Over more than four decades in business, Walt Thorn has sold surgical instruments, transportation services and even water slides.
He’s founded 22 companies and owned eight more, has sold a few and kept a few, and is always looking for gaps in the market to fill.
“I’m an operator,” Thorn said. “I build companies, I build businesses.”
Now 66, he thinks he’s on to a kind of career-capping venture that could bring dozens, or even hundreds, of jobs to the Lowcountry if it works out.
“This is the biggest thing we’ve ever touched,” he said last week at the North Charleston offices of Absolutely Charleston, his most visible project. “This thing has billions of dollars in potential.”
Thorn, a clean-cut Southern salesman with the accent to match, was talking about his latest company’s plan to use metal hydride technology to overhaul the way people store and use energy.
HY-STOR Technologies’ first proposed project is a generator that absorbs hydrogen molecules in heat exchanger coils filled with metal dust and then releases those molecules into a turbine when heated, creating power.
“We’re just using hydrogen as the fuel,” said Thorn, wearing a blue button-down shirt featuring his new company’s logo. “We’re just replacing the diesel fuel with hydrogen. How it all works is the tricky part.”
That and the tricky business of convincing backers to invest several million dollars to commercialize the concept.
In October, Hy-Stor signed a letter of intent to acquire a New Jersey research and development firm that has patented several applications of the hydrogen-power technology. But to buy Ergenics, the six-person R&D outfit, and then to get the heat-exchanger manufacturing operation up and going, Hy-Stor needs $12.5 million.
If and when the capital comes through, Thorn plans to move the Ergenics lab to Charleston and start making the generator, first in Clover, near Rock Hill, most likely, but eventually in the Charleston area if Thorn.
“It doesn’t matter where we start off, we’re going to end up here,” he said.
That would follow Thorn’s life trajectory.
A Morristown, Tenn., native and University of Tennessee graduate, Thorn’s first worked as a medical salesman — semi-synthetic penicillin, then surgical stitches, heart monitors and more.
Thorn eventually made his way to the Lowcountry but left for Atlanta in 1988 a year before Hurricane Hugo. “That was a good time to be gone,” he mused.
A job as a medical practice manager brought him back to the Holy City in 2000, but his company folded shortly thereafter. That’s when he bought the Absolutely Charleston tour bus business, gussied up its fleet of vehicles and grew it into a full-service hospitality company that does weddings, transportation and event work, including for its around-the-corner neighbor, Boeing. Dreamliner memorabilia adorns Thorn’s office walls and shelves.
Absolutely Charleston was Thorn’s entree into the cruise ship business. By the time he sold his Cruise Services USA to global giant Intercruises in 2010, the company served as the ground handler for six companies in seven U.S. ports and employed some 500 people.
It was in part to get his son Mark, who was working for Intercruises in Miami, back in Charleston that Thorn started Lightning Bugz, which rents little electric cars on Charleston-area barrier islands, in 2009. And it was while searching for a better battery for the Lightning Bugz that Thorn happened upon Ergenics.
“All my stuff strings together,” Thorn said, smiling.
He placed an order for the hydrogen batteries while also deciding there was a bigger business opportunity to be had. And so about a year and a half ago, Thorn assembled a team of Charlestonians and outsiders to form Hy-Stor, of which he is chief operating officer
“This is a base business I can do other things with,” he said. “That’s just a formula that’s worked for me.”
In addition to the hydride generator, Hy-Stor’s future product suite includes a hydride-powered air-conditioning compressor and metal hydride industrial battery.
“It’s unlimited what we can do,” using hydrogen as a fuel source, he said.
While Thorn says storing hydrogen is not new, “The act of using it as a working fluid is the big deal.”
In case of the generator, gaseous hydrogen is introduced into the vacuum-sealed heat-exchanger system and enters the coils and bonds with the metal shavings there, sort of like a sponge absorbing water, according to Thorn.
When the system is heated, say by solar-heated water or natural gas, the hydrogen molecules are released through a turbine, which powers whatever device it’s hooked to. The hydrogen molecules then return to a cool set of coils before feeding again into the original heat exchanger. This cycle would happen 60 times per second, he said.
Thorn believes his generator could run in homes but also in industrial settings like natural gas pumping stations where it would get its heat from the waste heat of the pumping engines.
“They basically get to unplug off the grid,” he said.
Ergenics has begun work on a $2 million Department of Energy grant to develop the generator while waiting to see if a move to Charleston will work out.
“That’s where they want to be,” Thorn said. Moving the lab here would bring an estimated 30 jobs in addition to the six transplants. As for the manufacturing plant, “my goal would be to have a couple hundred jobs in less than two years,” he said.
In the meantime, Thorn, his co-founder and a couple of small investors have been funding Hy-Stor’s business development activities.
“We should’ve been funded six months ago,” he said. “It’s a very difficult capital market right now.”
There’s hope, however. Last month, Hy-Stor signed a $10 million deal with Austin, Texas-based Builder Power to distribute some 1.3 million Hy-Stor “Tri-Generation Home Energy Systems,” which would include the hydride air compressors and batteries.
The S.C. Research Authority accepted Hy-Stor as an S.C. Launch company about a month ago, and Thorn hopes that will lend his project credibility and lead to more investment contacts. And he’s got a meeting with the Ted Turner Foundation later this month in Atlanta.
“Everything is in place,” Thorn said. “There is no ramp-up time once the money comes. We could be in business tomorrow literally.”
And then it’s off to the races, according to Thorn. “Once we get that, we will never look for another dollar.”
Until then, he’s looking for 12.5 million of them.
Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_ brendan.