ORNL scientist Zhijia Du, white coat; former ORNL scientist Jianlin Li, blue coat; and Ateios CEO Rajan Kumar inspect battery components during a pilot production run.
After several years starting a company to produce a unique solvent-free battery component for manufacturing, Rajan Kumar joined Innovation Crossroads at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory to build his entrepreneurial skills.
Kumar, an engineer and the chief executive officer of Ateios Systems, is a Cohort 2022 fellow in Innovation Crossroads, or IC, a two-year DOE Lab-Embedded Entrepreneurship Program node that helps innovators in energy and advanced manufacturing technologies take their ideas from research to the marketplace. The program affords invaluable assistance with financial resources, access to state-of-the-art research facilities and guidance from leading experts in business, engineering and science, Kumar said.
“This experience allows us to pursue key pilot projects that help validate the technology and the guidance needed to secure critical business requirements, such as contracts and partnerships, to help us get the technology to the next level,” he said.
Through Innovation Crossroads, fellows are connected to experts, mentors and networks in technology-related fields and are provided access to ORNL’s unique scientific resources and capabilities.
The postdoctoral fellowship includes stipends for two years, including travel and health benefits as well as R&D funding for collaboration with ORNL researchers, all of which are extremely important for an early stage entrepreneur trying to scale up a technology, Kumar said.
“Moving technology into the marketplace is key to the lab’s mission,” said Jennifer Caldwell, director of technology transfer at ORNL. “By partnering with entrepreneurs, the lab can transfer knowledge to businesses, ultimately providing economic benefits across the United States.”
In 2021, Ateios Systems licensed a technology from ORNL for solvent-free battery component production using electron curing. The battery component is an electrode, a thin sheet of battery powder with a small amount of polymer. The polymer acts as a glue to hold the powder together, coated onto metal foils like copper and aluminum. The electrode is a critical component for batteries, accounting for 77% of the total battery cost, and is one of the essential factors in determining battery performance. This new method shortens processing times from minutes to seconds, significantly lowers capital and operating costs, and reduces emissions.
Within a year, Ateios Systems conducted multiple pilot productions and delivered batteries to more than 20 prospective electronics manufacturers to validate its claims. With the advent of the Internet of Things, devices that perform asset tracking or provide electronic shelf labels, and wearables and sensors need a simple, single-use battery. Although the battery may be simple, it is a critical component that allows these devices to monitor, collect and transmit data to their users to make better-informed decisions.
The development of the invention was led by ORNL’s Zhijia Du and Chris Janke along with former ORNL scientists David Wood, Jianlin Li and Claus Daniel. Caldwell and Susan Ochs led the commercialization efforts. The technology earned an R&D 100 Award in 2022.
Innovation Crossroads gives ORNL researchers a mechanism to work with industry, speeding the delivery from the lab bench to commercialization, Du said. Often, engineers and scientists developing technologies are unaware of how to take it beyond the lab, he said.
“The more you know about prototyping, the more you know how to move the technology to a higher level,” Du said. “Technology readiness definitely moves faster with Innovation Crossroads. The national lab-industry collaboration accelerates the pace of commercialization.”
Janke said the IC program is useful for researchers, not just the fellows. “I think it puts the technology at the forefront of that market push-pull that we don’t typically experience here at the lab,” he said. “It’s a different focus that we just don’t experience that often.”
The battery technology the ORNL team developed is a platform that will help improve performance and cost. In the long term, Ateios Systems seeks to expand into electric vehicles, power grid applications and key innovations to enable solid-state batteries. Although it’s an award-winning technology and licensed for commercialization, Kumar, Du and Janke all agree there is more research and development needed to advance the technology. For example, performance and cost benefits need to be achieved at the production level, with high yields and a clear profit margin.
That’s why Ateios is continuing its collaboration with ORNL, actively working to deliver production-quality battery components to end users.
“Although our key goal is to translate the technology to a production setting, we are actively working with IC on building next-generation battery technology. For example, with mentors’ guidance and reviewing their previous research, we were able to make a safe, solid-state battery technology for the Department of Defense,” Kumar said.
He added that companies benefit from working with a DOE national laboratory. “If the technology is compelling, then companies should consider this approach. ORNL researchers work on ambitious projects, are driven to see the research translated to industry and are leaders in their fields,” Kumar said.
Another advantage of the IC program, he said, is that fellows get technical and business mentors. Typically, a startup entrepreneur has expertise in one or the other, but not necessarily both.
“The technical mentor shares technical information based on their previous work and guidance on future projects,” Kumar said. “The business mentor helps with fundraising, sales and partnerships to help the company continue to access more resources to mature the technology further.”
UT-Battelle manages ORNL for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit energy.gov/science. — Lawrence Bernard