The Washington Post

From batteries to nuclear power and 3D printing, here’s who to keep an eye on

Editor’s note: This is the first in a regular series in which Linda identifies five exciting start-ups to watch. Want to nominate a start-up? Post in the comments.

1. Sakti3

Michigan-based Sakti3 iis working on solid state technologies and platforms with breakthroughs in the energy density, reliability, and manufacturing of batteries. They have a strong edge over competition in three key areas:

–The materials problem:

Using solid state product technology and extensive research and development into materials and processes, Sakti3 has been able to simplify the number of materials used to create highly efficient batteries. Solving the materials problem is the hardest part of any new device physics, and Sakti3 has developed the intellectual property for achieving this goal.

Here is one of their new battery cells. Here is one of their new battery cells.

–The scalability problem:

Unlike other solid state battery manufacturing processes that have attempted to create new materials, devices and tools, Sakti3 has developed their in-house model based on equipment already proven for scalability in other industries, so they have cleverly eliminated the scalability challenge in manufacturing by building on what’s already proven as scalable. Hence, they are confident that their results will scale to large batteries and large production facilities.

–The properties challenge:

Sakti3’s research and development has produced models with disruptive properties — double energy density today, and larger gains in the future.  These are properties that no competitor has come close to demonstrating in a real material, and importantly – they are able to produce gains predicted by their R&D heavy multi-disciplinary work. The battery industry is changed by this — high energy density, scalable systems and the promise of future improvements.

The leadership team at Sakti3 has over 100 years of collective start-up, big company, manufacturing, equipment, finance and research and development experience, and is led by chief executive Ann Marie Sastry, a University of Michigan professor of materials science.

Issues with nuclear power as we know it are leading to the decommissioning of reactors like this. But something better may be possible. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

2. TransAtomic Power

This is a bet on green energy!

We all need energy, we go to war to protect supplies of energy, and the planet is heating up while traditional nuclear energy (although very green with zero carbon footprint) is deemed too risky in light of several disasters. Furthermore, we don’t want nuclear waste in “our back yard.”

What if you could build a nuclear power plant that was safe and it could use existing waste from other nuclear power plants? What a fascinating proposition!

Enter TransAtomic Power.

Nearly all currently operating commercial reactors use uranium oxide fuel in the form of solid pellets which are surrounded by a metal cladding that helps the fuel retain its shape and prevents release of fission products into the surrounding coolant. In contrast, Transatomic Power’s reactor uses liquid fuel that consists of uranium dissolved in a molten fluoride salt. This solution acts as both fuel and coolant.

Liquid fuel has significant advantages over solid fuel. It provides higher efficiency during normal operation and fail-safe cooling by releasing the liquid fuel into a large containment tank which does not require any active cooling (unlike the design of current reactors).

Some of the essential technology for this type of reactor was invented 50 years ago in the United States, and the team from TransAtomic has figured out solutions to commercialize this alternative design. They are closely engaged with groups of scientists and advisors specialized in nuclear and energy technology, plus strong industry-veterans as part of their team to make this happen, all led by CEO and co-founder Leslie Dewan. While there is a lot of work ahead to translate theory and lab results to building the actual nuclear plant, I am extremely thrilled to see the thought leadership which will offer us far better alternatives.

3. SpaceGlasses by Meta-View

Imagine how much more information you could handle if you had a new/additional sense? Well, the promise of augmented reality is just that, adding a new dimension to what you see!

Applications range from professional (for example, a surgeon seeing multi-layered data while operating) to education (similar multi-layers complementing printed content or physical objects in front of the reader) to communication (an architect showing an impression of a final product while walking with a client through the intended area) to toys, to gaming (virtual games played in a physical space such as an office or home).

As the name clearly conveys, SpaceGlasses are actual glasses that a user wears in order to experience an enhanced reality visible thru the glasses.

Unlike Google-Glass, SpaceGlasses adds the ability to physically interact with the projections in front of you, for example, ability to use your hand to grab a projected floating window and move it to another corner, or to play a game of chess with your hands while grabbing virtual (projected) chess pieces on a real table.

SpaceGlasses was started thru Kickstarter around mid-2013, funding goal was $100,000, raised $194,000. They are shipping products now, and new orders are expected to ship in 2015.  A great team led by CEO Meron Gribetz.

(Photo courtesy of Structure Sensor)

4. Structure Sensor by Occipital

Structure Sensor* has developed a 3D sensor for the iPad that creates a detailed model of the real world in front of the iPad (imagine a reasonable size room with physical objects), where this highly detailed virtual model can be used by apps to create virtual objects that identify and interact with the real world.

For example, a game developer can create a virtual puppy that jumps on the real couch in your living room, and chases a virtual cat around the room while avoiding real physical barriers. We all love fun games, but an equally exciting use of this technology is for enhanced communication of ideas and concepts among groups of people. For example, an architect and a client looking through the iPad and discussing remodeling options that are overlaid over the physical space in front of the iPad.

Structure Sensor was started through Kickstarter in late 2013, their goal was to raise $100,000, but closed the initial funding with $1.3 million! Their product is already shipping. A fantastic company led by co-founder & CEO Jeff Powers.

5. FormLabs

(Form 1) (Form Labs)

The promises of 3D printing is huge, it can potentially bring the ability to manufacture anything by anybody anywhere, but we have ways to go before Captain Picard orders earl gray tea from StarTrek’s replicator (a bad day for Starbucks).

These days there are a slew of inexpensive 3D printers powering the imagination of enthusiasts and next generation entrepreneurs, but these low cost printers essentially heat and extrude plastic to build models a droplet at a time. There are several challenges with this approach, namely accuracy (which is essential for building complex parts) and surface quality:

FormLabs builds a desktop 3D printer that uses a different process called stereolithography, (invented by 3D Systems in 1986). Unlike the extruded plastic approach, the desktop 3D printer by FormLabs can create highly accurate complex models at a cost of about $3,000 per printer which makes their product just right for small professional businesses who need more than a “hobbyist” 3D printer but can’t afford the higher cost of industrial machines.

FormsLabs was started by a team of researchers from MIT’s Media lab, initially funded through Kickstarter in late 2012. Their initial goal was to raise $100,000, but they raised $3 million. They are viewed as one of the most successful start-ups from Kickstarter. This clearly indicates massive public interest. The next generation of their product is called Form 1+ and it is already shipping. The company is led by co-founder and CEO Maxim Lubovsky.  As a veteran of Boston, I do agree with Maxim that Boston seems to be more of the serious kind of people solving the really hard problems.

*Update: The piece originally referred to Structure Sensor as Structure.IO. We regret the mistake.

Linda Bernardi is the chief innovation officer at IBM focused on cloud and the Internet of things. A serial entrepreneur, investor and public speaker, she is focused on transforming global companies. She authored Provoke, which discusses why disruption is necessary for global innovation. She previously founded and served as CEO of ConnecTerra.



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