(EDITOR’S NOTE: As Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) finalizes selections for the third cohort in its “Innovation Crossroads” program that accelerates new energy start-ups, we wanted to provide an update on the three members of the inaugural cohort. They arrived here in May 2017 and will complete their two-year Fellowships soon. Today, we spotlight Anna Douglas and SkyNano Technologies.)
- When you were selected for the inaugural cohort of ORNL’s “Innovation Crossroads” program, how would you describe the state of your technology and where you were in standing-up a start-up? At the time we were selected, we had just filed the legal framework for setting-up a start-up and were still working through a lot of the market analysis. We had demonstrated initial proof of concept at Vanderbilt for the use of the technology to produce carbon nanotubes ~ 23 nm in diameter.
- Now, more than three-fourths of the way through the two-year experience, how would you answer the question? We learned a LOT through customer discovery during the first six months of the program, which led to a pivot from our initial technical focus, and are now fully committed to scaling the technology in the next 12 months and getting samples out into the marketplace. At this point, we have doubled our team with the addition of two full-time team members who have been instrumental in the technical progress we’ve made towards scaling our electrochemical growth process.
- What have been the biggest changes and how has the “Innovation Crossroads” program helped with the progress that you’ve made? A big change for us was the shift from working towards producing single-walled carbon nanotubes, which are really the holy grail of materials you could make from carbon dioxide, to scaling the technology we’ve already demonstrated to produce high-quality multi-walled carbon nanotubes. We came into the program thinking primarily as scientists with the knowledge that single-walled carbon nanotubes quite often outperform multi-walled nanotubes and therefore set out to make these products using our technology. We presumed that customers would want these higher performance materials and that we would need them to make a successful business case. What we learned, however, was that our existing technology that produces multi-walled carbon nanotubes is already so great of an improvement over existing conventional additives, that there was nearly a $7 billion market available to us with our existing technology. That led to the decision to focus on scaling our existing technology for early demonstration of cost and performance targets for a few initial applications.
- What more do you expect/hope to accomplish before your commitment ends in May? Before our commitment ends in May, we hope to add at least one more technical team member, and we expect to have demonstrated a benchtop prototype capable of producing about 20X the capacity with which we are currently operating. With this prototype, we will be able to test our cost models and produce sample-size batches for initial customers. Before we leave the program in May, we plan to have sent samples to at least 10 initial customers.
- What comes after the “Innovation Crossroads” ends for you? Will you remain here or go elsewhere? We are staying in the Knoxville area! We are really grateful to be co-locating with General Graphene for the year and will slowly transition much of our experimental work into their new facilities in the Cedar Bluff area. We’re grateful for the support we’ve received from the greater Knoxville entrepreneurial ecosystem and are excited to continue to grow SkyNano in this city. We find it to be a great fit, with access to tools at ORNL user facilities, great talent coming out of the University of Tennessee, and local start-ups who work together to further the supportive community.
- Knowing now what you did not necessarily know at the time, what advice would you offer to the third cohort of “Innovation Crossroads” teams in terms of maximizing the opportunity? It took us, and I believe all of the other teams in Cohort 1, quite some time getting acclimated to the environment here and understanding how to maximize our time and budget to achieve the highest output over the course of a short two years. My advice to incoming cohort members would be to do as much homework as you can before you get here to understand how you’re going to accomplish your goals with the budget you have – budgets here are fairly complicated with overhead rates and different practices across the user facilities and other labs, but asking as many questions as you can and coming to a plan with your technical mentor here as soon as possible will start you off on the right foot and allow you to maximize this amazing opportunity that we’ve been extraordinarily grateful for!