(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a four-part series spotlighting the “Innovation Crossroads” initiative at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Founders of the three companies that relocated to the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region to grow their energy-focused start-ups.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Anna Douglas was so interested in being part of the inaugural cohort of the “Innovation Crossroads” (IC) program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) that she not only suspended work on her doctorate, but she also suspended a National Science Foundation (NSF) Fellowship.
One might say that is true commitment.
The native of a suburb of Cleveland, OH native moved to another Cleveland, in this case the one in Tennessee, for her undergraduate education at Lee University. It was a really good fit for the competitive tennis player; she earned a tennis scholarship and also majored in science.
During an undergraduate internship at the NASA Glenn Research Center in her hometown, Douglass says she got passionate about materials science and nanomaterials Those interests led her to Vanderbilt University to pursue her doctorate, and they are what caused her to apply for the IC experience.
“I did not go to graduate school to become an entrepreneur,” Douglas says. However, she quickly discovered there is “something really rewarding about seeing a product that results from your work,” and made a conscious decision that focusing on her research in the context of a startup was worth the risks.
After meeting ORNL’s Tom Rogers during a visit he made to Vanderbilt, Douglas decided to apply for the IC. Her company is SkyNano Technologies.
“My project is very experimental, and the experimental tools and resources offered at ORNL are unparalleled in the region,” she explains.
As she explained to us, carbon nanotubes have tremendous opportunities as conductive battery additives because of their conductivity, high surface area, and aspect ratio. The challenge in using them is their cost which can range from $100 per kilogram to as much as $50,000 per kilogram, depending on the quality of the nanotubes and purity of the mix.
In January 2016, Douglas began looking at using a carbon dioxide reduction technique to make very valuable structures from carbon. Now, some two years later, she says, “If we can hit our technical milestones, we’re onto something.”
The researcher turned entrepreneur recently submitted applications for two Small Business Innovation Research grants – one to the U.S. Department of Energy and the other to NSF. She’s also assembled an advisory board, held her first meeting of the group, and developed a plan for additional staff who will be coming onboard as part of the IC.
By the time her work at ORNL ends in the latter part of 2019, Douglas hopes to have perfected a technology that results in a salable product. And, if all goes as planned, there could also be a nontraditional facility in the area making these more affordable carbon nanotubes.