Many people check their fax machines every morning, but these days Theodore Poehler and Peter Searson are taking a particular interest in what appears on theirs. This pair of Johns Hopkins University scientists believe they are achingly close to a deal that could turn their research brainchild-an all-plastic battery-into a commercial reality. Each day they expect to see the final outcome of more than a year of negotiations, hoping for a decision from several large battery companies or word from private investors who have expressed a willingness to put up tens of millions of dollars.
An agreement with the right battery company or group of backers could transform their invention from a laboratory curiosity into a rising star in the huge battery market. The prototype is remarkable-small, light and rechargeable. Even more intriguing, it comes in thin, bendable sheets that can be formed into a shape resembling a business card. Poehler and Searson think the novel battery could play a leading role in a new generation of electric vehicles, satellites and lightweight electronic devices-even as a replacement for standard AA-size batteries.
That’s the dream. Making it a reality, though, takes money-lots of money. It also takes business savvy. And Poehler and Searson know there’s no guarantee of success. “We are both very guarded,” Peohler explains. “If it happens, it happens-if it doesn’t, well, we are trying to just think about doing the research to make the technology better.”
Their story is a tale of how basic researchers working on the cutting edge can find themselves in the world of entrepreneurship, venture capital and big business. And how, once they get there, the issues may be just as complex-and far less familiar-than those they face at the lab bench.
Poehler, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and the university’s vice provost for research, and Searson, a professor of materials sciences and engineering, never set out to be entrepreneurs. When they began their search six years ago for an all-plastic battery, they just wanted to do good science, testing the limits of a material and a system. The professors headed a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins that included Jeffrey Killian, Josef Gofer and Haripada Sarker; graduate student Jennifer Giaccai subsequently joined the group. Progress came slowly, but by 1996 they had a workable prototype. Then, early last year, a Johns Hopkins University press release touting the development of the novel plastic battery triggered a media frenzy.
The plastic battery was named “Invention of the Year” by Popular Science. TV crews arrived from as far away as Sweden, Tokyo and Brazil and roamed the lab. The researchers appeared on CNN and in USA Today. Graduate students in the group became local media stars. Hundreds of companies and investors inquired about the new technology, trying to turn its electrical potential into earnings potential. Wall Street analysts called to get the scoop on any deals that might be signed to produce the battery commercially.
These days, more than a year later, the lab is just about back to normal. A recent visit by TR found the usual hush of a university lab, the researchers going about the business of doing science. The TV crews are gone. The steady stream of visitors thinned.
Out of the glare of the media, the Johns Hopkins team, like other academic researchers who have developed a hot new materials technology, is navigating the world of business and finance.