(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is first article in our series spotlighting the start-ups that comprise Cohort 2 of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s “Innovation Crossroads” initiative. The companies are a little beyond the halfway point in the two-year program. After this series, we will turn the spotlight on a first in-depth look at Cohort 3.)
Megan O’Connor, one of three Co-Founders of Nth Cycle Technologies, is “all-in” on disrupting the electronics manufacturing and recycling industries by changing their linear material model into a more efficient, circular one.
In so doing, the start-up wants to help transition the U.S. away from its reliance on primary mining and refining of metals overseas to the recycling of rare earth and specialty metals domestically both the manufacturing process of electronics and the recycling of the rare earths from devices at their end-of-life.
Later this month, O’Connor will be one of nine Tennessee companies participating in the “Launch Tennessee Pitch Competition” held during the “36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival” in Nashville. She was selected to represent the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council, one of the Launch Tennessee partners.
We asked each of the participating Founders or Co-Founders in Cohort 2 of the “Innovation Crossroads” program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to provide us an update on their roughly mid-point progress. Here are O’Connor’s responses to our questions on progress.
- 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? When I started “Innovation Crossroads” back in May 2018, our technology was at the lab scale and could only process a small amount of material at a time. As for the start-up, it was very new, not even a year old yet – and we had a lot to learn to get this hard tech company off the ground and to where it needs to be by the end our time at “Innovation Crossroads.”
- Now, a little more than halfway through the two-year experience, how would you answer the question? I am very excited to say that thanks to my amazing team, we are now at the pilot scale working to validate the technology with multiple waste streams. In terms of the start-up itself, we’ve learned a lot over the past year and are making good progress finding partners and funding to grow this company and continue to commercialize the tech.
- What have been the biggest changes and how has the “Innovation Crossroads” program helped with the progress that you’ve made? The biggest change for us was going from the academic mindset to one of an entrepreneur. We knew we had a great tech and that the need in the market was there, but figuring out the right questions to ask to specifically identify our market/customer fit and learning how to commercialize a technology in this space have been critical steps in the growth process. The “Innovation Crossroads” team and the Nth Cycle advisors, especially Gary Rawlings and John Bruck, have been outstanding mentors to us and instrumental in this process.
- What more do you expect/hope to accomplish before your two-year Fellowship ends in May 2020? By the end of our time at “Innovation Crossroads,” we expect to have a pilot device that has been validated with real waste streams and potential partners identified for a pilot demonstration.
- Will you be ready to take the technology to market or will you continue to have to further advance it? Hard tech time-to-market is a longer road than most, so I think we still have at least another two years before we reach that point.
- How have you found the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region in terms of its support for tech-focused entrepreneurs? I think the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region has a lot of good resources and mentoring services here to support tech-focused companies. The area itself is very attractive with reasonable cost-of-living, good access to talent and mentors with ORNL and UT, as well as tremendous support from the state with programs like Launch TN and The Energy Mentor Network. The one thing I think most of us would like to see in this area is a hard-tech incubator or more wet lab space available outside the national lab for us to grow into once we leave this program.