Mike Paulus, director of technology transfer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is optimistic that some next-generation commercialization successes will be based on ORNL inventions and other local innovations. He also believes that some newly successful tech companies will be located in eastern Tennessee.
In a recent Friends of ORNL virtual conference, he said: “I think four new companies that have licensed ORNL technologies have real potential to do something big in the not too distant future. Two of the four new generation companies I chose are headquartered in Knoxville and a third is located in Oak Ridge.
In addition, he said, the region has “two programs for entrepreneurs who might want to engage with ORNL.”
Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp., a global company headquartered in Seattle, recently opened an office in Oak Ridge specializing in mass manufacturing technologies for nuclear fuels and materials. Through offices in Canada, South Korea, United Kingdom and United States, Ultra Safe Nuclear develops the Micro Modular Reactor (also called “fission battery”) and nuclear fuels, materials and technologies. design for future small reactors producing electricity.
“The company has licensed ORNL’s fuel and 3D printing technologies for small modular reactors,” said Paulus. “As the world shifts to low-carbon or no-carbon power generation, there will be a place for nuclear reactors because you will need a solid base load and this technology looks really promising.”
Base load power sources continuously generate electricity into the grid at a constant rate to meet minimum demand at all times.
General Graphene, a Knoxville company that licensed ORNL processing technology, is developing a method to produce large area graphene at low cost. Graphene is a layer of carbon atoms one atom thick in a grid in the form of a hexagonal lattice. The material is considered promising for use in improving anti-corrosion coatings and paints, sensors, electronics, flexible displays, solar panels, DNA sequencing technologies and drug administration.
“General Graphene formed a strategic partnership and raised $ 35 million,” Paulus said. “It makes graphene more profitable than anyone in the world can by an order of magnitude. We’re starting to see prospects really take an interest in it. We are delighted that this business is in Knoxville.
A Knoxville company called Prisma Renewable Composites develops “green” lignin products based on technologies licensed from ORNL and the University of Tennessee.
“This company is poised to launch its first commercial product called BioLANTM as a replacement for ABS plastic,” said Paulus. “There is an appetite for bio-derived materials that extract carbon from the atmosphere rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. “
BioLANTM is derived from the cell walls of trees and grasses and waste from the paper industry, while ABS plastic is made from acrylonitrile, butadiene and styrene, chemicals derived from petroleum. ABS thermoplastics are strong and hard materials widely used in car bumpers, motorcycle helmets, golf clubs, musical instruments, auto parts, pipe fittings, electronic boxes, Lego parts and other toys.
Foreign-listed Paulus company is Solid Power Inc., a $ 1.2 billion initial Colorado public offering in which Ford and BMW have invested. Solid Power has licensed lithium-sulfur materials from ORNL for use in rechargeable lithium-ion solid-state batteries. Such solid sulphide electrolyte batteries will probably be in demand by electric vehicle manufacturers. The reason: They are believed to be safer, more stable and more robust, less expensive and more durable than today’s lithium-ion batteries with flammable liquid electrolytes.
Lithium-sulfur batteries, he said, have “the potential to improve battery power, operating temperature, manufacturing capacity and the cost of electric vehicles. There is a huge market for competitive solid state batteries for electric vehicles. “
Innovation Crossroads and a New Techstars Accelerator are two regional programs for entrepreneurs interested in engaging with ORNL, UT and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Through Innovation Crossroads, ORNL and TVA sponsored several groups of innovators. Selected participants receive a two-year scholarship with stipend and benefits through the Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education. They can have access to ORNL as part of a collaborative research and development agreement. They are put in touch with mentors and receive training.
“The program is helping a start-up company get started with its technology,” said Paulus, acknowledging that “we need more incubator space at Oak Ridge.”
In June 2021, ORNL, TVA and UT announced a new Techstars Industries of the Future accelerator for 2022. Techstars is the global network that helps entrepreneurs succeed.
According to a press release, the new Oak Ridge-Knoxville-based program is “committed to supporting and advancing world-class startups focused on emerging technologies.” They include artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, quantum information science, 5G / advanced wireless technology, biotechnology, and clean energy technology. This is the first of Techstars accelerator programs based in Tennessee and in a national laboratory of the Department of Energy.
“There are 44 Techstars accelerators in the United States and 67 of its graduates have a market capitalization of over $ 100 million,” said Paulus, noting that the Oak Ridge-Knoxville accelerator program begins Jan. 24, 2022 for 10 participating companies.
“We bring people in for an intensive three month program and help them build their business model and prepare to raise funds,” he added. “We connect them with capital and mentors, helping them get started on the right path for, hopefully, a successful business. “