Upon stepping into Peter Frischmann’s office, he flips over a white cube-shaped timer that begins to count down 30 minutes.
“I fiercely defend my time,” said the founder and CEO of Sepion Technologies, an advanced materials company offering key components for next-generation electric vehicle batteries and grid-scale energy storage.
It makes sense. As the leader of a technology startup Frischmann is constantly on the go — pitching partners, raising funds and supporting his team, among other things. Plus, he’s the father of a 14-month-old, so time is extra tight.
The timer also seems fitting because finding solutions to climate change that can have an immediate impact was one of Frischmann’s primary drivers for launching Sepion.
“What motivates me in my day-to-day, and in doing science, is to create new science-based solutions to help solve climate change problems,” he said. “I think it’s important that as a species we are pushing the envelope of human knowledge, because basic science is the foundation of impactful technologies,” he continued. “But for me, I wanted to be as close to the frontline as possible in bringing new technologies to bear.”
Frischmann started out his career working on a battery technology that he said is still more than 15 years away from commercial viability. Frischmann wanted to have an impact nearer-term, so he started to rethink his professional trajectory.
In 2015, that led to the founding of Sepion, a materials company that is making new components, membranes and separators to improve several key aspects of today’s lithium-ion batteries and develop exciting new technologies for the batteries of tomorrow. These advancements could help to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles and enhance batteries for grid-scale energy storage, enabling the deployment of more low-cost wind and solar.
Earlier this year, Sepion received $450,000 in funds from the California Sustainable Energy Entrepreneur Development Initiative (CalSEED) to support the development of its game-changing battery materials, which could ultimately save consumers millions.
>> Science at the “itty bitty” level to solve big problems
While Sepion’s work centers on addressing big issues, the startup’s innovation happens at the “itty bitty level,” said Frischmann.
“We are pursuing an innovative class of polymers that is in essence a nano-sieve. So we can sieve ions at the atomic scale,” he explained. “By being able to control the flow of ions when you’re charging and discharging a battery you can change all sorts of things, from energy density, to the power profile, to longevity.”
One of the early applications for Sepion’s membrane technology is to reduce the amount of cobalt needed in the cathode of a lithium-ion battery. Adopting this technology saves money and eliminates one of the biggest raw material supply chain concerns for lithium-ion batteries. Sepion’s membrane technology also improves battery safety by preventing the components from melting at higher temperatures.
With support from CalSEED, Sepion is now branching out from lithium ion batteries to work simultaneously on lithium metal technology, which could produce a step change in the driving range of an electric vehicle by improving the energy density of the battery cell
While research is ongoing, lithium-metal battery technology is closer to commercialization than the battery chemistry Frischmann previously worked on. Lithium metal technology can also integrate with existing lithium-ion manufacturing processes, with the added benefit that the battery cells come out up to 50 percent more energy dense, Frischmann said.
>> Meeting customer needs
There are several challenges with lithium metal batteries, however. One issue is preventing dendrites, which is an unusual type of plating that results in shorting and fires. Another issue is “mossy lithium,” which can cause the battery to fail. But early testing has shown promise that Sepion’s nano-structured materials can address all of these problems.
As a result, Sepion’s work has caught the attention of a wide array of stakeholders — from raw materials and cell manufacturers, to consumer electronics and even drone companies. But serving the electric vehicle industry represents the greatest opportunity, Frischmann said.
“It is very much apparent right now that the automotive companies see differentiation of the battery technology as the key that unlocks them as the market leader,” he said.
Frischmann said he became laser focused on customer needs after participating in the NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program, which focuses on customer discovery. He pointed to research by Steve Blank at Stanford University that found a large number of startups fail because they lose sight of their customer pain points in the process of building their product, not because the product itself was poor quality.
Through the I-Corps program Frischmann realized that his academic work prior to launching Sepion was off the mark of what the industry needed in the near-term.
“I was shocked at how much disparity there was between what I thought was important, reading academic literature and attending academic conferences, versus what actual battery manufacturers cared about,” he said.
Today, Sepion is making and testing new polymer membranes every week at its lab in Emeryville, California. Frischmann’s priority here, again, is time. The faster the company can iterate, the faster it can innovate.
“The biggest concern for me is speed,” he said.
On the other end of the spectrum, one of the biggest business challenges for Sepion is the automotive industry’s slow technology validation cycle, which can range from five to seven years. Surviving this cycle while continuing to advance the technology requires building strong relationships with key partners, according to the CEO.
>> Pursuing joint development and investment
Sepion is already testing its technology with customers, including battery manufacturers and automotive manufacturers, and so far the response has been positive. “Everyone wants more and bigger samples,” said Frischmann.
A lot of the company’s success to date comes down to Sepion’s network, which has grown much larger thanks to CalSEED and New Energy Nexus. The next step for Sepion is to pursue paid joint development and investment deals with large corporate partners.
The startup is also building out a pilot manufacturing line that will help Sepion get more samples to customers and fine tune their materials to meet customer needs. “That’s a big win,” said Frischmann.
Things are moving quickly. In the last 18 months, Sepion grew from four to 12 employees, adding several high quality jobs to California’s clean energy economy. And it’s still just the beginning for the four-year-old company.
“Sometimes I have to take a step back and reflect on where we were a year ago, and a few years ago, and I think, ‘We’re actually doing really well.’”