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The energy behind renewable energy at U of L

By Grace Schneider, Courier Journal

Hank Conn, businessman, benefactor, and a driving force for renewable energy research at the University of Louisville. (Photo: Alton Strupp/The Courier-Journal)

Shortly after Hank Conn and his wife pledged millions of dollars to start a renewable energy research center at the University of Louisville six years ago, the reaction was swift and unexpected.

Letters of thanks and congratulations filled the Conns' mailbox in suburban Atlanta, but critics who sensed competition for Kentucky's coal industry were brutal, telling the couple to stay home and go back to Georgia.

The head of the state's powerful coal trade group skeptically wondered if the endeavor would fail for Kentucky's lack of wind and sunlight.

In Hank Conn's view, the naysayers misunderstood the vision for creating a launch pad for speeding up technologies to transform energy around the globe.

While many in Louisville and the state wondered who Conn was and whether the effort would fade into the recesses of academia, two companies recently spun from U of L are seen as a first blast of the "big idea" hatched by a guy who grew up a mile or so from campus in Germantown.

"This is really exciting. I couldn't be more proud," Conn said of the startups.

Like the skeptics who questioned whether an alternative energy center could take off in Louisville, Conn's equally direct in saying the state of Kentucky – despite legislation in 2006 to create a center and promises to support the effort – hasn't delivered a dime.

"No funding whatsoever," Conn said during a lengthy interview last month while in Louisville.

At Ernst Hall, Speed's chemical engineering building on Eastern Parkway, "theme leaders" and graduate research fellows experiment with nano-particles, energy storage and solar technology. The research is led by Mahendra Sunkara, a chemical engineering professor and an advanced materials authority whose new company, Advanced Materials, is one of two companies developed at the center using a catalyst to strip polluting sulfur from diesel fuel.

A second business, Bert Thin Films, is showing promise for replacing silver with far cheaper copper in solar panels. Together, they've won more than $ 2.2 million in state and federal innovation grants.

Conn, 74, a retired business consultant, executive coach and author, left Louisville four decades ago, but he feels indebted to the Speed School and described his wish to give back in the most meaningful way by advancing new science and technology that may someday bear fruit in high-paying jobs.

"Speed School taught me how to think. It also gave me confidence. It was a bear," Conn said, comparing it to a death march where 440 started and 80 graduated five years later. He and 22 other mechanical engineers survived.

Although he'd regularly donated to U of L, he and Rebecca increased the contribution in 2000 by creating an endowment to support PhD candidate scholars. They have donated $100,000 a year from various retirement accounts, but in 2009 they committed $20 million — "our entire net worth" then, Conn said.

It was the largest gift to the institution before the late Owsley Brown Frazier's $24 million eclipsed it. Though the couple first discussed remaining anonymous, U of L officials asked them to allow make their gift — and their wishes for the center — a more public proposition.

Conn told U of L President James Ramsey and former Speed Dean Mickey Wilhelm that whether or not his name was attached to the center, he wanted a hand in what would unfold there.

In the last five years, that's meant meeting with researchers, questioning their work and their goals for the projects. The university's core mission of teaching and research is laudable, Conn said, but when a scientist discovers a rare idea to "leapfrog" existing technology, they need to commercialize it.

The marketplace is starving for innovations to replace energy powered by fossil fuels, and much of the development is at a "rudimentary stage."

The center after its launch was old school, too, he said. "When we first started it was just a bunch of scientists writing research papers…and moving on. I thought, 'We're not going to run this this way.' "

Undeniably, it's taken time, Ramsey said.

"Kentucky has always been an energy-based state because of coal. U of L has never had the talent or expertise in fossil fuels that the University of Kentucky has had. What Hank's gift did is to allow us to develop talent and an expertise beyond what we had," he said.

Thad Druffel, a professor whose co-owner of startup Bert Thin Films which is working to replace silver with copper in solar cells, said Conn's technical expertise and understand of business is an unusual combination.

His "hard questions" about the basis for Druffel's new company have been invaluable. "He's going to try to find the holes. That's been very helpful for me. He's always asking, 'What value do we bring and how to we leverage that?"

"More than money, he's giving us the gift of his time and the gift of his knowledge," Druffel said. "We're fortunate he's still around."

Modest beginnings

Henry P. "Hank" grew up on Reasor Avenue near Manual Stadium. His father was an accountant at Brown and Williamson. His mother, a country girl from Tennessee, listened to opera, read avidly and pushed her second son — her "miracle child" due to difficulties becoming pregnant — to make a mark on the world.

Conn, an all-state football player at Male High, was scouting the St. Xavier team one night when he and a friend offered their school's cheerleading captain, Becky Logsdon, a ride home with her girlfriend.

Hank & Rebecca Conn, 2010

Rebecca climbed out of Conn's father's two-toned '57 Chevy at her friend's house, declining a ride home to the Beechmont neighborhood with two guys she'd just met. "I didn't know them," Rebecca Conn recalled, so she called her father Ray to pick her up.

"She was adorable," Conn said of his future wife, and double dates blossomed into a romance with the class of 1959's salutatorian. The pair married two years later while Conn was working his way through Speed. Their daughter Leigh Ann arrived 18 month later.

Seeking global responsibility

Conn hired on a process engineer at Ford Motor where he'd worked as a co-op student. Promotions followed as he went to night school at U of L for an MBA in 1969 and a mechanical engineering master's three years later.

"He was a ball of energy," recalled Rosemarie Tyler, who worked with Conn in the early '70s at Ford and credits him with saving her job during a mass layoff.

When a mentor predicted Conn would spend 20 years climbing Ford's ranks, Conn jumped at a chance to leave. "I wanted global responsibility," he said.

Stints followed at tractor and equipment maker Allis-Chalmers in Milwaukee, Siemens-Allis in Atlanta, TRW Inc. in Cleveland; and global management consulting firm A.T. Kearney. He co-authored two books on management and workplace culture.

In early 1984, Conn and NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton formed a consulting business, Tarkenton Conn and Co. Tarkenton and Conn split after taking a company public, and neither cared to talk at length about their experiences.

"You part ways. You part ways amicably," Von Hatley, a friend who worked at Kearney with Conn, said of the pair as business partners.

Hatley watched Conn coach executives and lead them through strategic plans. His down-to-earth style established trust from skeptical, often egotistical executives. "He's got a level of sincerity you don't find a lot," said Hatley, managing director of Jones Walker Consulting in Baton Rouge.

And big-picture lenses. "He sees where organizations should be decades out."

Today, in retirement, the Conns are tied to their adopted hometown and happily live 3 miles from their son and his family. They travel often to Louisville for Hank Conn to attend quarterly meetings of the Speed's Board of Industrial Advisors, a group of engineers and business people which advises the dean and faculty.

Conn's role now includes helping the U of L Foundation raise money and recruit donors to the Conn Legacy Society, an organization named for the Conns that recognizes people leave portions of their estate.

Some people love music and designate it for the music school, or for medical research, he said. "I tell them (potential donors) to give to what they're passionate about. This is my passion."

Reporter Grace Schneider can be reached at 502-582-4082. Follow her on Twitter @gesinfk.

Hank and Rebecca Conn's Gifts

•$1.5 million to endow a director's chair at Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research, which paid $84,574 in 2013-14.

•$315,000 to endow Rebecca L. and Henry P. Conn Graduate Fellowships — $19,698 paid in stipends for four graduate fellowships, matched with $39,800 in state's Bucks for Brains program in 2014.

•$33,542 for one Conn Center environmental stewardship fellowship in 2014.

•$20 million — the estimated value of annual gifts plus the couple's estates upon their deaths. Last year, they provided $172,000 under their annual commitment to fund the Conn Center.

•$50,000 as a direct gift to fund the Leigh Ann Conn Prize, named in memory of the Conns' late daughter Leigh Ann who died in 2011. It recognizes achievements in advancing renewable energy. First biennial award last year went to Swiss chemist Michael Graetzel who discovered a new way to make solar cells.

•$20,000 for each winner of a shark-tank type competition now being formulated to boost students who come up with great ideas for a new businesses.

Source: University of Louisville Foundation records and Hank Conn.

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