The NASA Alum Who Turned A Discarded 19th-Century Idea Into a $280 Million Startup

Phononic CEO Tony Atti grins as the company’s chief engineer holds up a black box the size of a mailbox at their headquarters in Durham, North Carolina. The box provides all the power to heat and cool a smart mattress, thanks to Phononic’s chips that send heat-regulating currents to the high-tech bed. The alternative, using conventional heating and cooling fans, had been about 100 times as large, taking up almost more space than the mattress itself.

 “We absolutely want to be known as that core cooling engine inside that makes it all work,” says Atti. Investors including Venrock, GGV Capital and Nest cofounder Tony Fadell, a board member, bought into that idea, staking $159 million at a recent valuation of around $280 million, according to Pitchbook. Forbes estimates it generated $10 million in revenue last year thanks to sales of cooling components, refrigerators and freezers. The company declined to comment on its sales.

Winning the mattress maker Bryte Labs for his “Phononic Inside” pitch was a coup for Atti, 45. A former NASA scientist turned venture capitalist, Atti had spent the last decade trying to convince industrial firms that Phononics’ lithe solid-state cooling units could be used to keep medicine and food cold more cheaply and reliably than traditional refrigerators that used noisy and bulky mechanical compressors and pollutants like freon. He hadn’t always won.

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