Ironic Chemicals

Tuesday, 7 October 2014: 11:40
Expo Center, 1st Floor, Universal 1 (Moon Palace Resort)
A. West and S. Banta (Columbia University)
Most academic electrochemists and electrochemical engineers have rich and productive careers in research and take great pleasure in teaching.  In the increasing statistics-obsessed world of academia, we monitor the impact of our research through publication metrics, while understanding that the interpretation of these measures is not straightforward.  Another metric is seeing how our research impacts industrial application.  In the high-tech, research intensive, example of copper electrodeposition for ULSI applications, we can observe industrial adaption of ideas for data analysis, paradigms for experimental programs, and through hiring of graduates.  Nevertheless, many academic ideas will not be commercialized unless the original inventor or close associate is interested in the pathway from “invention to profit.”

There are multiple pathways that can be taken including direct University licensing of intellectual property and the creation of spin-out companies from the University.  From an educational perspective, opportunities exist for students to learn about intellectual property, the unique economics of start-ups, and entrepreneurship.  Frameworks to help academics start up companies have emerged, as evidenced, for example, in the NSF I-Corps program.1

We briefly discuss our experience with attempts at licensing intellectual property in the area of laser electroplating.  We then discuss ongoing efforts to start up a company, which we have named “Ironic Chemicals.”   The company employs a chemolithoautotrophic bacterium, which extracts its energy from the oxidation of ferrous ions to ferric ions.  The ferric ions are electrochemically reduced, and the iron electrolyte is re-circulated between the bioreactor and the electrochemical reactor.    The organism is genetically modified to produce chemicals or liquid fuels from dilute CO2, eliminating agricultural feedstocks.

We explain the technology behind Ironic Chemicals from both a scientific and business perspective, thereby illustrating how our instincts on speaking to potential investors were wrong.  We discuss our experiences in customer discovery, as we attempt to convert an abstract business idea into a concrete understanding of what it will take to succeed.    Furthermore, we share our experiences as we navigate questions such as, is the technology mature enough, how do we avoid conflicts of interest, and when should we talk with investors?

1.  https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/i-corps/