From materials to market
From materials to market
August 19, 2019
The entrepreneurs behind Nanograf Corporation reveal how they built an international company around Northwestern University battery technology
It’s always hard to leave a dream job. But in 2011, Samir Mayekar ’13 KSM ’06 WCAS knew it was the right time to go back to school and take a shot at entrepreneurship. His roles, working at the intersection of national security and energy under the Obama Administration, came to an end and he was eager to make a difference in the clean energy space.
Fast forward to 2019 and a company he founded, NanoGraf Corporation (formerly SiNode Systems), is the maker of an advanced battery material that could turn the lithium-ion battery market – with applications from consumer electronics to electric vehicles – on its head.
“NanoGraf’s battery technology can be used in the same batteries that power Tesla cars, laptops and your cell phone,” says Mayekar. “The main difference is that your device can last up to 50% longer on a single charge.”
NanoGraf’s battery technology can be used in the same batteries that power Tesla cars, laptops and your cell phone. The main difference is that your device can last up to 50% longer on a single charge
When lithium-ion batteries first hit the market in the early 1990s, they were lauded for vastly improving on their predecessors’ portability and energy density, but since then, improvements have plateaued. NanoGraf set out to tackle this problem with their battery tech.
Today, NanoGraf’s proprietary silicon-graphene anodes for lithium-ion batteries demonstrate faster and longer charging capabilities for batteries and use an earth-abundant form of carbon called graphene, which is derived from the same graphite material found in pencil lead.
Mayekar first learned of the technology’s potential in a course called NUvention: Energy. Offered by the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, NUvention:Energy challenges groups of interdisciplinary students – with backgrounds in engineering, business, and law – to develop a compelling business case around university intellectual property. At the start of the class, Mayekar weighed the technical feasibility of various Northwestern technologies with his team member and materials scientist, Joshua Lau, who now leads product development at NanoGraf, and the team quickly reached a consensus.
Silicon-graphene anode technology could extend the range of electric vehicles by 50%
“When we were choosing projects, this technology immediately stood out,” says Mayekar. “At the time, each successive generation of iPhones generated a ton of interest, wearables were just gaining traction, and when the patent for this battery tech was released, it generated a lot of interest among investors.”
It was after his team had chosen their project that Mayekar met Cary Hayner, then a Northwestern PhD student in chemical and biological engineering, who helped invent the technology and served as a technical advisor to the team.
“Working with the team, I could tell right away that they understood the impact that this technology could have on the lithium-ion battery market, and I also recognized their drive to take this as far as they could,” says Hayner, now a co-founder and chief technology officer at NanoGraf.
Working with the team, I could tell right away that they understood the impact that this technology could have on the lithium-ion battery market, and I also recognized their drive to take this as far as they could
As the team gained national support – taking home top prizes and millions of investment dollars from prestigious business competitions – they were simultaneously receiving technical support and mentorship from the technology’s inventors, Harold Kung, professor of chemical and biological engineering and Jiaxing Huang, professor of materials science and engineering, both of whom contributed to developing the silicon graphene anodes in NanoGraf’s technology.
“When we published the paper on the silicon graphene anodes, we received a lot of inquiries from investors around the world,” says Harold H. Kung, Northwestern professor. “However, watching NanoGraf spin the technology out with great success, and being part of the process as a technical advisor, was a very rewarding experience.”
Huang attributes the group’s success to their keen understanding of the long-term energy outlook and their ability to surround themselves with the right people to move the company forward.
“NanoGraf identified a meaningful problem that they wanted to try to solve, built an interdisciplinary team of smart and dedicated students and mentors and systematically broke down obstacles one by one,” says Huang.
Once the members of Mayekar’s team graduated, many committed to working for NanoGraf full-time, securing office space in a technology park in Chicago where the team – now 12 people in total – can work on the technology in a dedicated lab space, and work on the business in the adjacent office space.
Their commitment has come with great reward. In 2016, NanoGraf was awarded US$4 million from Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler, along with the US Department of Energy to develop improved batteries for the electric vehicle market. Recently, Nanograf received an additional US$7.5 million from this consortium, the United States Advanced Battery Consortium LLC (USABC), to continue progress on the commercialization of high-energy anode materials.
Researchers processing battery components in NanoGraf’s lab on Chicago’s South Side
Since the team graduated from Northwestern, NanoGraf has stayed connected to Northwestern, in ways including continuing to work on the technology with Kung’s lab and researchers and hiring Northwestern graduates as both full-time employees and interns.
“I’m proud to say that 70% of NanoGraf’s employees are ‘Wildcats’,” says Mayekar, who also serves as president of the Northwestern Alumni Association.
Potential applications of silicon-graphene anode technology
Mayekar is also back on campus teaching NUvention: Materials Science, a course in the very same series where he met Hayner and the early founders of NanoGraf.
In late 2018, NanoGraf announced a US$5.5 million investment partnership with JNC, a Japanese chemical company. The joint venture will use the new funding to expand commercial production of its silicon- graphene composite anode materials and to continue materials development. As part of the new partnership with JNC, NanoGraf will set up production facilities in Japan, expand distribution channels worldwide, and gain two new research facilities.
The mission has always been to commercialize our graphene technology for a range of applications, from consumer electronics to electric vehicles
“The mission has always been to commercialize our graphene technology for a range of applications, from consumer electronics to electric vehicles,” says Mayekar. “This new partnership will allow us to scale production and deliver larger volumes of materials to our growing customer base. This is exactly what we set out to do as Northwestern students and to see that vision come to fruition is extremely rewarding.”
(Northwestern University has a financial interest in NanoGraf.)
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