Early-Stage Battery Startup Founder Seeks Commercialization Help

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By Danielle Applestone (Co-Founder, SnipeSwipe) The first company I started was SnipeSwipe, a small, two-person software company. It was me, my then boyfriend, and some books on how to code in Perl. We wrote all the software for an internet-based eBay sniping service, hosted it on some dirt cheap virtual servers, and we were profitable in ten days. We didn’t get to pay ourselves for nearly six months, but now it’s eight years later, we have around 800 monthly paying customers, and we have helped people win hundreds of thousands of items on eBay.

You’d think I might know something about starting a company… but starting a company that sells something intangible is totally different from starting one that makes battery materials. Specifically, you can’t do it in your apartment with one other person and a few hundred dollars.

One summer I got advice from my uncle, a stucco contractor. He hired me while I was working on SnipeSwipe and looking for extra cash. I carried buckets of cement up tall ladders for a month, and during one of our lunch breaks he suggested that someone with my degree and gender might not be cut out for hauling cement long term. I agreed. He told me he spent hundreds of dollars every month or so on new batteries for his cordless drills, and “couldn’t someone like you solve that problem?”

I found the best combination of awesome battery group and nice place to live and managed to get into graduate school. I’ve been working on anode materials for lithium-ion batteries at UT Austin under Professor Arumugam Manthiram ever since.

After I discovered that my materials were good performers, my new startup path began. Step one was convincing my school that they were patent worthy. That part involved bringing in enough outside interest from my friends with money and experience, and a big industry company. I gave a presentation at UT’s Office of Technology and Commercialization (OTC), one of my important friends flew in to show interest, and somebody from the big industry company called the OTC.

I was ready to publish some papers once the materials were protected by at least a provisional patent application. The pending papers put a lean on my professor and the university to make a decision about patenting. UT wanted my potential investors and I to pay for the provisional patent application in exchange for an exclusive license. I didn’t go for that.

I wouldn’t recommend it either, unless your technology is close enough to commercialization that you have most of your first round of funding lined up and ready to go. All I had at that point was evidence that my materials could meet some preliminary benchmarks of success in lithium-ion batteries. Asking someone to pay for the provisional patent application was outside of my comfort zone.

Now I’m on step two. I am finding out which numbers I need to know in order to validate my company to myself and to potential investors and make the push for investment. Part of this step is doing some more small-scale optimization experiments in the lab so that I can answer questions about the compatibility of my materials with commercial cathode materials. I need to improve the performance as much as possible while I still have the University resources as I’m completing my degree.

But I need help. I’m not the type who usually asks for it, I’m realizing that the volume of work that needs to be done to form a solid business plan and pitch to investors in the appropriate time frame is way outside of what I can do on my own.

This time I need a real CEO. So where do I find one? Right now I am talking to as many people as possible. I’m telling my story as many times as I can to people in all the right places.

How do I find someone ready to make the decision to invest their time in something that is not a sure thing? Starting a business is never a sure thing, no matter how amazing the product is. So I’m sort of stuck.

I’m looking for a partner to do things like analyze the market and the successes and failures of other battery materials companies and to know the needs of potential customers and to help me come up with backup plans for our backup plans.

Thankfully, I have some really great people at the UT OTC who are committed to helping me with strategy and their networks of awesome people. I’m investing my own time and energy from a pool that is seemingly bottomless, because whether or not I end up with a company, I at least want to see this process through to the end.

Every day I find new information that helps me better sculpt my vision and re-orient myself in this world of entrepreneurship.

I just need to find someone who shares my vision.

The above photo is me with my boss, Dr. Arumugam "Ram" Manthiram.

Editor's note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below. About the guest blogger: Danielle Applestone is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin in Materials Science & Engineering. After getting her S.B. in Chemical Engineering from MIT, she went on to co-found SnipeSwipe, which has been profitable since 2003 and has tens of thousands of users each month. She likes to play music in her free time and lives with her 7 year old son Rhett in Austin, TX. Contact her at danielle [at] beingniceisawesome.com. Follow her on Twitter at @dapplestone.