COnovate: Power Pioneers

By Anna Lardinois

Startup Storyteller

History was made in a UW-Milwaukee lab in 2010, but perhaps you haven’t heard about it- at least not yet. The doctors at the helm of this discovery are confident their finding will disrupt the battery market, and change the way consumers use portable electric devices, including electric vehicles. If they are right, an important development in the implementation of clean energy is being created in a Milwaukee laboratory right now.

The discovery was made by Dr. Marija Gajdardziska-Josifovska, the first female professor of physics on the UWM campus, and Dr. Carol Hirschmugl, the department’s second female scientist. The physicists shared a passion for research. Their specialties — Dr. Hirschmugl’s being condensed matter physics and Dr. Gajdardziska-Josifovska, nanotechnology — complimented each other, making them an effective team in the laboratory. Together, these physicists identified the first known form of solid carbon monoxide at room temperature.

Dean of the UW-Milwaukee Graduate School, Dr. Gajdardziska-Josifovska is fond of building on Louis Pasteur’s famous adage, “chance favors the prepared mind,” with her often-repeated phrase, “the prepared mind knows what to look for.” The scientists were experimenting with carbon when they saw something unexpected when peering into their microscope. Their prepared minds knew they had uncovered something entirely new, and the team set out to prove it. After a year of lab work that included a number of peer reviews, the team announced their discovery to the scientific community. Academics were enthusiastic about the discovery, but the story didn’t reach beyond the world of higher education.

Undaunted by the lack of attention from the world outside of academia, the professors patented their discovery. They named the product COphite. The substance, when added to lithium-ion anode batteries, results in faster charge times, greater capacity and improves safety. Unlike the graphite battery manufacturers use today, this carbon alternative is abundant, non-toxic and costs less than the traditional material. They knew the discovery would transform the way batteries are used; for example, this substance could make it possible for people to charge electric cars in minutes, rather than hours, dramatically increasing the usability of the emerging technology. Best of all, the product could be made in the United States, and could seamlessly be adopted by battery manufacturers already using graphite. COphite was ready to change the world, but the duo needed a way to share COphite with the battery industry. Fortunately, the professors had an award-winning business incubator located on their campus.

Dr. Hirschmugl was quick to credit the Milwaukee I-Corps Program for transforming the scientists into entrepreneurs. The program, launched by the National Science Foundation and run by the Lubar Entrepreneurship Center at UW-Milwaukee, is open to the students and faculty of five area academic institutions with the aim of commercializing laboratory discoveries. Through the program the professors launched their business in 2016 and met their mentor, Loren Peterson.

In academia, Dr. Hirschmugl is an experienced fundraiser, but noted funding in the business world is considerably different from what she had experienced in the past. Already skilled at accessing grant funds, she credits the guidance of Peterson and advanced materials expert, Jeff Moore, for navigating the company through the unfamiliar landscape of raising capital through investors.

Once the word got out about COphite, the awards, grants and funding began to roll in. In 2018 the company won SEED SPOT, presented by the Association for Women in Science. And in 2019 the company was awarded a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Phase II grant, as well as funding from the Department of Energy. Additional capital was raised through BrightStar Wisconsin, Tundra Angels and WEDC. The company continues to raise funds and Hirschmugl has recently left her post at UW-Milwaukee to devote her efforts to the development of the company.

When asked to offer advice to others who are ready to move their discoveries from the lab to the boardroom, Hirschmugl offers two suggestions. She recommends scientists apply to America’s Seed Fund, run by the National Science Foundation (NSF). One of the largest seed funders in the nation, the flexible program offers scientists capital without taking any equity in their emerging companies. She is also a strong advocate of the I-CORPS program, which provides the support and guidance scientists, and students on campus, need to monetize their discoveries.

This is only the beginning of the COnovate story. The company is planning for their Series A funding round in the first half of 2022, and is working on a commercial release in 2023. While Milwaukee might not have noticed the discovery of the revolutionary COphite, it is certain to feel the impact of its commercial launch. To follow the developments of COnovate, connect with the team on their website.

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