Kathleen McLaughlin
The Bulletin

Growing up among Northwest Coast Native American relatives who survive by fishing in Alaska and Canada, engineering student Richard Roth said he always questioned the need for hydroelectric dams.

So Roth jumped at the chance to work with BladeRunner Energy, a Bend company that bills its hydrokinetic technology as an alternative to dams and their negative effect on ecology. “The turbine — it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” said Roth, a U.S. Air Force veteran who previously worked on jet engines.

Like other hydrokinetics companies, BladeRunner uses a rotor placed in running water to capture power, similar to a wind turbine. But BladeRunner’s founders believe their elongated spiral design, licensed from Pax Scientific, is more energy-efficient and wildlife-friendly than competitors’ designs.

BladeRunner has gathered about $1.25 million in federal grants and angel investors’ money to develop the technology, and those backers will soon want to see a prototype in action, Chief Technology Officer Moriel Arango said. “Getting this into the water, for all of us, that’s the most important milestone to hit.”

Arango has help from Roth and another Central Oregon Community College student, Noah Park, who designed a flotation device to house BladeRunner’s generator and power electronics. In other hydrokinetic systems, those components are submerged under water, which drives up the cost, Arango said.

BladeRunner is trying to create a system that could be used in irrigation canals in remote areas, such as southeastern Oregon, or in rivers in South America, where many communities aren’t connected to the national grid, Arango said.

At an installed price of less than $3,000 per kilowatt, BladeRunner’s main competitor in the United States is solar while in South America, it’s diesel generators, Arango said.

The system has to be easy to install and maintain for people who don’t have access to equipment or power sources, Roth said. He and Park want to build generator housing that would withstand a blow from an entire tree floating downstream.

On top of the technical challenges, alternative energy and hardware startups have to compete for funding from investors who are more interested in the size of returns they see in the software industry, said Vanessa Margolis, portfolio director at VertueLab in Portland.

Formerly called Oregon Best, VertueLab is an economic development organization for clean technology startups.

Arango made a breakthrough with investors in 2017 when he pitched BladeRunner at the Bend Venture Conference and won the Early Stage competition. The BVC award was $17,500, and it motivated an angel investor in California to make an even larger investment, he said.

By January, BladeRunner had enough cash that Arango could leave his day job to work for the company full time.

The Bend Venture Conference also led Arango to the Cascadia CleanTech Accelerator. At the end of that program, BladeRunner was awarded a $55,000 proof-of-concept grant in conjunction with Oregon State University-Cascades.

“We’re so happy to be able to help someone who’s working on such a meaningful project in town,” said Rebecca Webb, energy systems engineering program lead at OSU-Cascades. Her students will take measurements of an irrigation canal bed and make calculations to help BladeRunner find the place where its device can generate the most energy. Meanwhile energy systems engineering instructor Kyle Webb’s students will work on a microgrid connecting BladeRunner’s system to the power grid.

Arango hopes to run pilot tests in one of Central Oregon’s irrigation canals next year and that more private investment, and ultimately, a commercial product will follow.

BladeRunner wants to have its headquarters, engineering and assembly in Central Oregon, Arango said. The company’s other two co-founders worked on the project for several years from California before bringing Arango in. Winning at the Bend Venture Conference was a turning point for the company, he said.

“It also showed us there was this warm reception in Oregon to what we were doing.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7860, kmclaughlin@bendbulletin.com