Fast-Growing Stirling Ultracold Sees Bright Future

Kathy Lynn Gray
Neill Lane

A 19th-century engine that's been updated to 21st-century efficiency is helping a young Ohio company become a hot commodity in the world of ultra-low temperature freezers. And that market could be just the beginning of the engine's future.

“What we have done is brought to the market a more reliable, more efficient, more sustainable product,” says Neill Lane, Stirling Ultracold's CEO. He's talking about the company's Stirling Ultracold freezer, sold to laboratories, biorepositories and pharmaceutical companies to store biological materials.

At its heart is the Stirling engine, invented by a Scottish clergyman in 1816 and reengineered in the 20th century into a hermetically sealed free-piston machine that uses helium to eliminate piston breakdown. Engineer Dave Berchowitz moved the technology along and, in 1995, founded Stirling Ultracold to commercialize it.

But in 2009—the year Lane joined the company—Stirling Ultracold found its niche: ultra-low temperature freezers, which it began manufacturing in Athens, Ohio, and selling competitively in 2013.

With sales nearly doubling each of the past three years, the company is poised to become a major player in the $500 million market, says Lane. In 2017, it sold more than 4,000 freezers.

“The plan is to triple our revenues in the next three years, and our goal is to have $100 million in revenue by the end of 2020,” Lane says. Clients include Nationwide Children's Hospital, the University of California system and Pfizer Inc., and it recently began selling freezers in China and Europe.

To increase production, Stirling Ultracold—a division of Global Cooling Inc.—contracted with a Kentucky company in late 2017 to build additional units. The company sells three models: the upright, the shuttle and the undercounter.

In May, the company officially moved its headquarters and about 25 marketing, product design, management and inside-sales employees to Columbus. Stirling engines, as well as some freezer units, still are produced by about 75 workers in a 50,000-square-foot facility in Athens.

One customer, Quidel-Athens DHI, is 15 minutes down the road from Stirling Ultracold's Athens plant. The facility manufactures medical diagnostic kits for its parent company, Quidel, and uses 81 ultra-low temperature freezers. Mick Harris, senior manager of facilities, says Quidel-Athens bought its first Ultracold in 2014 and is gradually replacing all its upright units with Ultracold freezers.

“I know they use one-third of the energy as the old units,” he says. “They're environmentally friendly and they sit there and chug along day in and day out.”

Bill Baumel, managing director of the Ohio Innovation Fund, also has been impressed with the technology. Traditional ultra-low temperature freezers are powered by compressors, which need oil for lubrication. Ultracold freezers have bearings supported by helium so there's no wear on their pistons. “Competing technology can never match [Stirling Ultracold's] underlying platform technology,” he says “It just blows the competition away.”

The fund, created by Ohio State University and Ohio University, invested $1 million in Stirling Ultracold in 2016. More recently, the fund facilitated a bank deal to provide debt capital of nearly $5 million to the company.

Other external validation includes being recognized in 2017 by AEP Ohio for energy efficiency and by distributor VWR as its supplier of the year.

He expects Stirling Ultracold to eventually have a 25- to 30-percent share of the ultra-low temperature freezer market, a market that is growing as medical advances are made.

But that won't be Stirling Ultracold's only market. The company's Stirling engine technology could be adapted to many other uses, Lane says, including home refrigerators, cooling for electronics and both heating and cooling homes. Neither Lane nor Baumel will talk specifics when it comes to future products, but Baumel says the company will continue to innovate in its market and adjacent markets as part of its strategic plan.

“We really have a team in place that can help us scale the company dramatically,” he says. “This company is innovating and growing revenue at the same level as companies in Silicon Valley.”

Kathy Lynn Gray is a freelance writer.

Stirling Ultracold

580 N. Fourth St., Suite 220, Columbus 43215 (headquarters); 6000 Poston Road, Athens 43201 (manufacturing)

About: Manufacturer of ultra-low temperature freezers

Owner: Privately held

CEO: Neill Lane

Employees: 100