(EDITOR’S NOTE: Participants in Cohort 2 of the “Innovation Crossroads” program operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory have completed their two-year fellowship that was extended a few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What did they expect? How was the experience? What’s next? This is the final article in a series that provides those answers. Today’s spotlight is on Don ReRosa, Chief Technology Officer at Eonix. His lightly edited responses follow.)
- When you arrived nearly two years ago, how would you characterize the expectations that you had as far as the work that needed to be done during your Fellowship? Upon arriving in Knoxville, I was eager to begin leveraging the expertise and equipment at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to finish developing our electrolyte technology. I was very ambitious once onsite, expecting our company at the conclusion of the Fellowship to have an ultracapacitor electrolyte that was validated in customer devices and ready to scale. To accomplish this, we would need to engage with our customers early to ensure that our electrolyte would be drop-in compatible with their current materials and manufacturing process. Furthermore, we would need to develop a strategy to accelerate our research workflow so that we could develop a versatile electrolyte product that was compatible with multiple customer’s devices. Essentially, I expected our company to develop a material product that had record breaking performance, was commercially viable, and drop-in compatible with our customers current devices.
- How “true” have you been to that path? Have you pivoted and, if so, how? Astonishingly, we were able to develop the electrolyte product initially envisioned upon arriving, but we had to reinvent the approach of energy storage materials research to do so. Early on, I realized we would either need significantly more funding or time to develop our envisioned product using traditional research approaches. This realization led to the development of a new analytical tool along with novel characterization techniques and software that allowed us to shrink the time to analyze a new chemistry from months to days. After nine months of iterative development and screening 64 chemistries using this newly developed tool, we were able to design an electrolyte that significantly outperformed every incumbent technology on the market and is composed of industrially available compounds. We are now in the process of validating this product with ultracapacitor manufacturers and planning to either launch it in Q1 of 2021 or exclusively license. Armed with this new high throughput analysis tool, our business has grown from developing electrolytes solely for ultracapacitors to include lithium ion batteries.
- Now, as you prepare to move forward, how would you describe the progress that you have made and the position in which you find yourself and your start-up for the future? The two years of resources and guidance provided by “Innovation Crossroads” was absolutely instrumental in positioning our business for success moving forward. We were able to develop our first product which we intend to scale and launch in the next 12 months. In addition to this product launch, we developed a high throughput analysis tool that allows us to rapidly develop electrolyte chemistries for markets utilizing lithium ion batteries. We have already been selected for lithium ion battery development projects for the defense industry and have encountered interested from the automotive and grid storage industries to develop new materials.
- What are the next few milestones? We are focused on qualifying our product with ultracapacitor manufacturers and establishing a path to selling electrolyte at industrial scale. Additionally, we are planning to scale our high throughput analysis tool so we can accelerate our development of lithium ion battery electrolyte products for electric vehicles, grid storage, and defense applications.
- Will you remain in the region or move elsewhere? The appealing economics, broad business network, and access to scientific talent has enticed us to establish a lab here at the University of Tennessee Research Park, in addition to our lab in New York. (See recent teknovation.biz article on the new Spark initiative here.)
- As Cohort 4 prepares to arrive at ORNL, what advice would you offer them as to gaining the most advantage they can during their two years with “Innovation Crossroads” and the team? Establish commercial partnerships and begin customer engagement as soon as possible so you can fully utilize the resources of ORNL and build a clear roadmap to commercialization.