towards smarter, more self-sufficient buildings,” Upshaw said. “I think that the older model of meeting demand only through centralized infrastructure will change over the next several decades.”

Upshaw said he has been talking with local companies about commercialization of his invention while continuing development.

“I was born and raised in Austin. I have an inherent sense for the summertime heat and the potential for drought,” Upshaw said. “That’s a huge motivation for working on the rainwater system.”

Joshua Rhodes, also a mechanical engineering postdoctoral fellow, described Upshaw’s invention, which is currently housed at the Pickle Research Campus, as a battery for thermal energy instead of electricity.

“He’s built a residential sized energy storage system … that you can use to air condition your house during the afternoon so you don’t have to be pulling electricity from the grid,” Rhodes said.

Upshaw was nominated for the award by mechanical engineering professor Michael Webber. He, Rhodes and Upshaw co-founded a consulting and research company called IdeaSmiths in 2013 to support advances in local technology.

Upshaw said IdeaSmiths started as a reaction to community demand for research consultation. Webber, Rhodes and Upshaw had done some consulting projects outside of their routine research, but ultimately formed an official company when film studio Paramount came to Austin to work on “Transformers 4” and needed a wind turbine as a prop.

Upshaw said companies and individuals come to IdeaSmiths to brainstorm and test concepts.

“Our main focus is in start-ups in water and technology,” he said. “If an inventor has a technology that has a question about how it works on a fundamental level, we check up on it.”

Rhodes added that there’s no shortage of talent in Austin.

“Particularly in Austin, there’s a ton of ideas and a ton of people with money who are trying to link up with people with ideas,” Rhodes said.

According to Forbes senior editor Chris Helman, the selection process is lengthy and competitive.

“I had a really nice conversation with (Charlie) during the nomination process, and I thought he was a very good nominee for us,” Helman said. “Only 4 percent of people who are nominated end up making the final cut … It’s still a very hard award to win for sure.”

Helman said the combination of Upshaw’s inventiveness, drive for commercialization and community involvement represented the ideals that Forbes looks for when selecting recipients for the 30 Under 30 award.

“We’re very much looking for self-starting individuals who have entrepreneurial spirit,” Helman said. “We are about entrepreneurs, people who are go-getters trying to create something out of nothing. That’s who Charlie is. He’s an inventor always trying to come up with
new ideas.”