Plastic Batteries: All Charged Up and Waiting to Go
The researchers who invented a lightweight plastic battery found themselves thrown into the world of venture capital and big business. Navigating these waters requires different skills from those that work in the lab.
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.
Make no mistake-the stakes are high. Successful commercialization of a plastic battery could mean big bucks for its academic inventors and their university. The U.S. market alone for batteries is $5.8 billion a year and is poised for rapid growth as a new generation of electric vehicles and smaller electronic devices drives a need for more efficient, lighter rechargeable batteries. Corporate and academic labs around the world are racing to find the solution, with many efforts focusing on lithium-based batteries (see sidebar).
A plastic battery could carve out a lucrative niche. Most batteries today are made of toxic and environmentally damaging heavy metals such as lead and cadmium. Plastic batteries, however, contain no metals and are easily recycled. They must be sealed so that moisture doesn’t dampen their charge, but the polymers inside are a far cry from lithium, which can explode when exposed to water.
What’s more, the all-plastic battery is made of thin, foil-like sheets-a critical advantage for someone designing a product who needs to figure out where to squeeze in a battery. Imagine casings for laptop computers lined with thin sheets of the battery or car structural parts that are lined with the power sources, even satellites where the plastic battery is crammed into any available space. “You can make it into just about whatever configuration you want,” says Searson.
The trick is finding a polymer anode suitable for a workable battery. When used in a battery, certain polymers can act as great cathodes, readily accepting electrons coming from the anode through an external circuit. On the other hand, for a conducting polymer to act as an anode, it must be doped so that an extra electron is forced into the polymer backbone, giving it a negative charge. Unlike doped cathodes, however, doped anodes are unstable and vulnerable to moisture.
Despite the challenge, the Johns Hopkins team charged ahead. Eventually they found that by entrapping a lithium ion in the polymer chain they could make a type of plastic called polypyrrole behave as an anode. After three years of effort, Poehler felt that this system “started to look decent.” By the summer of 1995, the lab produced a working battery. But the battery produced only about one volt per cell-far too low for many applications-and it still required lithium as a dopant.
The team went back to the drawing board. This time they made a significant breakthrough in a little more than six months. The Johns Hopkins team turned to a family of polymers called fluorophenylthiophenes to form the electrodes; one member of the family, 3,4,5 TFPT, acts as the anode, while another, 3,5 DFPT, as the cathode. The polymers were then sandwiched around a battery electrolyte made from a thin polyacylonitrile gel. The battery could produce three volts of electricity per cell and be recharged hundreds of times.
It was a remarkable breakthrough. The batteries are as flexible as plastic wrap-so they can be rolled into the cylindrical shape of a conventional flashlight battery, or used as credit-card-thin sheets. Unlike conventional batteries, which often do not work at temperatures much below freezing, they are capable of working at temperatures as low as -40 degrees C. As an extra bonus, the batteries change colors when they discharge, making it easy to tell when a recharge is needed.
Now the lab had a workable prototype, but it was only the starting point on the hard road to commercialization. Poehler, who has seen lots of technology transfer deals in his capacity as vice provost, took the lead in the team’s business effort. “The first challenge is to determine if the technology is competitive,” he explains. By late 1996, when the story broke in the media, the Johns Hopkins researchers were confident that their battery had reached that stage. They sorted through the deluge of requests and met with more than 40 potential research partners or funders, going on visits or being visited by companies or research groups almost every week for more than a year.
“We did not look at most of the meetings as opportunities to do business deals, but as chances to exchange information,” Poehler says. Yet the overarching goal was to make a major deal that would bring the battery to the market, not just bring in money to do further research. “We are still working on this, and are always struggling to get to the point where the technology sells itself,” he says.
Getting to that point, however, isn’t easy. In fact, it means negotiating a complex world of venture capital and corporate financing. Poehler and Searson each have impressive academic reputations, but, like most scientists, neither has much experience in business wheeling and dealing and the world of high finance.
“It requires a different skill set than science,” says Lita Nelsen, director of MIT’s Technology Licensing Office. “There are a few people who have both skill sets, but not many.” The increasing supply of venture capital dollars and corporate investors looking for hot technologies means growing business opportunities for university scientists. Nelsen says, however, that scientists frequently focus exclusively on the financial aspects of a deal when “they actually should be looking for more than money. Money is available. They should be looking for wisdom that goes along with it-wisdom to know what to do in judgment situations like when the chief executive isn’t working out, or when someone is infringing on their patent.”
Academic researchers face a number of difficult decisions, as they try to guide their technologies out of the lab into the business world. They could, for example, simply license their patent and move on with their research. Alternatively, they could enter into a collaboration with a company that could provide the marketing and manufacturing experience the scientists lack. Finally, they could try and find funding for a startup company of their own.
Each option has pros and cons. Whatever their decision, Poehler and Searson say they plan to stay at their academic jobs and let businessmen run any company. Licensing the technology to an established battery company is a safe bet financially but usually means giving up total control. Taking venture capital funding also might mean that the researchers would give up more control of a battery spinoff than they would have to with other private sources of capital.
At stake in the decision is whether the plastic battery ever sees its way out of the lab and emerges as a practical device. Commercializing new types of batteries is a notoriously expensive process, requiring new manufacturing plants and a long-term commitment to a particular type of technology. Once a corporation licenses a technology, they largely gain control over its fate-including the choice to kill its development. Choose the wrong partner and the battery-once the darling of 30-second TV sound bites-can be quickly relegated to a corporation’s pile of “better batteries” that never panned out.
On the other hand, the right business maneuvering could provide a lucrative payday to Searson and Poehler, as well as to a handful of their lab co-workers. Like most researchers who discover something with commercial potential, Searson, Poehler and their colleagues were careful to file a patent before they publicly released any of the findings. The university owns the patent, but profits or license fees are split so that one-third goes to the university, one-third to the researchers and one-third to the lab for its future research. If the numbers involved become very large, the researchers’ personal share declines to roughly 15 percent.
For the moment, however, the Johns Hopkins plastic battery seems to be hung up on a catch-22 that frequently plagues labs looking to market technology in early development; the project needs more funding to reach the next stage of development but the financial backers want to see more highly developed technology before they will loosen the purse strings.
What’s more, while the venture capital market continues to boom and is a ready source of dollars for startups in information technology and biotech, venture investment in new materials remains a sluggish-often neglected-sector. “Wall Street doesn’t like materials stories,” says Joe Lovett, a general partner of Medical Science Partners, a venture capital firm in Wellesley, Mass., which finances both biotech and materials science startups.
Josh Lerner, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and expert on venture capital, says, “Materials science had a brief surge of popularity in the late 1980s with high-temperature superconductivity. But people seem to have become disillusioned with the area.” Lerner says that even with the boom in venture investment, “there is still a very narrow band of technologies that are funded; 80 to 85 percent of the companies are in information technology and the life sciences.”
Beyond such funding obstacles, the plastic battery faces tough competition from several other promising types of batteries, including zinc-air batteries and lithium batteries. Each of those technologies has hundreds of millions of dollars of investment and a critical headstart. Some have already been manufactured on a large scale. Like the plastic battery, they’re efficient, lightweight and compact. Lithium-polymer batteries, for one, can be molded into almost any shape, even cut into pieces without losing their charge.
So what are the odds that one day we’ll find ourselves riding in cars with parts lined with plastic batteries, talking on cell phones powered by the stuff? It is still too early to tell. If Poehler had his choice, “one of the world’s biggest battery companies would say, We’re going to take this and make it and give you a great deal, and you can still do your own work to improve the technology,’” or a financial backer would come and give them “a whole lot of money to start up a company.”
But the Johns Hopkins scientists know it’s not that easy. So every morning Poehler and Searson continue to look for the signed agreement that might bring us closer to a plastic battery reality. Despite all of the research breakthroughs, the media hype and promising meetings, it’s still a dream trying to make the big leap into the commercial world.