Hyliion team members Thomas Healy, Mario Avila, and Hayden Cardiff stand with their slide-in suspension system prototype. Photo Credit: Melissa C. Lott

On Saturday, a start-up called Hyliion was awarded the U.S. Department of Energy Clean Energy Entrepreneurship prize at the 15th annual Rice Business Plan Competition in Houston.

This Pittsburgh-based and student-led company has developed a slide-in suspension system for tractor-trailers that could reduce fuel use in these trucks by 31%. With an anticipated price tag of just $25,000, this fuel savings is all the more impressive. So much so that the company took home a total of $162,500 in prizes on Saturday. In addition to the DOE prize, they were awarded $10k from Shell, $15k from Wells Fargo, $80k from SURGE Ventures, and $7,500 for their 3rd place overall finish.

The concept behind Hyliion was initially conceived by its Co-Founder Thomas Healy, a current Master’s student in Mechanical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Healy found his love for race car driving when he was just nine years old and, with competitions around the country, he became quickly used to following 18-wheelers full of racing gear down long highways. When his parents gave him a hybrid Honda Civic for his off-track car at the age of sixteen, Healy began to wonder – “why aren’t tractor trailers using hybrid technology?

Fast-forward six years and Healy has paired up with fellow CMU students including Co-Founder Mario Avila and Hayden Cardiff to create a working prototype of their “add-on hybrid module for tractor trailers.” Avila recently completed a dual-masters degree program in mechanical engineering and a CMU-specific program called Engineering & Technology Innovation Management while Hayden Cardiff is working toward his MBA. Today, their team includes another seven CMU students and a group of strategic advisors that includes electric vehicle experts, truck and fleet owners, entrepreneurs, and an astronaut.

Healy and Cardiff present final-round pitch at Rice Business Plan Competition in Houston on Saturday. Photo Credit: Melissa C. Lott

The Hyliion team built their prototype at an off-campus workshop near Carnegie Mellon and maintain all rights to its patent-pending technology. The module is designed to recover energy through regenerative braking, store that energy in a pack of lithium-ion batteries, and then use it later to assist with acceleration and braking, as well as maintaining comfort in the truck’s cab while the vehicle is idle. The system is installed on the rear axel of the trailer and also includes a drag reduction plate.

Healy standing in front of the Hyliion prototype, while showing its intended place on a trailer model. Photo Credit: Melissa C. Lott

While the system is called a “hybrid” module, it is different than the hybrid-electric system that Healy found in his Civic. Specifically, the diesel engine and the electric motor are maintained in two separate parts of the rig and are not directly connected. Furthermore, the electric motor is not used directly for propulsion. Rather, it is designed to assist the truck as it goes up and down hills along the road. Changes in elevation are anticipated and recognized using an on-board computer and proprietary software designed in-house.

Hyliion took 3rd place overall in the Rice Business Plan Competition, behind Brigham Young University’s KiLife Tech and University of Louisville’s Inscope Medical Solutions. The competition itself began in 2001, with a set of 9 student start-up companies competing for $10,000 in prize money. This year, 42 teams from a pool of more than 1,200 applicants competed for upwards of $1.5 million. Judges and mentors also provided multiple rounds of feedback for the teams as they progressed through three days of business plan pitch evaluations.

Business Plan Competition Standings Going into the Final Round of Pitches Photo Credit: Melissa C. Lott