Dr. Onas Bolton — Founder and CEO of Octet Scientific, a specialty Cleveland-based chemical manufacturer unlocking the full power of safe, economical, and sustainable energy storage by providing better electrolyte chemistry for zinc and other aqueous batteries — on the potential for zinc-based batteries, the history of energy production, storage, and use, and how the work Octet Scientific is doing will facilitate our transition to carbon-neutral sustainable power!
Dr. Bolton is a 14-year veteran of the specialty chemicals industry with a PhD in materials science and specific expertise in organic electrochemistry. He is an experienced organic and materials chemist whose work has been published in prestigious scientific journals like the Journal of the Electrochemical Society, Journal of the American Chemical Society, and highlighted on the cover of Nature Chemistry and in the Economist. Prior to founding Octet, Dr. Bolton created new organic additives for Atotech, the world’s largest producer of chemicals to the electroplating industry.
At Octet, he and his team are working closely with a wide variety of zinc battery chemistries and manufacturers worldwide to continue to perfect zinc battery chemistry through novel additive development. Dr. Bolton began Octet by winning two highly competitive funding awards from the US National Science Foundation, based on the idea that establishing safe and sustainable zinc-based energy storage will require optimized additive chemistry and more recently, has close over an additional $1 million in traditional venture funding led by Jumpstart here in Cleveland. Please enjoy!
This episode is brought to you byImpact ArchitectsandNinety. As we share the stories of entrepreneurs building incredible organizations throughout NEO, Impact Architects helps those leaders — many of whom we’ve heard from as guests on Lay of The Land — realize their visions and build great organizations. I believe in Impact Architects and the people behind it so much, that I have actually joined them personally in their mission to help leaders gain focus, align together, and thrive by doing what they love! As a listener, you can sit down for a free consultation with Impact Architects or leverage a free trial through Ninety, the software platform that helps teams build great companies, by visitingia.layoftheland.fm!
Learn more about Octet Scientific — https://www.octetsci.com/about-octet/
Connect with Dr. Onas Bolton on LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/onas-bolton-693ba319/
For more episodes of Lay of The Land, visit https://www.layoftheland.fm/
Past guests include Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb, Steve Potash (OverDrive), Ed Largest (Westfield), Ray Leach (JumpStart), Lila Mills (Signal Cleveland), Pat Conway (Great Lakes Brewing), Lindsay Watson (Augment Therapy), and many more.
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Dr. Onas Bolton [00:00:00]:
Batteries are just going to become such a critically ubiquitous part of our lives that we owe it to ourselves in the future to have the best batteries in those conditions. So not just the best in terms of performance, but the best in terms of cost, performance, and sustainability.
Jeffrey Stern [00:00:13]:
Let's discover what people are building in the greater Cleveland community. We are telling the stories of Northeast Ohio's entrepreneurs, builders, and those supporting them. Welcome to the Lay of the Land podcast, where we are exploring what people are building in Cleveland and throughout Northeast Ohio. I am your host, Jeffrey Stern, and today I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Onas Bolton, the founder and CEO of Octet Scientific. Octet is a specialty chemical company dedicated to supporting zinc based batteries through the development of novel electrolyte additive chemistry. Onas is a 14 year veteran of the specialty chemicals industry with a PhD in material science and specific expertise in organic electrochemistry. He is an experienced organic and material chemist whose work has been published in prestigious scientific journals like the Journal of Electrochemical Society, the Journal of American Chemical Society, and he's been highlighted on the COVID of Nature Chemistry and in The Economist. Prior to founding Octet, Onas created new organic additives for Additech, the world's largest producer of chemicals to the electroplating industry. At Octet, he and his team are working closely with a wide variety of zinc battery chemistries and manufacturers worldwide to continue to perfect zinc battery chemistry through novel additive development. Onas began Octet by winning two highly competitive funding awards from the US. National Science Foundation based on the idea that establishing safe and sustainable zinc based energy storage will require optimized additive chemistry, and more recently, has closed over an additional million in traditional venture funding led by jumpstart here in Cleveland. During our conversation, we discuss the potential for zinc based batteries, the history of energy production, of energy storage, land of energy use, and we cover the future of batteries and storage and how the work Octet Scientific is doing will facilitate our transition to carbon neutral, sustainable power. So please enjoy my conversation with Dr. Onas Bolton after a brief message from our sponsor. Lay of the Land is brought to you by Impact Architects and by 90, as we share the stories of entrepreneurs building incredible organizations in Cleveland and throughout Northeast Ohio. Impact Architects has helped hundreds of those leaders, many of whom we have heard from as guests on this very podcast, realize their own visions and build these great organizations. I believe in Impact Architects land the people behind it so much that I have actually joined them personally in their mission to help leaders gain focus, align together, and thrive by doing what they love. If you two are trying to build great, Impact Architects is offering to sit down with you for a free consultation or provide a free trial through 90, the software platform that helps teams build great companies. If you are interested in learning more about partnering with Impact Architects or by leveraging 90 to power your own business, please go to IA layoftheland FM. The link will also be in our show notes. So, in preparing for our conversation, I have to say it's hard to not be really excited about the work you're doing because at a high level, I understand batteries are a key component to meeting our electrification goals. As a society, we have the proliferation of all these things that are quite topical at the moment from EVs and residential and industrial energy storage. And I get that without a stable supply of batteries, we will not have a sustainable energy future. Land that through Octet Scientific and the work you're focused on to try and find the stable supply of batteries, it's really exciting. And so even just setting the stage here, I'd love to stern with just what sparked that interest for you. How do you find yourself thinking about this problem?
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:04:14]:
Yeah, well, my background is I did an undergraduate studies in chemical engineering because I liked chemistry in high school. I liked the way the periodic table kind of laid out like a box of Legos and the idea that everything that you can think of is made out of these blocks. So I gravitated toward chemistry, but then my parents, everyone said, oh, do engineering engineers get paid well? So I did Engineering. So I did chemical engineering and kind of slowly became less of a chemical engineer and more of a straight chemist through undergraduate and then grad school and my postdoc. So my training largely I identify as a chemist, an organic chemist who designs molecules. And I had been working for a company that works on electroplating. So the company is called Addotech. It's a large German company. And we had a little research team embedded on campus at Case Western. So I was on campus there doing work with some of the faculty. But also the company basically cooking up these different kinds of molecules that would control how metal gets put down on stuff. So if you've seen like the bumper on a car, like putting chrome down on something to make the chrome shiny and smooth and so it sticks well, it's all done in these big electroplating baths where you dunk it in this nasty acid and you run electricity through it and you convert the chromium. And what we were working on were circuit boards, so putting the copper where you want the copper to go. And we are making all these wild molecules that kind of float around inside the bath. They just work at the surface, so they're kind of like at the surface of the material kind of controlling how the metal atoms get put down so that you can put them where you want them, not where you don't have them. Be a certain crystal structure. You try to control them. That company had some restructuring, and essentially my position moved to Berlin, Germany. And I thought I think I'll wait here for now. But I was trying to think of a way that I could potentially start my own company through government grant kind of support. So the NSF National Science Foundation is how we got started. And I was thinking, okay, what do I know how to do? I know how to design land synthesize molecules as an organic chemist. Land I tried to find a way to pair that skill set with something that I could feel really passionate about, something that would be like, I'm really helping the future. And I'm not just making something for a company that wants to sell it or solving some sort of small business problem like a materials company, but something where I felt like if I do this, it'll change something about the way the future like sustainability, energy, climate change, the way these things are all interwoven was what inspired me to look at batteries. And I should also be sure to recognize my friend Professor Rohana Kolkar at Case Western in the Department of Chemical Engineering. He had nudged me in this direction, too, and said that he had done some work previously on Zinc Batteries and he said, zinc batteries been around a long time, but they've generally been in the non rechargeable space. So he'd done some work looking at different kind of additives for helping them be more rechargeable by stopping some of the things you don't want there. And so he and I teamed up together to do the first grant proposal. So what led me to this space? Land to be completely honest, when this started, I knew so little about batteries, embarrassingly little about batteries to now be the founder of a battery kind of company. I knew at least that inside a battery, you're basically electroplating. You're basically depositing metal, and then you're oxidizing that metal away. And those are the two stages of discharge and charging a battery. So I knew that additives could help this process. So I saw a place that the IP was underdeveloped. Well, first of all, that zinc had big potential. That zinc metal. These are questions, maybe for later in the talk, but zinc has a lot of great potential. It's been using batteries for a long time, but it's kind of bottlenecked a bit when this rechargeability problem land. So if we can find the right molecule to unlock that potential, we could have these wonderful batteries that are future proof, sustainable, safe, sourced in the US. Recyclable all these great things. So it just kind of came together in a nice way. That thing I know how to do develop organic molecules that help control the way metal gets deposited. Electrochemically could unlock a lot of potential for a very attractive future technology. So that's what led to the first grant proposal that I wrote that started Octet.
Jeffrey Stern [00:08:38]:
And we'll unpack, I'm sure.
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:08:41]:
Yeah, I tend to go a little too fast, maybe.
Jeffrey Stern [00:08:43]:
But perhaps before we get to there, I think it would be really interesting to hear, particularly as we make our way towards zinc, how our energy production and storage works today. Status quo. And what are the inherent problems with that? How has it changed over time? I know lithium has become really quite debated and charged, pun intended in the discourse around scarcity resources, efficacy. What does the space look like?
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:09:19]:
Yeah, well, I mean, one of the lessons that really the things that have impressed on me since I've been doing this is kind of naively. Before all this, I kind of thought of, like, power plants as like these factories where we made power. Like, you know, they're making electrons and I just kind of imagined that they've got some store of electrons. But what I've come to find is there's no storage at all. And power plants that we have these days are more like motors and the electrons that are flying through the wires turning into photons and like, lighting up. The room I'm in right now were generated at a power plant seconds ago. And it's basically like our power system is one where we're burning fuel or whatever we're doing, we're doing it to create electricity right now. And so what doesn't get used right now just doesn't get used or gets wasted. It's this very kind of supply demand kind of system where the industry knows how to manage the peak. There's no storage, I guess is what I'm trying to get to here. It's woefully inefficient. People put a lot of effort into making it more efficient, but it's really just motor is running, putting out electricity and then things are using it or not. On the other end. Do they need too much? Then we have brownouts. Do they not use enough? Then we have excess capacity, we burn too much oil or whatever. So that's kind of the backward looking state of our power grid and really the present state too. What energy storage will enable is us not to throw away those electrons, us to save those electrons when they're easy to get, like when the sun's shining or the wind's blowing, and then use them later. So it's all about making the way we handle energy smarter and more efficient. If you look at how much energy humanity actually uses versus, say, the amount of solar energy that strikes the planet in an hour or so, we use such a small fraction of the actual energy that's just hitting this planet. But we got to get a lot better at harvesting it, saving it, and not wasting it. So batteries are a big part of that. Batteries are not the only type of energy storage that exists that's being developed, but they're definitely the most attractive, I'd say the most deployable and the most modular and scalable option that we have. So batteries will play a very big role in that. And that's looking at it from the grid standpoint. There's also the use case. I mean, now more than ever, we need power everywhere. We need energy. I don't know what it's like for you, but when the power goes out at my house, life stops. All of my kids don't know how to entertain themselves if there's not electricity, land. We just need to charge so many things, everything's computerized, and we're struggling with that as humanity as a nation right now when the inconsistencies in the grid and we're a long way from the point when we're all charging our cars off that same grid. And so there's still a lot of work to be done to prepare our grid to support electric vehicles, electric, everything that we're looking at in the future. And so it's amazing. I like to look at it like people tend to think of fossil fuels that we've used in the past as like a source of energy. And I think of them less as a source of energy and more as like a storage medium for that energy. Where did this energy come from? Well, it came from the sun. The sun hit the planet, it grew some ferns, a dinosaur stepped on it, it turned into oil. So it wasn't really like it's a source. Yes, but it's also kind of like where that energy has been stored for these millions of years. And so the ubiquity of fossil fuels today will be replaced by storage medium like batteries. There's probably a point in our future where every electron we produce is going to have gone in and out of a battery between the sun or the wind or whatever and powering my phone. So it's all going to change in big ways.
Jeffrey Stern [00:13:13]:
That's a fascinating framing of it. Yeah, it's like nature figured out solar power a long time ago.
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:13:20]:
Oh, yeah. It's the sort of thing that, even climate change aside, there's only so much oil. We're only going to be able to use this for so long, so we need to switch to alternative methods. Wind and solar are such great options, but we need better storage solutions. So grid storage is a really exciting slice of the markets for zinc batteries that we're working on, but it's maybe the biggest, most exciting, most explosively growing. But it's certainly not the only one too.
Jeffrey Stern [00:13:48]:
Yeah. One thing you mentioned that is really kind of fascinating to me is maybe how much room for improvement there is on the storage side. Or how much maybe the attention has been focused more on getting that marginal cost. Of energy going to zero on the energy production side through solar or wind. Moderately more intensive solutions like gas, but all working towards creating energy that we can use more cheaply, effectively sustainably land less about. How do we preserve maybe that energy?
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:14:21]:
Yeah, there are targets out there for what they call levelized cost of storage. You'll see like LCOs, or sometimes LCE energy storage. But basically it's how much money does it take to store this electron? You put electron in, you get one back. What did that cost you? And there's a target, and to be honest, I don't exactly know what that number is today, but there's a target that the Department of Energy has put forward in their plan that they want to get that down to like four cents per kilowatt hour, I think. So making that cheap is going to be a big part of all this. But the great thing about the grid as it's designed in the US. Is it's kind of this energy marketplace. I don't want to talk too far out my own field here, but I know if you put energy back onto the grid from your house or whatever, you get paid back for that energy. It's totally commoditized on the grid. So we have a great opportunity for batteries and storage and the imbalance of costs between peak times and other times. Our energy is very liquid in a financial sense. So that will speed this all up, make this easier. Once the ability to store energy becomes cheap enough, it can be a revenue stream in some cases, and of course, it will just build around that. But reducing all those costs is definitely an aim. It's a difficult thing to work against, though, because fossil fuels are so very cheap.
Jeffrey Stern [00:15:45]:
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:15:46]:
Because like I said, nature has already made these batteries, land, buried them under the ground. And so all you need to do is dig them up and they're exceptionally energy dense because we just burn them. And not great for the planet, not great for the atmosphere and our carbon issues. But it's hard to break our addiction to fossil fuels because of the costs and the infrastructure we built up around them.
Jeffrey Stern [00:16:07]:
So you mentioned at the onset, founding Octet, that you put forth this application. Obviously, we're going to get to zinc, but what was the thesis, if you will, of what it was that you wanted to investigate here and validate land, improve out over time?
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:16:27]:
Yeah, so as I said, I saw this potential for a better type of battery that has a lot of advantages over current state of the art advantages, even over lithium, definitely over lead acid that were really kind of bottlenecked by problems that additives could solve. Better chemistry inside the battery could solve these problems. And so that was kind of the pitch of my first proposal to the National Science Foundation. This is the Stern SBIR program. So the small business research programs they have, which are fantastic. And what I did was look at the available IP, like most of the patent literature, which is free to search, you can look through it, and as much academic literature as I could find to see what the state of molecular development was for this problem. And I found it to be rather underdeveloped. So my pitch in the proposal was, hey, zinc batteries could be great. They could be this future proof, sustainable solution. There are certain zinc chemistries that could even outperform lithium in terms of energy density. We can talk more about that later. But there are some that exist. They're just not rechargeable yet. So I said, we're going to find the chemicals that are going to unlock this potential for these batteries. Land I know how to do it because I make molecules and I synthetic chemists and all this. So that was really kind of the quick pitch behind this thing was better batteries, us made, recyclable, future proof kind of batteries that are based on zinc. They just need better chemicals. I can find those chemicals. Give me money. Land I'm proud to say that I say we it was me, but I was partnering with Professor Colkar. He was my kind of legitimizing name on the first SCTR. The first proposal that I wrote up, we won with the NSF, so we got kind of an earlier start than we expected at the beginning of the company's life.
Jeffrey Stern [00:18:22]:
You've since received, I believe, over a million in grant funding from the National Science Foundation in kind of pursuit of this work. So they have given you the money that you had on?
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:18:37]:
Yeah. So the first one we did was an STTR, and it was kind of organized like this. We're not technically a spin out of case. We partnered with them to basically do the electrochemical kind of qualification. So we was kind of broken down. Like, I was designing the molecules, so the Molecular Design IP was my own. And then Rohan and his group were doing the analysis and we published a paper together. I think that was really kind of his goal there. So not really a startup, but we definitely got like an assist from his group to get this whole thing started. That STTR phase One did not get a phase two, but kind of from the lessons learned from that, we set out to make a more focused new SBIR phase one that was really just focused on grid storage. So zinc based grid storage rather than zinc batteries, kind of writ large like the first one was. So that's the one where we got the phase one was quite successful. Excellent customer engagement. And now we're currently in our phase two of that SBIR program. So that's what kicked us up to the over a million dollars in grant funding from the NSF.
Jeffrey Stern [00:19:44]:
Can you take us through perhaps what some of those learnings were from the first go at it? And then in phase one, what does an MVP actually look like? What was some of that validation work that you were doing and the reception that you got from doing it?
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:20:00]:
Yeah. So to be clear, we're a specialty chemical manufacturing company, so our product is a chemical. I mean, it's a white powder is what it looks like. We have a number of them, but most of them are white powders, so they're not so exciting to look at. What we learned from that first STTR, that phase one, that didn't get a phase two and then our later successful phase one to two was we needed to be a lot more aggressive about engaging with our customers. Land I think that what's great about the NSF program. And if you're involved in any sort of they have another kind of earlier program called ICORE, like Icorps, and these are excellent programs. They make you go through kind of a mini I core. When you do their SBIR program, it forces you to talk to your would be customers or who you think the customers could be to really kind of find that market fit. Customer discovery is what it is. And if you're a scientist like I am was, that can be difficult. You have this product that it's kind of a concept. You think this might work, you think people will want it, but you really need to get it kind of it feels like ahead of yourself, but you get out there and find out, do people really need this? So it forces you to talk to these companies and you don't go pitching them your solution. You ask for their problems and you say, what is your biggest pain point? What are you struggling with? And you're hoping that they say the thing that you know how to make. So from that first round experience, we made a lot of connections. And we found that there was definitely a big need in the zinc battery industry for the solution that we are developing. There were certain new kinds of technologies being developed, kind of workarounds of some of the problems that we addressed being developed. No one was doing exactly what we do, and nothing was as seamless to use as our solution. So we learned that those customers are out there, we made great connections with them. They want the stuff. But like I mentioned before, we got that first grant a bit sooner than we expected. So we didn't have our lab really up as fast as we would like. We developed a product and we had a really good product, but it wasn't quite ready to send to customers until after we had submitted for that phase two application. So I think the biggest lesson I learned was get closer to customers as soon as possible, because when we got back and did our successful as an example in your phase one proposal, you can submit up to, I think, three letters of support for whatever you think is impactful. Land so the first one I made naively. I had none of these letters of support because I thought we'll learn what this process is like. And then we won the grant. But for our second phase one, I had three letters of support from three of the biggest developers of zinc based grid storage. Saying exactly the solution Noctet is making will have a transformative change on our product and we can't wait to get it. And those relationships we built in our first phase one. So we kind of did some growing up on the customer side, more so than the product side between phase one, first phase one and later successful phase one. So we found out which market we think really has the momentum to go somewhere fast and carry us along with them and which of those customers, thankfully, they intersected quite a bit, which of those customers were looking for a solution like the one we had. And we had flying colors on our second phase one. Our phase two had even more customer voice in it and that was also flying colors review. So, I mean, that's the biggest takeaway. If you are a scientist background person like I am, and you're developing some sort of technology product, there's a lot of unknowns land in academic science world. You talk about the past, you talk about data, you talk about things that are done and you understand. And you get punished very hard in that world for not knowing what's next or being too conjecturing too much about what this could do, what that could do. And the startup world is kind of the opposite, where it's all about what this could do, what this could mean. So shifting those gears, I think, is difficult from a science background. And so I think we're learning even now, we're still learning to get a lot more aggressive about our product works. Our product is going to be awesome for you, customer land. Let's start from there because we spent a lot of time thinking, will the product work? Is this good? Is this going to we've got enough under our belt now to say, no, this product is great. We've helped a lot of customers. We've made big improvements to their batteries. It's happening. It's time to sell this stuff. So kind of shifting those gears was a big part of our learning curve.
Jeffrey Stern [00:24:30]:
What does the actual product and company look like today?
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:24:35]:
Today we are a company of six people. We are in Cleveland proper. We're in Midtown. Cleveland I don't know if you know, but the Baker Electric Car Company or Baker Electric Motors I forget. What? Baker Electric was an electric car company in Cleveland in the early 20th century. So you can actually see one of these cars in the museum, in the Western Reserve Historical Society museum. But we're actually in their building. So their building is here on Euclid Avenue land. That's where our lab is. We have lab space about 1000 sqft where we do organic chemistries. We're making new molecules, scaling them up, and also our electrochemistry, where we're testing them in battery conditions to see if they do the things we want them to do in batteries. We have a product portfolio currently that has about three different sections. We have kind of our old first generation products that do a certain thing for batteries. They stop dendrite growth. We have a mid product, which is for a certain type of kind of near neutral or acidic electrolyte zinc batteries. And then we're rolling out a third one right now that's all about hydrogen suppression. So solving individual problems with the batteries. So we have these kind of product lines formed. We're about to maybe even this week or next week, submit what will be our 6th patent application. Our first patent has been granted. It's made it all the way through. So we are aggressively developing new chemicals, engaging with customers, sending out samples. I think now more than 20, I think. I think we're up to 25, but not quite to 30 yet. Customers, zinc battery makers around the world that have tested or are testing our materials. Some of our earlier products we're currently scaling up. So we're producing in our lab here, scales of up to 1 kg is what we've made and sold in the past. And now we have customers who are needing 20 to 100 kg for piloting, for qualifying in their battery manufacturing. So some of our first products now we're scaling up, earlier products are being tested. We're doing a lot with just six people. I'll say that we're busy.
Jeffrey Stern [00:26:32]:
It sounds like it. I think it might be a good point here to get a little bit in the weeds of it and knowing quite a lot will go over my head to the degree. And maybe a good entry point to it is from a sales land kind of marketing perspective, is more of the work that you have to do educating people about the detriments and challenges of the current state, other solutions that currently exist, like lithium, or is it more convincing people of the merits of zinc and its efficacy? And maybe through that lens, how do you think about competition as well?
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:27:14]:
Yeah, I would say that because what we are making is an additive as a component that would go into the batteries, the burden lays more firmly on our customers to convince their customers of the end users. So we're not making any batteries here. We make them for testing, but our product goes into a battery. So we're doing our part to help kind of spread that word. We're involved with Natbat, which is a national battery professional society trying to raise the awareness of zinc batteries as a very real, commercial, scalable alternative to lithium. In places where lithium doesn't make sense and we have to walk a very fine line. Lithium is not bad. Lithium is not a bad technology. Lithium. Lithium is quite literally going to save the world lithiumion batteries by replacing our combustion engine cars with electric cars. But there are a lot of challenges facing that in terms of supply chain. There are safety. Issues land this sort of thing, but they're just a matter of overhead. Land cost, essentially. But our position is that lithium is great, lithium will save the world, but lithium doesn't make sense everywhere. Land a line I like to use is that we've discovered lithium batteries are very dense and nice. You can use them to make cell phones that last a long time, or laptops last long time. They're dense. And then credit to Tesla for thinking, well, you know what? Let's take like 7000 cell phone batteries, smash them together, and we could drive like a long distance passenger vehicle. It's like, oh, hey, yeah, that works, that's great, and there's need for that. But now it's like, okay, but should we take a million of these things, squish them together and power the grid? Because that battery doesn't need to move that battery. It could be a lot of other things. So grid, batteries, stationary storage, places where safety is a really high concern. There's a lot of places for batteries that don't really need to be lithium. So that's kind of our position, is that zinc represents a family of batteries that have a really large number of benefits from safety, sustainability, economics, supply chain, scalability. I mean, there's really no detriment to them at all, other than the fact they're still kind of young on the rechargeable world and they're not as energy dense as lithium. But then again, nothing is. They get close, but they're not as dense as lithium. But I think I've trailed of no.
Jeffrey Stern [00:29:32]:
I'll keep the trail going, actually, because when you talk about some of those factors, the factors of the material itself of lithium, of zinc, hazard, scarcity, supply chain, sustainability, what do those look like for zinc?
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:29:46]:
Yeah, zinc is already a very widely available and used material. The statistics that I like to cite when I talk about the ease of use for zinc is that whereas with lithium, there's a challenge of supply chain. There's lithium all throughout the Earth's crust. Lithium is a very light element, and it's there, it's prevalent, but it's hard to isolate and hard to process. It's very reactive. And in some ways, we've kind of already found the easy to get to lithium. And it's in South America and it's in Australia, and they have these Brines that we can extract. So on one hand, we've kind of hitched our wagons to lithiumion batteries, and they're fantastic technologies to power our cars and all sorts of things and numbers of about how much more lithium is it going to take to get us to a full conversion to electric vehicles. And I see numbers like, well, we need eight times more lithium production. And right now you can see from the price of lithium, it's gone up tremendously. In the last few years, the price of lithiumion batteries has been going down and down and down. So quite famously, over the course of the last ten or 20 years. It's gone down like, 90% the cost of the batteries and a lot of that's because we've gotten a lot better about streamlining the manufacturing process and not because the materials have gotten cheaper. And now we've kind of hit this inflection point where, okay, everyone's on board there's over 300 gigafactories have been announced around the world right now. Everyone's ready to go. Now they're fighting over the lithium. And so it'll take a long time for that to balance back out. I follow benchmark minerals analysis is one of the voices in this space. And they like to say, and I like to repeat that we can open a gigafactory in 24 months. That's quick. That's a real triumph. But to open a lithium mine can take five to seven years. It's kind of becoming a very serious pinch point for the rollout of lithium batteries. Zinc, on the other hand, is very widely available. And there are over 50 countries in the world right now that mine zinc. I think the last number I heard was 27 countries smelt zinc. Zinc is easier to work with when I'm talking to Americans, like, to point out that the largest zinc mine in the world is in Alaska. So the Red Dog mine has the largest reserves and production in the world. But what really excites me is that in the US. Alone, some years over a billion dollars worth of scrap zinc is recycled already just from the steel industry. You've probably seen, like, galvanized steel, like, the steel with, like, the spangly pattern on the outside so that's a layer of zinc on top of the steel to prevent it from corroding. So just that thin layer of zinc from the steel industry is recycled over a billion dollars. It's very, very easy to recycle zinc. Same is not true of lithium. There's a huge effort underway to try to find economical ways to recycle lithiumion batteries. So we have this kind of double edged problem with lithium of the supply chain needs to get real big, real fast, and we need to figure out a way to not just throw it away when we're done. Because right now, I've heard less than five, I've heard less than one low percentages of lithium batteries actually get recycled in the US. It's a big challenge. So zinc can avoid those. Now, zinc I can say this right now because zinc doesn't have the popularity.
Jeffrey Stern [00:32:54]:
Problem of lithium, right?
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:32:55]:
But I think the scalability we don't see these kind of roadblocks ahead of us. Like, can we figure out a way to recycle a zinc battery? We don't need to. It's a very simple battery that plates metal inside all the time. And it's water based battery. It'll be easy to recycle. It's essentially just recycling itself every time you charge the battery. Can we find more zinc? Well, zinc is already one of the highest. I think it's the fourth or fifth most produced metal in the world already, and it's recyclable and it's everywhere. These just don't seem like challenges for the future like they are currently challenges for lithium.
Jeffrey Stern [00:33:27]:
So I'll ask then, why doesn't zinc have the ubiquity of use that maybe it should? What are the roadblocks? What's prevented it from being adopted at that scale?
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:33:41]:
Yeah. Well, in the history of zinc is that the very first battery ever invented, the Voltaic pile in 1799 by Alessandro Volta, was zinc and copper. So zinc is literally one of the original battery metals. So zinc has been around in batteries for a long time. Edison has patents on zinc batteries. In fact, zinc is the dominant battery chemistry for alkaline batteries. SOAS it used to be zinc carbon back in the old days. And then in like the 60s, they converted it. I think it was actually done here in Cleveland at Energizer to zinc, manganese dioxide. So, zinc batteries have been around for a long time. Hearing aid batteries are zinc air. Zinc is no stranger to batteries, but you'll note all the ones I just mentioned are non rechargeable. So one of the biggest stumbling blocks for zinc has always been the rechargeability. It oxidizes really nicely. It's easy to drain these batteries. They're very dense. Hearing aid batteries are very, very dense zinc air. But there's been problems with recharging it. And so, what's happened in the last 20 years or so with this growing market need for different kinds of batteries, better batteries, just the need for batteries at large, and also improvements in materials chemistry. That's what we're doing. People have gotten better at making these batteries, and there's a need for more batteries. They started to solve or at least kind of lessen some of these issues based on rechargeability. So, lithium has been kind of this granddaddy of non rechargeable batteries for a long time. And now, while we need more batteries, let's start solving some of that rechargeable problems, and then we can get zinc to a place where it's a real commercial competitor. It's step by step. A lot of the companies we're working with have found workarounds or ways to solve some of these problems, like dendrite growth, like hydrogen, like these things that hurt the cyclability of the battery. But there's still a lot more room for improvement. And that's what we're really doing, is bringing a complementary solution to whatever they've developed already. Ours is a product that you literally just blend into the battery. You mix it in with the liquid part of the battery, and you put in 1% of our stuff, a tiny amount into the battery, and it stops your dendrites or it stops your hydrogen. We have customers who get 60% more battery life just by adding 1% of our additive, or the battery can hold 25% more energy just because the add a percent of our stuff. So, despite the age of zinc batteries, the kind of modern look at rechargeable zinc batteries today is essentially where lithiumion batteries were probably 20 or 30 years ago. So it's kind of a little renaissance happening with zinc batteries because zinc is very easy to work with and the time is right for us to really reevaluate and find new uses for this elder statesman of battery technology.
Jeffrey Stern [00:36:19]:
I love that. So from your perspective, from Octet's perspective, what comes next? How do you help amplify all of the work that you're doing land grow the company from here?
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:36:31]:
Yeah. Well, for us, one of our challenges is that the broader or the future looking side of the zinc battery market is still very young. We are also working with the established side of the zinc market. So all those companies that make AAAS household names that, you know, we're working with them too because they still need better chemicals inside their batteries to help extend shelf life or increase power output, things like this. So there is an established market that are testing our materials now, but the really exciting kind of grid storage, the places where zinc batteries could go really big, we have to work with the customers and kind of be here as that emergence happens. So we're pretty early in this sort of a thing. So where we're going is we've done a lot of product development work. We've done a lot of Iterative work with our customers to find the best molecule for each of these companies. And like I said earlier, we're scaling that up to meet their supply needs so that they can actually start going into these batteries at larger scale. The exciting thing is a number of the companies that we're working with are starting to make some real serious commercial progress, particularly on grid storage. Some of the names there are zincate, EOS, Energy Storage, Red Flow. Grid storage is this real kind of Wild West market right now where there's a lot of incumbency from lithium, not because lithium was because grid storage was here and lithium was in it from before, but rather grid storage became this immediate need and we need a battery. And lithium was the battery standing there at the time, our best battery. So there's a lot of uncertainty about, well, which way is this market going to go? Which of these batteries are going to actually be the best on the grid? It's a very exciting time for zinc because there are a number of zinc chemistries that are being developed for that space elsewhere. Another really exciting market is stationary power. So think of it as backup batteries. So we're becoming so much more data intensive world. And so data centers, computing power, these things that cannot go down for any amount of time. They have these backup batteries that are inside the data center and now they're even sitting right on the rack with the servers. So you want a battery that doesn't require a lot of safety overhead and it can be compact and sit right there. And zinc chemistries have some of the highest power density of any chemistry. So power density basically, meaning how fast does it put the juice out is power, rather than just how much juices it holds, is the energy. So some companies, like Zinc Five, like Acer, Acer Technologies, sunrgy is one in Europe that are doing things and they're mostly replacing lead acid, but they're also replacing some of the lithium that has started creeping into that market. And then we work with a number of other exciting companies who are doing medical wearables, like small button cell micro batteries, where we have applications where you don't want to put a lithium battery because of the safety concerns in medical situations. So there's some really exciting silver zinc chemistries there, and there's a lot of exciting military applications, certain kinds of drones, more specialty sorts of things out there. But I look at those and I smile because they remind me of the kind of sometimes the oddball beach heads that lead to larger market disruption. So, like I said earlier, zinc air chemistry has higher energy density than lithiumion. But cyclability is like 30, 50 cycles is the best you can do. So I dream of a day when we get a multiple thousand cycle zinc air battery that could have the density of a lithiumion battery and be maybe a quarter of the cost or something. And then we can really then combustion cars will go away because we'll have such cheap batteries and safe land water based. But first we got to get there through developments like the ones we're developing and our customers batteries.
Jeffrey Stern [00:40:09]:
Wow. I mean, it's really a breadth of potential applications that Octet enables.
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:40:17]:
Yeah, these are markets where companies are selling their batteries now, so they have commercial solutions that are competitive even before they've really started using a lot of our products. Some of them are using our products at early stages, but others we can still help improve. Like I said earlier, we're at an early stage in the development of zinc batteries at large. So I think there's still a lot of room for improvement on those because it's always going to be a very competitive space, energy storage. But one of the reasons we also chose zinc as kind of our target chemistry to work with is that breadth that you were describing here, that there's a lot of lottery tickets out there for the zinc battery. So a lot of markets where they could really take off and they're all based on zinc. They all have metallic zinc anodes that you need to plate. So they could all be users of our chemistry.
Jeffrey Stern [00:41:08]:
If we don't ultimately end up in this zinc powered or rather stored imagined future, what will have gone wrong? Because the way you're describing it, it seems like maybe it's just a matter of time, but we should get there.
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:41:26]:
I think looking backward at the battery industry, it's generally one that doesn't have a lot of diversity. Even today, there are so many lead acid batteries around us all the time. All cars are powered by lead acid batteries. And if you look at the specs of a lead acid battery, by modern standards, it's not a great battery. It doesn't have a very long life. The depth of discharge is a challenge. It's based on lead, but it's deeply entrenched. It's not causing a lot of pain. And it's been there for so long. There's only ever been a couple of different technologies that really dominate. Looking forward. A lot of people are speculating that that's going to change land. There's going to be more diversity because of the ubiquity of batteries we talked about earlier. It's not just going to be like batteries are this and every battery is lithiumion is the battery and every battery in the world is lithiumion. That makes less sense looking forward for a number of reasons. So it's going to be lithiumion. Batteries are dense and they're high performing, but they are also kind of prima donnas. You got to keep them in the right temperature range. They can explode, whatever. So, yeah, they go in small devices, they go in our cars. But for this application, this battery is best. And for that application, maybe the other battery is best. So thinking that this will become competitive enough that there'll be different chemistries for different homes, I think something that could potentially based on that, I've got faith that Zinc will find one, probably many homes in the different applications. It's got a lot more commercial momentum than other kind of emerging battery technologies. One thing we didn't talk about yet, but one of the frustrating things about working in the battery industry is the hype. Oh my goodness. The hype. The breakthroughs. This breakthrough, that breakthrough. This is all over the place.
Jeffrey Stern [00:43:10]:
I'm glad you brought it up because I was going to ask about it.
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:43:13]:
It's kind of this barking carnival of like, oh, this is going to change everything. This is going to change everything. The big challenge is scale up is commercialization. You can make a lot of really cool looking batteries in a lab. You can make one, two, a dozen really cool batteries or something funky. That's going to change the way things go. But batteries, you need to make millions of them. That's where they go. We're not working towards making one giant battery for the world, but rather so there's a lot of challenges. And Zinc is way ahead of the game there because of its ease of handling. A lot of the companies I mentioned earlier, they have products, they're selling their batteries now. So they're competitive from a cost perspective, even before they've really scaled up. A lot of those companies are making their batteries. They're selling their batteries. The batteries are being made by hand in factories and places. They don't have slick robots putting these things together like in some sort of futuristic factory. So there are a lot of interesting technologies being developed that could change the landscape, but we're talking about like solid state batteries or like lithium metal or some of these ones, but they're still kind of chasing the markets where lithium dominates already. What would be great about solid state batteries? They could be denser, they could be safer, but they will still probably be expensive. They're kind of looking to unseat lithium. And as I mentioned before, even today's, lithium doesn't make a whole lot of sense on the grid. So those are going to be high end, complex batteries that are maybe we'll have cars that have twice the range or whatever. I feel like a lot of the exciting lithium work that's being developed is like next generation batteries are going to kind of cannibalize the markets where lithium makes the most sense already. Lithiumion. Zinc is going to be the kind of stalwart sidekick to lithium, I think, in the future, where it's like these are the rugged, safe, simple, cheap batteries that go on the grid, that support data centers and hospitals and go in places where you don't need exceptionally high density, but you also don't want to live with dangerous safety. High cost, short lifetime, some of those things.
Jeffrey Stern [00:45:14]:
So earlier on you had mentioned that there's always unknown looking into the future as part of the startup entrepreneurial process. And as part of that, it's almost the job of the startup to try land convert that unquantifiable unknown into something measurable that is a risk that you can manage. What are some of those unknowns that you're thinking about, some of the risks that you're managing? Where does Octet go from here?
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:45:46]:
Yeah, I think the biggest one for us, I mentioned earlier that we are coming to this market quite early, and I'm happy to say that we don't have any direct competitors. And in fact, many of our customers will say something to the likes of, there's nobody else is doing what you're doing. We're really at the vanguard of developing new chemistry for zinc batteries. So we've had a really easy time engaging with our customers, bringing them chemistry that improves their performance. That's kind of been the easier part, the riskier part, the kind of future looking part is how soon will they really grow and emerge. Land start to really dominate in the markets that they're playing in. So we're helping that because we're making their batteries better. But that's the timeline that I think most about. Grid storage is a great example. You can see market reports that show the forecasting that the grid storage is going to be this $60 billion industry, but a lot of them are very aggressive. And how does that actually roll out has been a bigger question. I remember when I so I started this company, I wrote the first proposal in 2017, and I used a Bloomberg New Energy Finance graphic that showed this big S curve hockey stick of all this grid storage spending and this marketability, and it's been slower rolling out. If you look at it in terms of year over year increase, it's still shocking. It's like, wow, a 200%, 300% increase in energy in grid storage spending. So it's still shooting straight up, but it's all about how far you zoom out of that graph. So how fast that grows, how much of our customers capture that. That's one thing I look at, but I'm happy to say a lot of it's happening. And there's been some over aggressiveness, I would say, from the market forecasting generally, where grid storage will go. But it's still pointed straight up and it's still moving quickly. And our customers are doing a lot of exciting installations, and their companies are growing too. So I'm happy that our customers are at this kind of commercial scale up stage rather than maybe product design. A lot of our customers are in their second or third generation products already. So some of those unknowns are kind of fading away. And it's just a matter of timing, like how big will the Go? How soon land how would that affect us in our scale up plans?
Jeffrey Stern [00:48:01]:
What could be done to accelerate land actually realize that as you zoom out of that graph the scale and have it be real.
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:48:11]:
Yeah, well, one thing that I think is happening, we've been trying to help it, and I think we can do some more to it. But kind of raising as simple or tried as it might sound like raising awareness about zinc batteries, it's still funny to me how everyone knows about lithiumion. And if I ask you an honest question before, I told you earlier today that AAA batteries were zinc based. Did you know that?
Jeffrey Stern [00:48:34]:
No, I did not.
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:48:36]:
No, nobody does. The validity of zinc based batteries, not just in those double A's and stuff, but I mean, like I said, a lot of companies have commercial zinc based batteries that are in the field, and some of them have been in the field for years. So we're in this world where everyone's looking around right now land saying, wow, lithium has got a lot of challenges. The prices are going up. We don't know if this is we're looking for alternatives. Everyone's looking for, like, what else you got beyond lithium for different applications. And zinc is there in the field. But I think that the national awareness of it still has to catch up. So one thing we're trying to do to help is trying to kind of organize some of those customers of ours, these companies that make these batteries, to become a bit more vocal. There's a new thing called the Zinc Battery Initiative, formed a few years ago through the International Zinc Association to try to, like I've been saying, raise awareness and get people to realize that these batteries, they're not an idea, they're not a laboratory experiment. These are batteries that are real on the grid right now, running at the grid or data center or wherever they are. And so that's the way we're trying to help push it. Is that getting people to realize like, these batteries are scalable, they're here, they're commercial, they're real, this isn't solid state, that's seven or ten years away, or lithium metal. And I think that will help drive adoption, really, of these batteries. But it's also a challenge because what does a person want a battery to do? They want it to just sit in the corner and be ready to give me power when I need it, right? It's very much a bankability kind of industry where it's not one where you get a lot of excited early adopters who are like, I can't wait to get my hands on this new battery, I hope it works. It's one where there's a lot of caution. We talk to a lot of the utility companies. So you might think, who's going to buy these grid storage batteries? Land think like, oh, big power companies, they can set them next to their plants or whatever. But the utility industry, we find, tends to be a bit more cautious. It's more of like the renewables companies that are embracing these new technologies sooner. So there'll probably be some tipping point where we've got enough credibility out there. People have seen these batteries running for long enough that they're ready to some of the bigger players ready to bank on them. And so things will really turn a big corner there. But it's coming along largely because there's challenges with lithium. Land some places you won't get your lithium batteries for a couple of years. So if you want something sooner, you may take a chance on the zinc that's ready now. So I think awareness is a part of it. They're great products and they're working. So it's a matter of building that trust grid batteries. They're signing power purchase agreements that are for 15 or 20 years. So they're making long term commitments on these batteries. So they want to be sure these batteries will last that long. And they will, but some people need to see it before they're ready to pull that trigger.
Jeffrey Stern [00:51:25]:
Yeah, it's kind of fun to think about it as a branding problem. And for better, for worse, lithiums got this, I don't know, sex appeal as a battery mineral because of electric cars, whatever applications of it that exist.
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:51:42]:
Yeah, and that's our challenge in my early stumblings on social media, but like LinkedIn and that sort of a thing, trying to position we try to point out the limitations of lithium without just like talking bad about lithium. Because like I said before, lithium is a heroic battery chemistry that will literally save the world. So we need to do something about climate change. We need to stop burning fossil fuels. Transportation is one of the biggest reasons that's what lithium is here to do. Lithium is going to save that day, all of our days, really. So we try to position it so that but we need to make sure all the lithium that we got goes to that problem. So let's use zinc in other places. Let's use a technology that's safe, sustainable. I like to point out that we all have a few grams of zinc in our body at any given time because it's a necessary mineral.
Jeffrey Stern [00:52:34]:
It's in my daily vitamin.
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:52:36]:
Yeah, there's no downside. This isn't like, yeah, zinc will work, but it's mined by slave children on their side of the world. Like, no, we've got it. We can recycle it. We don't pay these prices for this. Let's work on this. Let's make this a battery of the future. Like you said, it might not be as sexy as lithium. It's not going to drive a fast car, but it's going to do a lot of the work, a lot of the grunt work that lithium probably shouldn't be bothered with.
Jeffrey Stern [00:53:03]:
Yeah, well, it comes full circle because I think it goes back to where we started, which was that we have this proliferation on the production side of energy right now. And as the cost of all of that approaches net zero, we should be thinking about how do we store energy at scale.
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:53:24]:
Yeah. Land, I think, going I've talked a lot about grid. I think grid is like a big, exciting it's one of the most exciting applications. But the markets for batteries everywhere else are huge, too. And we still use a lot of lead acid in our cars, in our data centers. It's very highly recycled in the US. But a lot of that recycling is done overseas and a lot of that recycle. The recycling is the largest source of lead contamination in the world. So that's good. It's good. We put this effort into it, and yet just handling leads to this kind of problem. So I'd like to see us get rid of lead wholesale, because nickel zinc side by side is a better technology and one that we could be making now, as was one example. Batteries are just going to become such a critically ubiquitous part of our lives that we owe it to ourselves in the future to have the best batteries in those conditions. And not just the best in terms of performance, but the best in terms of cost, performance and sustainability. Because something that kind of rankles me is you'll sometimes see people point to the mining that's required for battery materials and say, see, they're not so green. See, they got to mine this stuff. And it's true. These things need to be dug out of the ground, just like oil, which we dig out of the ground once and then burn. These are things that we could also recycle, reuse. And again, zinc excels in that application. So I just feel like looking at all. The possible battery technologies that we're considering now. Zinc is some of the cleanest, easiest, no braineriest, kind of future looking battery. It's not as dense as lithium. It's not going to drive your Tesla, but it might someday. But in the meantime, it can be the completely guilt free option we could be using in a lot of other places.
Jeffrey Stern [00:55:10]:
With the tribulations of the first go at the US National Science Foundation application and the learning, really, that you have to kind of ground it in the problems of your customers. I'm curious, as you've proceeded on the entrepreneurial journey, what have been some of the other learnings that you've taken with you and reflections on the whole process so far?
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:55:37]:
Yeah, it's a big question. I'd say that I'm really proud of the work we did in our first our first phase one, you know, I think we developed a good product. That was our first patent we had. We had good engagement with our customers, but what we didn't do soon enough was send products to the customers. So that didn't happen until after we had written. So I feel like there weren't really any missteps there maybe just steps not taken fast enough. I'd say the biggest part of the journey that I've been on. I should also mention that as we speak, I'll put together a press release soon for our round. We've closed a seed round. It'll probably be out there by the time this airs. So we have investors. We did a seed round investment. So we've raised money for a chemical manufacturing company in Cleveland, Ohio. So it's a bit unusual compared to what a lot of startups are based on. So we have a very more cost intensive kind of R and D. We have a laboratory. We're developing a physical product. It's a much different animal than a lot of what people think of as startups that are a little more nimble in terms of their overhead. So we've gone through that. But I think it's been good that the region and maybe the nation as a whole is kind of waking up to the need to invest in more hard tech manufacturing, real physical products. The Inflation Reduction Act is a godsend to companies like ours because we are making chemicals that go into batteries. Our customers are making batteries in the US. We think this is critically important to energy security in the future. Land just a more broadly spread global economy, rather than having these certain pinch points of different materials, different products. So that coming along at the same time has been great for us too, and kind of shining a light on the sorts of things that we're doing to do this in the US. So I think the climate may be improving for that, but raising in our kind of unusual situation and also over the backdrop of the last year when there's a big slowdown and valuations changing a lot. Land I learned a lot through that process. But I think what's really been good is that since the beginning of the company we've had a very clear vision about what we're trying to do, the markets that we're working with. Our challenge, like I said, is that we're very early but that's also a big opportunity for a company as small as ours to make a big impact and get a defensible market position. Once all these batteries are using our chemistry, that's a great place to be in as they scale. So learning how to take this kind of science idea in a kind of market idea and stern building it into a real company that knows what it's doing and makes money by selling chemicals chemistry I'd say, has been the biggest learning over the course of the last few years.
Jeffrey Stern [00:58:24]:
You had mentioned that coming into it all, you did not really have a firm grasp or understanding of batteries. Do you find that that beginner's mindset coming into it has served you well in your ability to kind of like just from a place of curiosity approach the problem space? Are there things you wish you knew that you now know that would have been helpful at the beginning?
Dr. Onas Bolton [00:58:47]:
Yeah, certainly there are. I think that this kind of goes back to, in my mind, what I was saying before about the difficult transition from being like a scientist, like in an academic setting, to being kind of like a founder or a novice in some way. Because I think it's at the heart of any kind of a startup is like you're exploring new space, so there's going to be a lot of things you don't know. And I think another way that you get punished in the science fields is for not knowing stuff. So it can be really difficult to walk into a situation just saying I don't know, I don't know this, I haven't learned this yet. So we've had to educate ourselves a lot on batteries, talk a lot with our customers to understand the challenges that they really see. We've added to our team so we have a lot more battery expertise on the team now than when we got started. But you have to be comfortable not knowing things, I think, to move forward because you have to explore the unexplored space and embrace the unknown unknowns and I think that just can be really difficult. It was hard for me. It's an important part of growing and something you just need to kind of be at peace with if you're going to be doing something new.
Jeffrey Stern [01:00:04]:
One of the things that I want to ask you about as well before we round it out here, which is particularly over time, through the podcast now, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that there is a large opportunity for this. Technology transfer component of entrepreneurship where very evidently there's a lot of value, both business and for society that is contained within Case Western and the other institutions in the area, and I'm sure quite at large. How do we get more tech transfer in practice?
Dr. Onas Bolton [01:00:43]:
Yeah, it's challenging. I've worked at that interface because I worked for a large corporate entity working with faculty on the campus. And I've done similar things in other roles in academics before joining industry. And there are some kind of fundamental challenges around the way that the two kind of entities generally operate that make it really challenging to kind of work together. Now, I think the biggest limitation, as I see it for tech transfer is that universities, first of all, you need to know what does a market want, what's a saleable solution in the world? Land you have to have a good awareness of that. That sometimes is lacking in academic settings. And sometimes the solutions that are most valuable in industry or outside of a university setting, they can be too simple to be of interest to the university. If I use the example of chemistry, my background, you can publish papers where you develop complex molecules or you do some really kind of exciting trick shooting to make a new molecule. In the academic world, you're kind of rewarded for complexity and difficultness and kind of finding a way to make a really hard thing happen. And oftentimes that's not something that's really translatable to an industrial application. So kind of aligning those things is just kind of inherently challenging. Like the things that are needed in industry sometimes are relatively simple solutions that wouldn't make for a good paper lay. So there's that kind of a challenge. The other thing that I always felt that was a challenge for these two entities working together was that in the academic setting, it's all about sharing information. When you make a discovery, you publish a paper. That's where your rewards lie in papers. Land that's where that mountain leads that you're climbing over there. And in industry, it's the exact opposite. Like we might think, like, oh, they want to write patents in this sort of a thing. It's like, well, yes. Land no more valuable than a patent is a secret that nobody else knows, like a trade secret that the company has. So there's exact opposites. I've seen plenty of times where an industrial organization wants to develop something so that no one can know about it ever and they can kind of hold that secret and use it to make money. And an academic might want to tell the world this wonderful the secret that they discovered. So they're often at odds in that way, too, that I find can be difficult to even kind of work together to find a solution because one side gets rewarded for telling everyone about it, the other side gets rewarded for telling only as much as they need to to move forward. But the caveat here is that's not my field. I'm sure you've had people on who know a lot more about tech transfer and like I said before, our company did not start as a spin out from Case. My friend Rohan, his group does theoretical land theoretical but also modeling empirical electrochemistry. I do organic, you know, organic molecule design. So there was a good interface between like I'm going to make up these molecules, will you test them for me? And then yes. So I want to be clear on that.
Jeffrey Stern [01:04:00]:
Yes, no I appreciate the clarification. It's just even with that said, it feels like there's such an unlocked potential in it and that there's really this opportunity. Because even just here in Cleveland, there's a dozen plus really amazing companies that are getting real commercial traction that come from that walking and the figuring out the dance there in a way that they're not stepping on each other's feet.
Dr. Onas Bolton [01:04:30]:
Yeah, and it's funny too. That my position. I wanted to generalize and say as a scientist but at least in my position I came into this situation here thinking that you need to a very solutions based view of the potential for a company. I thought, can I make this company work? Well yes, if I find the perfect scientific solution then I can make the company work. And getting to this point I look at it a little bit differently where it's like we don't need to make the perfect solution to make this work. We need to make a better solution. We need to make something that actually solves the challenges of our customers. But it doesn't need to be perfect, it doesn't need to be the best of all possible iterations. We don't need to understand it in every possible way. We need to understand it well enough to make a product out of it and serve our customers and it has to bring them real value. So I think there are probably a lot of technologies that are in the coffers at different universities that would be good enough to find a new market to go somewhere but you need to have someone pick those up land, really find a home for them and take them forward. The solution doesn't need to be perfected. In fact it's probably better that it's not because there's going to be things you don't know about what your customers really need in ways that solution needs to kind of wiggle around to find exactly the way they want it. But it's a special kind of skill set to take those sorts of things and you need to know that you're going after a market that's real and exists before you invest all that time.
Jeffrey Stern [01:05:54]:
That's quite a formative shift in perspective though. That's very cool.
Dr. Onas Bolton [01:05:58]:
It's generally my strategy is to when I'm thinking of trajectories of things I'm doing, I think of how wide they are. If you're trying to land this plane perfectly on this narrow runway, it's going to be difficult. So I try to think of like well, if we can get at least this far, and then we can see if our solution can shift to this or that. I guess I put a lot of contingency in my future planning. I think even from like a molecular standpoint, we look for molecules where we could have a lot of flexibility, we could modify them if necessary, and kind of building that into any plan for a startup I think is pretty critical.
Jeffrey Stern [01:06:34]:
Well, we've covered a lot of ground here, and before I ask my traditional closing question, I did want to leave a little space to see if there's anything really important here that you don't think we've covered or touched on yet.
Dr. Onas Bolton [01:06:48]:
No, I think it's been a pretty good talk. I could go on and on a lot about what batteries are and what they're going to mean, but I think some of the biggest points I covered here, it's an exciting time. I think that batteries are going to become a much bigger part of life going forward, just the way that we all know the price of gas all the time, even though all it does is drive our cars around. But I think batteries will kind of occupy a similar space in humanity going forward. And I hope that they're not a pain. I hope that they work and they're great and we're happy about it. So I'm happy to get out some of those bigger messages of how lithium is great, but it has its limitations. We think zinc can really fill the role to keep lithium where it needs to be and give us a really great battery in other applications too. So if I could say anything to the world, I guess that's the sort of thing I want to let them know.
Jeffrey Stern [01:07:39]:
Yeah, well, it really is incredibly exciting, the work that you're doing, and I've enjoyed very much learning about it. So thank you.
Dr. Onas Bolton [01:07:47]:
No, my pleasure. We can talk more offline anytime you want, learn even more.
Jeffrey Stern [01:07:53]:
You should be careful putting that out there. I'll take you up on that. So I'll ask you our traditional closing question now, which is completely unrelated to any of this, but it is about Cleveland, and it's for a hidden gem, for something that other folks may not know about, but perhaps they should.
Dr. Onas Bolton [01:08:12]:
Yeah, one thing, this is kind of abstract, but the thing that I really love, and I should mention that I moved here from Michigan, my wife and I, about ten years ago. So I didn't grow up here. I'm an outsider. But what I really like about Cleveland, and since we've been here is the really interesting history. It really crosses over. It touches a lot of points in my mind with the startup world that we're especially in, but in general, because a lot of companies were founded here that you probably never heard of, and they might still exist in some other form, but like in the early 20th century, when the world was just industrializing. I mentioned the Baker Electric Car Company earlier. There was a lot of real can do kind of ambitious ideas around the Arc lamp and Charles Brush, like before, incandescent lamps was one of the first electric lights ever invented, was done in Cleveland. And these old millionaire magnates who had these this guy Brush, I was reading about him, he had like an all electric farmhouse. It was in the countryside back then, but it was actually closer to downtown than where I'm sitting right now. And had this big windmill and he had batteries in the place, lead acid batteries that ran his the things that we think are the future today were things people were playing around with back then and starting new companies and the GE's presence in the area. Land I've really been thrilled to dig into some of that history of and then Rockefeller and Standard Oil and I know oil we're moving away from that now, of course, but this region had a lot of that making the future kind of energy pun unintended back then. And it's really exciting to think because people will often say, like, oh, you're doing a startup? Oh, in Cleveland, they don't expect that. They think startups are born in California. But to read into the history of, like, this is where a lot of that happened. And a lot of kind of real visionary, wide eyed people were developing new technologies here, and they were going to change the world doing it. So it's exciting to see those roots in this area. So I like to go to Lakeview Cemetery and you see some of the tombstones of Rockefeller, some of these famous people, and you think it wasn't all that long ago that they were changing the world in ways we intend to do it now, too. And so it's really exciting. So that's kind of my hidden gem, I think, is that there's a lot of cool history. I think it's overlooked in Cleveland. I wish there was a brighter light shown on it. Those were startups. Those were the sorts of things that we're excited about today, 100 years ago.
Jeffrey Stern [01:10:49]:
Yeah, I appreciate that sentiment very much. I think it is a real hidden gem. The history here is quite fascinating and rich and diverse. Actually. I'll throw a plug in there too, because I just finished reading it, so it's very topical. There is a book called The Ohio Guide which the State of Ohio Work Progress Administration wrote in 1940. And I guess at the time, the federal government had instituted this grant program for states to write their own history book up to that point in time. And I think 30 something states opted to participate in this, and Ohio was one of them. And so they wrote this really comprehensive history of Ohio from inception through 1940. And it was one of the most fascinating reads I've done recently. So if you haven't seen that one, I would check that one out too.
Dr. Onas Bolton [01:11:42]:
Yeah, I should. That sounds really interesting. Unfortunately, like I mentioned, this Charles Brush estate that had this big giant windmill and all electric. He also had it torn down on the event of his death, like one of his will. Some of this history, it's like, oh, you should have kept that. That would be really cool. Now this region could say, we are the first zero carbon household. We could be doing cool stuff like that. But these people were so industrious. They were like, when I die, tear it all down.
Jeffrey Stern [01:12:09]:
Yeah, we'll keep the industrial banner going.
Dr. Onas Bolton [01:12:12]:
Jeffrey Stern [01:12:13]:
Well, thank you again so much for coming on and for sharing your story again. It's really fascinating and I appreciate it.
Dr. Onas Bolton [01:12:21]:
Yeah, my pleasure. I'm realizing that I failed to mention my investors, and I wish I had Jumpstart. I don't know if there's a way to squeeze it in.
Jeffrey Stern [01:12:28]:
We can get it in when we launch the episode.
Dr. Onas Bolton [01:12:30]:
Sure. Yeah, I should definitely mention Jumpstart and the advanced manufacturing fund. There are lead investors.
Jeffrey Stern [01:12:36]:
All right, the actual last question then. If folks had anything that they wanted to follow up with you about, what would be the best way for them.
Dr. Onas Bolton [01:12:43]:
To do so, the best way is probably to send me an email. I'm kind of old fashioned, so at Onas Bolton@octets.com, that's also our website. So it's Octetsci.com, and I'm Onas Bolton at Octatsai. So that's the most effective way.
Jeffrey Stern [01:13:02]:
Great. Well, thank you again.
Dr. Onas Bolton [01:13:04]:
All right. Yeah, my pleasure.
Jeffrey Stern [01:13:07]:
That's all for this week. Thank you for listening. We'd love to hear your thoughts on today's show, so if you have any feedback, please send over an email to Jeffrey at layoftheland.fm or find us on Twitter at podlayoftheland or at sternjefe J-E-F-E. If you or someone you know would make a good guest for our show, please reach out as well and let us know. And if you enjoy the podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on itunes or on your preferred podcast player. Your support goes a long way to help us spread the word and continue to bring the Cleveland founders and builders we love having on the show. We'll be back here next week at the same time to map more of the land.
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