How Battery Entrepreneurs Learned the Power of Environmentally Responsible Business

environmentally responsible

If society successfully transitions to a green-energy future, odds are battery innovation will have helped get us there. By allowing the storage of sustainably produced energy, batteries have the potential to transform carbon-intensive systems as vast as the power grid and transportation sector. That promise is driving demand for more powerful and efficient designs, which in turn has created unprecedented opportunities for cleantech entrepreneurs, many of whom want to demonstrate environmentally responsible values both in their products and in their business practices.

Launching and running a cleantech business, however—especially in a materials science field—adds a new layer of considerations to the already complex task of managing a startup, say entrepreneurs working in the field. But with the right training, support, and resources, they say, cleantech innovators can hold to their environmentally responsible values even in this super-charged competitive space. In honor of National Battery Day, February 18, it’s worth exploring how some have learned to stay green and succeed.

Teaching Environmentally Responsible Strategies

One direct way of supporting entrepreneurs interested in green battery design and other cleantech fields is to integrate environmentally responsible principles and strategies into engineering and business courses, notes Dartmouth engineering assistant professor Jeremy Faludi, who last year surveyed environmentally conscious educators and administrators around the world and compiled their best practices in The Lemelson Foundation report Teaching Environmentally Responsible Inventing. “If we want to create a better future, environmental responsibility should be incorporated into all core classes in an engineering school,” he says. “The problems that we present to students should be the problems that need solving.”

The right educational program clearly made a difference for Samir Mayekar. Now the founder of NanoGraf Technologies, a company whose novel materials technology allows batteries to last as much as 50 percent longer per charge, Mayekar served in the Obama administration in the White House before enrolling in Northwestern University’s NUvention program in 2011, specifically, he says, “with the purpose of trying to deepen my experience in the cleantech domain.”

NUvention’s approach to entrepreneurial training is highly interdisciplinary: along with PhD and MBA candidates it is also open to other Northwestern students interested in learning how to commercialize university technology through entrepreneurship. The future NanoGraf team met in this environment, and the company founders adopted the school’s philosophy of diversity in their own structure. “It’s not just about having a super brilliant technologist or a super brilliant business person,” Mayekar explains. “It’s about having a combination of people to help the business be able to adapt to what you see in the market. The data show that a more diverse team of people with different backgrounds will lead to more sustainable results over time.”

Formed in 2012 (initially as SiNode Systems), NanoGraf now has development agreements with top consumer electronic and electric-vehicle manufacturers, a large-scale manufacturing facility in Japan, and plans to launch products next year. Through it all, environmental responsibility has been the guiding force. “It has to be part of your foundation and a part of your values,” says Mayekar, “so that decisions that you make at the company are within the framework of environmental sustainability.” For their manufacturing process, for example, NanoGraf developed low-energy and water-based systems to minimize the use of toxic solvents, an approach that is both greener and cheaper.

However, being part of the larger battery industry has raised difficult issues for Mayekar and his team. He cites the example of the battery mineral cobalt, much of which comes from the Congo, where it is often mined by children. “You want to move to a greener future, but the material that enables it comes from the ground, and extraction is not clean. So the question is, how do you do it in a way that is as environmentally friendly as possible? How do you do it in a way that doesn’t exploit labor? There are all sorts of questions that must be asked.”

“This is a fundamental difficulty in all sustainability work,” agrees Faludi, who created the Tools for Design and Sustainability section of the VentureWell website, which offers resources for navigating the issues. To help student entrepreneurs weigh the various impacts of their ventures, for example, Faludi teaches the process of life cycle assessment, which lets businesses quantify everything from mining to transport to energy use to end of life. “All sorts of things can be boiled down to a single score and compared side by side for decision making between multiple tradeoffs, simultaneously.”

Finding the Environmental Wins

Learning how to assess a supply chain proved valuable for John Hennessy, whose Elegus Technologies produces battery separators made from Kevlar that dramatically outperform their conventional plastic counterparts. A turning point for his company came after Hennessy took part in a workshop run by VentureWell where his team did a deep dive into their manufacturing process. “We tried to think of all the inputs that could go into our bill of materials and how those inputs could be done as green as possible,” he recalls. “And it just so happens that with our technology, we can use recycled Kevlar from other sources”—specifically out-of-date body armor from police and the military, which could be acquired at a huge discount. “That was a big win,” Hennessy notes. “We could make our product more environmentally responsible and solve another problem at the same time.”

That’s the kind of thinking that Faludi would like to help entrepreneurs and inventors employ from the first stages of their ventures. Battery engineers, for example, “can choose chemistries that are healthier, require less energy-intensive or rare materials, and that last a long time,” he notes. “You can also minimize the energy and other resources required to process the materials into batteries.” Similarly, inventors who are developing products that use batteries can make sure the batteries are easy to replace, use as little energy as possible so the batteries last longer, and choose batteries made of greener materials.

Workshops and trainings also provide helpful resources and connections for cleantech entrepreneurs, whose business problems can often be technical and specific to their field. Hennessy, for example, recalls how a workshop on strategic partnerships helped him realize that he needed to connect with people who understood the complexities of materials science. “It was a mindset switch of, okay, we are not going to get to where we want to go by relying on traditional fundraising. Trying to explain this materials science engineering problem to a generalized VC firm is not going to work. We need to find companies that have corporate VC arms or have strategic interests that align with us.” They subsequently did find such a company, and that business is now an Elegus investor.

Growing a green battery industry, as with other cleantech fields, clearly requires new ways of thinking—not only in engineering and business strategy, but also in the training and support provided to the next generation of inventors and entrepreneurs.

Looking for more resources to help students invent green? Download Sustaining Our Planet: A Toolkit for Entrepreneurs, a set of resources to help inventor entrepreneurs develop products that will improve people’s lives and generate profits—without putting additional stress on our resource-strapped planet.

Or attend our OPEN conference for in-person insights from faculty who are successfully incorporating environmentally responsible principles into their coursework. View the schedule here and register here.

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