UWM Battery Startup Awarded A Second Federal Commercialization Grant

UWM physicists Marija Gajdardziska-Josifovska (left) and Carol Hischmugl are using their STTR Phase II grant to bring better lithium-ion batteries to the market through their startup, SafeLi LLC. (UWM Photo Services)

UWM physicists Carol Hirschmugl and Marija Gajdardziska-Josifovska received a grant of just over $1 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop lithium-ion (li-ion) battery parts made from a unique, patented material called graphene monoxide.

From the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program, it’s the second federal grant for SafeLi LLC, the professors’ UWM-incubated startup, to further commercialize the material they created in their physics laboratories.

Joining ongoing efforts to improve li-ion batteries—the introduction of which in 1991 earned a 2019 Nobel Prize—SafeLi will manufacture battery components, including anodes (positively charged electrodes). Their innovations will help increase safety and battery life, and shorten charging time.

“Graphene monoxide, a novel nanomaterial that is a 2-D solid crystalline form of carbon monoxide (CO), is the first and only solid form of CO known to mankind which occurs at room temperature and exhibits exciting properties,” said Gajdardziska-Josifovska.

To learn how to bring their research discovery to the market, the physicists joined the Milwaukee I-Corps program, a partnership of five area universities dedicated to turning academic knowledge into products and startups.

Administered by UWM and funded by the National Science Foundation, it’s the only I-Corps site in Wisconsin. Through I-Corps, the team met business mentor Loren Peterson, an entrepreneur in UWM’s Lubar Entrepreneurship Center. The researchers subsequently were accepted into the national I-Corps program, giving them access to interview people in several leading companies interested in battery advancement.

“Our anode material, due to its properties, has the potential to be disruptive in the battery market,” said Hirschmugl. “The I-Corps experience made our startup possible in a way that we never would have expected.”

The current funding is a Phase II grant that follows the successful completion of a Phase I technical and commercial proof-of-concept award. The Phase II grant will support the scaled-up production of graphene monoxide to enable the development of larger prototype batteries relevant for electric vehicles. It will also allow SafeLi to grow to 10 employees and to start pursuing angel, venture and/or corporate capital funding.

This grant brings the total federal and state funding for SafeLi to $1.5 million since the business was launched in December 2016. The company recently competed in the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Competition, winning third prize in the Advanced Manufacturing Division that had more than 60 entrants, and won the first prize at the SEED SPOT pitch competition, co-hosted by the Association for Women in Science.

The STTR grant opportunity is unique, supporting a formal collaboration between SafeLi and UWM in Phase I and Phase II, and fulfilling STTR’s role in bridging the gap between basic science and the commercialization of resulting innovations.

Before becoming entrepreneurs, Hirschmugl and Gajdardziska-Josifovska published hundreds of research articles in peer reviewed journals and secured over $10 million in funding for their research in nanoscience and nanotechnology of oxide materials, surface-bulk interactions, materials synthesis, and electron- and IR-based analysis. Gajdardziska-Josifovska is currently dean of the UWM Graduate School.

Originally published October 2, 2019 in UWM Report.
See also: Physicists’ partnership is charging into the marketplace (May 23, 2018)