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UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering

Jacobs School alum charges startup to $1 million prize

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 Richard Whitney, co-founder of SparkCharge; Joshua Aviv, CEO of SparkCharge; and Christopher Ellis, CTO of SparkCharge and a Jacobs School alumnus. Photo courtesy of 43North.

San Diego, CA, October 15, 2018 -- A startup with a Jacobs School alumnus as its CTO won the $1 million grand prize at 43North, the startup pitch competition with the largest prize pool in the U.S. Christopher Ellis, a 2017 electrical and computer engineering graduate, is the CTO of SparkCharge, which is developing a portable electric vehicle charging system that can fit in the trunk of a car, to make distance limitations on electric cars a thing of the past. 

“I couldn't have done it without the support and training I received while a student at UC San Diego,” said Ellis. “The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Gordon Center for Engineering Leadership, and the Jacob's school as a whole did a phenomenal job preparing me for this role.”

Ellis worked at Lockheed Martin after graduation, and was soon roped into a side project by a friend who needed help building a prototype.

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Ellis and Albert P. Pisano, Dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering.

“I started coming in on weekends, which turned into every other day, which quickly turned into a second job,” Ellis said. “In January 2018 I decided to leave Lockheed and moved to Boston to work full time for the startup company.  Given my background in power electronics and manufacturing, I was promoted to CTO to oversee product design and development.”

That startup was, of course, SparkCharge, whose goal is to reduce the range anxiety created by insufficient electric vehicle charging stations. Their portable charger has battery modules and a converter module, which are stacked together and plugged into the vehicle to charge it.

“We developed the power electronics required to plug multiple battery packs together, at any charge state, and use them to charge the electric vehicle,” Ellis said. “We also developed a custom DC-DC converter that can transfer high power (20kW) in a form factor smaller than a desktop computer.”

The company says it’s developing a relationship with AAA to carry its chargers to recharge electric cars that run out of power, and envisions electric car owners keeping a charger in their vehicle, as well.

This isn’t Ellis’ first foray with leadership. As a student, he led the power systems team on the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space’s (SEDS) cube satellite project; was the president of the UC San Diego branch of IEEE; and was a Gordon Scholar and Gordon Fellow. While classes taught him the technical knowledge required for this position, he said it was these extracurricular, project-based activities that really prepared him for a job of this magnitude.

“Classes taught me the raw knowledge, but projects gave me experience and lessons while applying knowledge,” he said. “Becoming an officer in an organization helps build leadership and public speaking skills, which are both critical in an engineer's career. Having confidence speaking to large groups of engineers and knowing how to work with a large team are extremely important.”

Ellis said there are too many people to thank for helping him grow his career so quickly, but gave a special shoutout to Ebonee Williams, director of the Gordon Center for Engineering Leadership; Truong Nguyen, professor and chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Charles Tu, professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Reza Esmaili, lecturer in the Jacobs School of Engineering.

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Alex Gress, president of 43North; Richard Whitney, co-founder of SparkCharge; Christopher Ellis, CTO of SparkCharge; Joshua Aviv, CEO of SparkCharge; Kathy Hochul, New York Lieutant Governor; Eric Reich, 43North board chair; and Bill Maggio, past chairman of the 43North board.

“I’m very proud of Chris for this great accomplishment,” Nguyen said. “We’ve been working to introduce more hands-on, project-based courses to the electrical and computer engineering curriculum to prepare students for industry and graduate school, and it’s gratifying to see and hear this feedback. I’m excited to see what’s next for Chris and SparkCharge.”

Ellis’ advice to current students who might want follow in his footsteps in a few years?

“Get involved. Join a student org. Become an officer in that organization. Join a team project,” he said. “Those experiences are invaluable in giving you a leg up on other students in your shoes. But most importantly, don't just do those things for resume padding-- do it for the real life skills and lessons learned along the way.”

43North is a $5 million startup competition based in Buffalo, NY. It started as part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative to attract talent to Buffalo. Each year, one team wins a grand prize of $1 million; seven teams win $500,000; and $500,000 is allocated for follow-on funding.

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