Activate Fellows are a special breed. They have what it takes to move their research beyond the lab and into the market. Here are portraits of three fellows who found their path at Activate.

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“The fellowship allowed us to build the prototype that we needed to get private funding."
Etosha Cave

Etosha Cave spent her PhD at Stanford working to convert CO2 pollution into valuable commodity chemicals. After years of research, she and her colleagues were convinced they could build something transformative: a reactor that would produce the world’s first economical carbon neutral fuels. They founded a startup, Opus 12, to bring this vision to market.

But, after a few conversations with potential partners and investors, they were stuck. The problem wasn’t the technology’s transformative potential. People understood that. But without a working prototype that could take several years and millions of dollars to assemble, investors and customers were too skeptical to buy in.

Over two years, Cave and her co-founders were able to validate a first market, build a prototype reactor, form a key commercial partnership, and, ultimately, raise funding they needed to build a team and scale their company.

 

 

“If we can make this work, it has a lot of promise to act as a bridge to a lower-carbon future.”
Tom McDonald

As a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley, Tom McDonald studied metal-organic-frameworks—new materials with an unrivaled ability to absorb gases, such as CO2. McDonald saw a huge potential impact in this field: MOFs were one of the most promising ways to achieve carbon capture and use it to mitigate climate change.

But, while thousands of MOF materials with commercially relevant properties had been discovered in academic labs, few, if any, had entered commercial use. Capturing this opportunity would require scaling MOF synthesis from grams to kilograms and finding a high-value first market.

With our support, McDonald and two cofounders started Mosaic Materials to do just that. Working at Berkeley Lab, Mosaic scaled up their synthesis within a few months. They also spoke to dozens of customers to identify high-value applications for CO2 removal in submarines, natural gas purification, and biogas upgrading. This unlocked funding from the California Energy Commission for a pilot demonstration and their first private investment, both key stepping stones to a first commercial product.

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“They really encouraged me to go out and talk to people. Without that insight, I would be barking up the wrong tree right now.”
Pete Frischmann

Pete Frischmann developed a nanoporous polymer as a scientist at Berkeley Lab. Months of market research showed that his invention could unlock ultra-lightweight Li-S batteries for electrified air travel. He founded a company, Sepion Technologies, to spin out the invention. But would investors have the appetite for a far-future market?

As a fellow, Frischmann spoke to dozens of investors and strategic partners to find out. He quickly realized his initial concept would be nearly impossible to finance as a first market. It was back to the drawing board for his new company.

With support from our fellowship and access to facilities at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry, Frischmann was able to shift his focus to membranes for Li-ion and Li-metal batteries, while demonstrating the performance and manufacturability of his polymer at industrial scale. His new direction was rewarded with a multimillion dollar grant from ARPA-E and, upon exiting the program, an initial round of private investment.

 

 Take your next step with Activate.

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