SkyNano provides a low-cost, high-quality industrial scale source of carbon nanotubes, known as a world-changing supermaterial, which helps address the problems arising from our growing population and increasing energy demands.
Location: Knoxville, TN
Product / Service Offering: Low-cost Carbon Nanotubes
Co-founder Interviewed: Anna Douglas
Other Key Management Team Members: Dr. Cary Pint, CTO
This article is part of our Women Entrepreneurs Spotlight series featuring entrepreneurs and their companies. We hope that these founders’ interviews will inspire and motivate you as you undertake your own entrepreneurial journey.
Tell us a little about yourself with a focus on what motivates you.
I am a PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University in Interdisciplinary Material Science. My passion for nanotechnology developed when I was a summer intern at NASA Glenn during my undergraduate studies. While at NASA, I fell in love with the idea of manipulating materials at the nanoscale to influence missions at a macroscale, such as deep space exploration. I am passionate about solving big problems with practical solutions. With our ever growing population and increasing energy demands, we really need to establish two things:
- Low cost advanced materials manufacturing to enable the use of advanced high strength, low density materials in consumer products.
- A profitable carbon conversion technology to utilize one of our most abundant waste streams.
This is really what we are developing at SkyNano, and I couldn’t be more excited about what we are doing.
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When did you establish your company and where did the idea originate?
SkyNano originated out of a lab-based research project at Vanderbilt. My advisor and I were looking at this carbon dioxide electrolysis process that has been around since the 1960s. We realized that the essence of it is actually quite similar to carbon nanotube synthesis.
Many researchers are looking at this process as a means to store CO2 as a stable form of carbon. We decided to take it a step further and develop the process to produce valuable carbon in the form of carbon nanotubes, which have been touted as the supermaterial that would change the world.
What need or needs does your company seek to fill for its customers?
There are many customers already utilizing carbon nanotubes for a variety of applications including aerospace, sporting goods, coatings, and energy applications. Because of the state-of-the-art manufacturing process we utilize today, carbon nanotubes are incredibly expensive, and their high prices stunt commercial adoption.
SkyNano seeks to fill the need for a low-cost, high-quality industrial scale source of carbon nanotubes, enabled by our novel manufacturing technique.
What is the one thing that sets your company apart from its competitors?
Our manufacturing technique sets us apart from our competitors. We are the only company using this scalable process. SkyNano is excited about the opportunity to offer low-cost carbon nanotubes manufactured by a sustainable process to customers who can benefit from improving the bottom line. We will also open up new market opportunities, which were previously not profitable due to the high cost of these materials.
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What was the biggest challenge you faced while getting your company up and running, and how did you overcome it?
My biggest challenges were finding time to devote to talking with customers, finding the right market fits, and diving into a very granular market analysis. The idea for this startup originated in the middle of my PhD studies. If you have been around many PhD students then you know we do not have a lot of free time.
To overcome this challenge, I applied to the Innovation Crossroads program. The US Department of Energy funds this lab-embedded entrepreneurial program located at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Through the program, I am afforded a personal stipend and R&D funds utilize at the laboratory so I can focus full time on the startup for two years. I started this program in May 2017, and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to give my undivided attention to the startup. I have access to the facilities, resources, and expertise at the laboratory.
What resources have you utilized that other founders might find compelling or useful?
I have really sought local resources in order to engage with the local ecosystems. I also found people who are willing to mentor and answer questions free of charge.
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At Vanderbilt, I took advantage of our Innovation Center. The Innovation Center houses legal and business experts for office hours so students can ask questions about innovation and entrepreneurship. Similarly, in Knoxville, I have been able to talk to many local entrepreneurs about their journey. It has been incredibly helpful to hear about common pitfalls, things that have worked, and things that have not worked.
On a more practical note, I have used market reports available through my university library for market research and analysis. Despite these often being very expensive for those without access, the reporting companies will often give samples or a selection of pages to those who ask. One thing I have learned throughout this process is that it never hurts to ask. The worst that can happen is someone says no!
What steps have you taken to secure funding for your company and what, if anything, would you do differently if you had to start over?
I applied to the Innovation Crossroads program, which came with a grant to use at Oak Ridge National Lab, a personal stipend, and a travel allowance. This has covered research expenses, traveling to conferences, startup competitions, personal living expenses, and more.
All in all, I would not do this any differently and cannot recommend this program highly enough. It gives R&D-heavy startups a runway to make significant progress to being investor ready by the time the program finishes.
What challenges, if any, are you grappling with?
For us at SkyNano, there is a bit of a challenge with some customer apprehension towards nanomaterials being a low TRL level. This is particularly for carbon nanotubes. Though they garnered a lot of attention 10 to 20 years ago, commercial realization of the materials was limited.
We believe the premium prices associated with these materials led to those results. Hence, this is the core problem we are solving with our novel manufacturing technique.
What is the most helpful tip or “hack” you’ve ever learned, stumbled across, or been given?
One of the most important “hacks” I have learned is to not be afraid to use creative ways to reach out to people for customer discovery. I often use LinkedIn to connect directly with the people I am trying to reach at various companies. However, if you cannot find the right person over LinkedIn, people are often very willing to connect you to their appropriate colleague.
Key to Startup Success: Customer Discovery
Is there anything else you would like to share about your company?
We are looking to expand our team and hire an applied research experience (ARE) fellow. The US Department of Energy funds this 12 month appointment. Applicants interested in working with our scientists to further our technology should be a recent undergraduate or master’s level graduate. Please contact us via our website if you are interested in this opportunity!
Are you familiar with other startups you believe should be spotlighted? If so, we would like to hear from you. Tell us about them in the comments below!