Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

September 08, 2020 | Tom Ballard

IC COHORT 2 UPDATE: Nth Cycle makes great progress during two-year Fellowship

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Participants in Cohort 2 of the “Innovation Crossroads” {IC} program operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory {ORNL} 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 second in a series of articles that provides those answers. Today’s spotlight is on Megan O’Connor, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Nth Cycle. Her 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? When I arrived in Tennessee two years ago, I knew we needed to use this two-year runway to scale our device and prove it out with real magnet waste. Our major milestones were to: (1) determine if this device would maintain the high recovery efficiency as we scaled the filter module and what that limitation was; (2) how to scale this device in off-the-shelf commercial units (we never wanted to manufacture the commercial units ourselves); and (3) show the scaled device works with real permanent magnet waste. In terms of business development, I knew I had a lot to learn! It was a big learning curve, and we were ready to hustle to get up to speed on the BD in order to successfully move the tech out of the lab.
  • How “true” have you been to that path? Have you pivoted and, if so, how? We have stayed pretty true to this path in terms of technology development, but discovered an entirely new market that we’ll go after first: li-ion battery recycling. This market has a huge need for a better end-of-life waste management strategy and has unstable supply chains, very similar to the rare earth market.
  • 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? We’ve made significant progress on the technology and business development. We’ve used every resource that was made available to us within Knoxville and after the first year of IC, we applied to two other accelerator programs (“Creative Destruction Lab Energy Stream” and “Plug and Play” programs) to get even more help on the business model and go-to-market strategy. I fully believe it takes a village to run a successful start-up, so we’re working hard to find the folks who’ve taken this path before and can help us overcome the major obstacles every small tech company faces. With all the support IC has provided us, we’ve hit all our milestones the past two years and are currently raising a seed round to build out our commercial unit with help from manufacturers in the wastewater treatment industry.
  • What are the next few milestones? The next two major milestone for Q3 – Q4 2020 are testing our recycled metal oxides in new battery cells to measure performance. Our ideal customer is a battery cathode manufacturer, so we’ve teamed-up with a battery lab that can test our recycled material in new coin and pouch cells. Once we have these initial performance data, we can start going after larger manufacturers and paid pilots. In parallel (Q3 2020 – Q3 2021), our engineering team will be working to build-out our commercial device.
  • Will you remain in the region or move elsewhere? We will stay here through the fall of 2020, but I will most likely move to Boston where the rest of my team is located. We are working to secure projects with ORNL so we can continue work down here even when I’m located in Boston.
  • As Cohort 4 prepares to arrive, what advice would you offer them as to gaining the most advantage they can during their two years with “Innovation Crossroads” and the team? Use every single resource “Innovation Crossroads” and the Knoxville community provides you! We absolutely would not have made this much progress in such a short period of time without the dedicated mentors Knoxville has to offer. TAEBC (Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council), LaunchTN, and UT’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s Business Accelerator have been so supportive. I highly recommend all IC innovators work with these groups. They played a critical role in our growth as a company and myself as founder; I really can’t thank them enough!