COnovate – From University Research to University Incubated Startup

In December of 2016, UW-Milwaukee Professor Dr. Carol Hirschmugl and Dean of the Graduate School Dr. Marija Gajdardziska-Josifovska became the co-founders of SafeLi (now COnovate) and started their entrepreneurial journey. They began their company based around their novel COPHITETM  material for anodes in lithium-ion batteries.  Drs. Hirschmugl and Gajdardziska-Josifovska filed a foundational patent with the UWM Research Foundation (UWMRF),  US Patent 9,236,633 “Synthesis and Applications of Graphene-based Nanomaterials”. The COPHITE material is an abundant, non-toxic starting material that offers low-cost, safer and higher capacity alternatives to graphite-only anode batteries. Batteries with the patented materials demonstrate higher capacity and faster charge rates than graphite.

With no previous entrepreneurial experience, Drs. Hirschmugl and Gajdardziska-Josifovska  joined the Milwaukee I-Corps program, which is administered by UWM and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF I-Corps program allows academic participants to explore commercializing their research ideas. “Our anode material, due to its properties, has the potential to be disruptive in the battery market,” said Dr. Hirschmugl. “The I-Corps experience made our startup possible in a way that we never would have expected.” Through the program, Drs. Hirschmugl  and Gajdardziska-Josifovska were mentored by Loren Peterson, an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Lubar Entrepreneurship Center. They were also later accepted into the national I-Corps program in 2017.

After completing the I-Corps program in the summer of 2016, the team exclusively licensed the patent from the UWMRF. Since then, the partnership between UWMRF and COnovate has continued, with the UWM Research Foundation awarding the two researchers multiple Catalyst Grants as well as a Bridge Grant to the company in 2021.

COnovate has experienced tremendous development in recent years: receiving multiple grants, working with government labs, and most recently completing a successful funding round in May of 2021. There latest funding round was led by the Green Bay-based Tundra Angels with participation from two other Wisconsin based investors. The funding will enable the Company to drive toward key scaling milestones over the next twelve months as it prepares to launch a safer anode solution with improved capacity and faster charging time.

“COnovate grew from the deep expertise of UWM physicists and highlights the strength of UWM as a research institution and a source for innovations that can scale and impact the world,” Brian Thompson, Lubar Entrepreneurship Center Director and Milwaukee NSF I-Corps Core Team member, said in a statement. “The company founders embraced the customer discovery process as a core competency to help them identify opportunities, and I’m pleased that they were able to leverage the growing support structure at UWM and in the Milwaukee community to move them to the next level.”