17. Phononic

Quietly cool

Founder: Tony Atti (CEO)
Launched: 2009
Headquarters: Durham, North Carolina
$161 million
Valuation: $284 million (PitchBook)
Key technologies:
Heating and cooling

George Kavallines | CNBC

Phononic is a semiconductor manufacturer that has developed new solid-state cooling and refrigeration technology that displaces compressors, heat sinks and fans — ancient, energy-inefficient technology that's been around for more than 100 years. The Durham, N.C.-based company, launched in 2009, started by selling medical refrigerators used in labs and hospitals. Phononic replaced the compressor with solid-state technology and nontoxic refrigerants to give medical facilities smarter, more precise refrigeration with 40% more storage space.

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Last year that technology really took off when the company partnered with Thermo Fisher Scientific as the exclusive supplier for its life sciences and health-care solid-state refrigeration and freezer products. Phononic founder and CEO, Tony Atti, the former director of boutique private-equity firm MHI Energy Partners, claims his company's units are nearly silent and use about 25% less energy than a traditional refrigerator.

That's attractive to food and beverage companies like Pepsi Bottling, one of Pepsi's biggest distributors. Last year the bottling company installed Phononic refrigerators at the end of aisles and near registers in some North Carolina supermarkets and convenience stores and compared sales at stores where the beverages were in large refrigerators near the back of the store. The Phononic refrigerators had better sales, and now Pepsi Bottling is using them throughout the country.

So far Phononic, with 140 employees, has raised close to $160 million from Oak Investment Partners, Venrock Associates and Tsing Capital, among others. Eventually, the company wants to get into commercial and residential cooling so that it can alleviate some of the load on local power grids. It's testing that in Singapore right now in partnership with Temasek-EcoSperity.

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