Published: March 6, 2024 By

Photo: Chunmei Ban, associate professor in the College of Engineering and Applied Science (Paul M. Rady Mechanical Engineering), presents her research on next-generation electrochemical materials, specifically sodium and magnesium, that feed a need to improve renewable energy storage systems.

Venture Partners at CU Boulder and the university’s Industry and Foundation Relations (IFR) team brought together dozens of stakeholders in the renewable energy and storage ecosystem to discuss innovations, issues and opportunities in the vibrant sector.

CU Boulder researchers, venture capitalists, companies and entrepreneurs, federal lab researchers and local government leaders took part in a day of networking and discussions to inform impactful, commercially-relevant energy research at CU Boulder, introduce external partners to innovative university efforts, and partnering CU startups and principal investigators with potential funders. 

“We’re putting the right people in the right place at the right time to foster important relationships that actually solve problems,” said Kate Havey, event organizer and assistant director of licensing at Venture Partners, the commercialization arm of CU Boulder. She said the ultimate goal was to translate innovations into products and services that address the world’s most pressing energy challenges. 

CU Boulder strives to be the nation's top university for innovation with positive global impact, and it does that by bringing “translational research into ventures, products, applications that really positively impact society,” Massimo Ruzzene, vice chancellor for research and innovation and dean of the institutes, told summit attendees. The university has nearly doubled its research funding in the past 10 years while experiencing “incredible growth on the commercialization and tech transfer side,” he said.

'I feel it's the right time'

Several CU Boulder researchers working in the renewable energy and storage sectors spoke at the summit, including Seth Marder, director of the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute (RASEI), a joint institute between CU Boulder and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). RASEI is at the center of energy research at CU Boulder and is, said Marder, “uniquely positioned to holistically address issues of sustainability in energy in a just and scalable fashion.” RASEI researchers work on solar, wind and hydrogen energy production and storage, bio-energy and batteries.

“There are many issues to be solved in the renewable energy and energy storage space, some of which are technological [such as] improving performance, reliability, circularity, addressing supply chain issues,” said Marder. “But others are sociological, [like] ensuring that solutions are developed and deployed in a socially just and equitable manner that is respectful of the diversity of cultures of stakeholders.”

Chunmei Ban, associate professor in the College of Engineering and Applied Science (Paul M. Rady Mechanical Engineering), is another researcher doing groundbreaking work. At the summit, she presented her research on next-generation electrochemical materials, specifically sodium and magnesium, that feed a need to improve renewable energy storage systems. 

Mana Battery Inc., a spinout from Ban’s lab, is developing sodium-ion batteries that are cheaper, safer and longer lasting than standard lithium-ion ones. “The U.S. has one of the largest sources of soda ash. The reserve is huge, so we have the resources to do something, and I feel it’s the right time,” she said. “We feel confident about our technology, a gigantic market for batteries is already here, and I have a great team.” Mana Battery was a top winner of the 2023 Lab Venture Challenge (LVC), a Venture Partners program in which early-stage companies compete for startup funding grants. Ban said that her team will use the funding to demonstrate a large battery cell to potential investors.

Another summit presenter and a winner of the 2023 LVC, is Longji Cui, assistant professor in the College of Engineering and Applied Science, (Paul M. Rady Mechanical Engineering). Research in his lab focuses on challenges including the thermal management of high power electronics and creating highly-efficient and economical clean energy. His spinout (with Mohammad Habibi), ZeroGap Energy aims to accelerate the transition to a renewable energy grid with thermovoltaic cells for high-efficiency thermal energy conversion.

Working together to spur innovations and solutions

Nearly every speaker at the summit touched on the human element of research, innovation and investment and the importance of partnerships in spurring meaningful advances in renewable energy and storage. 

Lu Córdova, advisor to Governor Jared Polis and director of the Global Energy Park in Golden which she described as a “Class A lab space wrapped in an entrepreneurial ecosystem, made for commercialization,” emphasized the importance of events like the summit in bringing together a coalition of stakeholders. “Collaboration is often the key to commercialization because—sorry for the cliché—the market does not want products, it wants solutions,” she said. “Most inventors and scientists have a part of the solution, but they need each other to form the solution, as well as to get it to market.” Córdova added that so-called ‘Inventor’s Syndrome’ (the idea that ‘if you build it, they will come’) is an impediment that collaboration can overcome.

Ruzzene agreed that bringing together different entities was essential to solve problems. “We want to focus on interdisciplinary work because innovation really flourishes at the intersection of ideas and backgrounds and goals. That’s a really key principle in what we do,” he said. Bryn Rees, associate vice chancellor for research and innovation and managing director of Venture Partners, also anticipates that solutions to current issues in renewable energy and storage will be found at the crossroads of their various expertise—including innovation and investment. “Advances in renewable energy and energy storage require collaborative innovation. This summit will build on CU Boulder’s leadership in clean energy, and catalyze a new wave of partnerships and entrepreneurial ventures.”

Sally Hatcher, general partner of Buff Gold Ventures—a venture capital fund dedicated to supporting and investing in great new startups out of the University of Colorado—moderated a panel of entrepreneurs and investors. She said she was there to connect with researchers with specific problems to solve and to learn about technologies currently in the lab. 

Hatcher said the summit was an invaluable opportunity to build relationships around renewable energy and storage. “This convergence often leads to new ideas, new opportunities to collaborate, better focus on the specific storage need, and connections to funders and entrepreneurs.  Ultimately, we hope to take great tech out of the lab and pass the baton to an entrepreneurial team who will de-risk the tech and bring it to widespread use.”

Although it was the first-of-its kind, the concept for the summit was met with enthusiasm and Havey believes this will be the first of a series of similar events. “We received an overwhelming response,” she said. “That speaks to a need in this sector for connecting people in a very intentional way, to create the kinds of partnerships that are actually going to resolve the needs we have in energy right now.”