Name: Dr. Francis Wang
Title: Chief Executive Officer
Company: NanoGraf Corporation
We’re excited to introduce you to Chief Executive Officer Dr. Francis Wang of Evergreen Climate Innovations portfolio company NanoGraf through the following ten-question interview — plus a bonus question.
If you’re not already familiar with NanoGraf, we think you should be as they are true battery material innovators. NanoGraf has developed a patented graphene wrapped, silicon-based anode battery material that enables longer-lasting, higher-output, and lower bulk and weight lithium-ion batteries.
Partnering with large chemical manufacturers, backed by the largest auto manufacturers, and with customer validation already underway, NanoGraf is poised to disrupt and accelerate the growth of the lithium-ion battery industry at large.
Its proprietary and novel high energy density battery material replaces traditional lithium-ion batteries for a range of applications, from consumer electronics to electric vehicles — improving battery energy and power density by up to 30 percent.
● 2019: NanoGraf was awarded a $7.5 million grant from the U.S. Automotive Battery Consortium (USABC) to develop silicon-based anode battery material.
● 2020: NanoGraf received $1.65 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Defense to research and develop battery material to power next-generation military gear and equipment.
● 2021: NanoGraf announced a major battery performance milestone — the development of a 800 watt-hour per liter (Wh/L) silicon-based anode battery cell. This is the highest energy density 18650 cylindrical lithium-ion cell in the world and provides a 28 percent longer run time than traditional cell chemistries.
1. Why does your company matter?
Over the last three decades, lithium-ion batteries have taken center stage in enabling a more portable and mobile world. Today, lithium-ion batteries power a range of electric applications, from consumer electronics to cell phones, and have become an integral component of vehicle electrification.
But the need for even longer-lasting batteries, and more specifically, technologies enabling the future of electric vehicles, are limited by a number of factors including energy density, cost of production, and ability to efficiently and effectively manufacture lithium-ion batteries.
To solve this problem, our Chicago-based team at NanoGraf has developed a silicon-based anode battery material that drastically improves lithium-ion battery run-time and power-output across all use-cases. In particular, our patented anode material enables electric vehicle batteries to run considerably longer and charge faster than any traditional lithium-ion battery on the market.
NanoGraf’s patented graphene wrapped, silicon-based anode battery material enables longer-lasting, higher-output, and lower bulk and weight lithium-ion batteries. Our battery material not only improves the run-time of modern day applications for lithium-ion batteries — but will also lead us to a fully electrified and sustainable future through innovations like grid scale energy storage.
It’s exciting and fulfilling to work with a first-class team that’s committed to making the world a better place through clean energy technologies, like the battery material innovations we’re researching and developing at NanoGraf.
2. How did you get started in cleantech and what led you to your current role?
After graduating with a B.S. in chemistry from Rutgers University and later receiving my doctorate in chemistry from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, I went on to work at some of the largest battery, consumer products, and energy companies in the world, including Duracell, Proctor & Gamble, Gillette, Boston Scientific and the Shenhua Group.
My experiences in energy storage have spanned the entire spectrum, from very small (uW-mW) forms of storage for portable electronics and medical applications to very large (kW-MW) for transportation and the grid. And throughout my career, I’ve authored over 45 U.S. and international patents, contributed to over 20 scientific publications, and was even a recipient of the National Thousand Talents award in Energy Storage and recognized on the 2021 Forbes Next 1000 entrepreneur and startup innovator list.
The pivotal moment for my move into cleantech came in 2010 when I seized the opportunity to move to Beijing, China to become a founder and director of the Energy Storage Center at the National Institute of Clean Energy. During my time at the National Institute of Clean Energy, I dove deep into realizing the potential for battery material technologies to drive real change in the environment.
After nearly five years at the Institute, I felt not only homesick, but I realized I had reached the now-or-never point in my career — and decided to pursue my dream of becoming a cleantech entrepreneur. Through a relationship with NanoGraf’s board members, I was presented the unique and exciting opportunity to join the team as Chief Operating Officer. Now almost six years later, I lead the team as Chief Executive Officer in our mission to continue developing breakthrough performance and capacity of the next-generation of lithium-ion batteries.
3. What climate solutions are you most passionate about?
Climate change is the single biggest problem we face in our world. Yet I’m a firm believer that the energy storage industry holds the biggest opportunity to positively impact the future of our environment.
Sight ahead, my greatest passion lies in developing and building grid scale energy solutions that drive a more sustainable future — not only in the U.S. but globally. I’m passionate about working towards a world where clean energy, powered by renewable energy solutions, become the foundation of our everyday lives.
As I’ve shared before in other interviews: Whether you’re an expert in energy storage, or you’re passionate about something else, everyone can do something for this movement. I encourage the next generation of scientists and entrepreneurs to figure out a way to move the needle.
4. Why is your company located in the Midwest?
The origins of NanoGraf started in 2012, when Northwestern University business student, Samir Mayekar, and chemistry students, Joshua Lau & Cary Hayner, were paired together for a school assignment. At the height of the recession in 2008, Cary and Samir entered grad school to avoid entering the turbulent job market.
The two ended up researching lithium-ion batteries together, and in 2009, President Obama gave a $2 billion boost to the lithium-ion market through research grants, startup funding, and more, to further the innovation of this burgeoning technology. Northwestern had its strengths in graphene and lithium-ion research already, so the research team led by Cary and Samir refined their niche by focusing on combining graphene with silicon anodes, to form the beginnings of NanoGraf’s battery material technology. As a result of our roots in this region, we’ve attracted lots of talent out of universities locally and throughout the Midwest.
5. What accomplishments are you most proud of?
This year marked a major milestone for NanoGraf: We’ve announced the development of an 800 watt-hour per liter (Wh/L) silicon-based anode 18650 cell.
Our battery material now enables the highest energy density 18650 cylindrical lithium-ion cell in the world — one that provides a 28 percent longer run time than traditional cell chemistries.
Aided by funding from the U.S. Department of Defense and others, our team’s 800 watt-hour per liter (Wh/L) cell is a major breakthrough for the battery industry. We achieved a 10 percent increase in battery run time in a little under a year. That’s over a decade’s worth of innovation in one milestone achievement we set to accomplish within less than 12 months.
One of the most promising use-cases for our highest-performing silicon-based anode cell and battery material is in an electric vehicle (EV). EVs using NanoGraf’s new cell technology would last approximately 28 percent longer, meaning it could travel 499 miles on a single charge — the longest of any EV battery on the market.
6. What’s something you wish you learned sooner?
A life motto of mine, which I wish I would’ve embraced much sooner, is “Focus on the road, not the wall.” It’s a quote by Ben Horowitz (co-founder of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz), from his book “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” and now serves as the foundation for my entrepreneurial journey and mindset here at NanoGraf.
The idea behind the quote is that race car drivers must focus on the road, not the wall when they’re driving 200mph around a curve. Failing to focus on the road will inevitably lead to hitting the wall. This is sound advice I’d impart to any startup founder.
There will be days you’ll want to give up. In those moments, keep moving forward at the vision you’ve set sights on. Focus on your bigger plan. Don’t think about the failures you may encounter or the troubles you face today. It’s staying focused on the daily tasks, not being knocked off track by obstacles along the way, that will help you reach your end goal.
7. How are you measuring your environmental impact?
Batteries are ubiquitous and NanoGraf aims to improve the quality of life for every single person on the planet. Already, 5 billion people carry batteries around with them with their mobile devices, and electric vehicles are the true future of automotive mobility, both of which stand to benefit from NanoGraf’s improved technology.
Even greater, we aim to accelerate the transition to electrified transportation which will significantly curb climate change and has a long-term potential to impact grid efficiencies. Total EV sales grew from 2.5 million in 2020 and will grow to 11.2 million in 2025, sales are expected to reach 31.1 million by 2030.
Battery innovation like ours will only further fuel EV growth. The transportation industry itself accounts for more than 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions which can be significantly decreased with our technology. NanoGraf’s long-term aim is to assist in transforming the world economy to a more sustainable trajectory — and ultimately improve the environmental impact through the adoption of cleantech-enabled devices and products.
8. What surprised you the most about leading a climate technology startup?
I am continually surprised at how big the energy “wheel” is and the momentum required to move it (even in small ways). New categories of disruptive energy and cleantech solutions make their debut daily, whether that’s alternative fuels or electric vehicle innovators, the shift from traditional energy consumption (e.g. conventional coal power plants or gas-powered electric), to new and alternative energy solutions (e.g. solar, wind, biofuel) — the pace of change feels more evolutionary than disruptive.
It’s incredible how much effort and momentum is needed to move the needle slightly, and how much the sector has yet to tap into. I see the energy sector as the wild west of innovation.
9. Where do you see your company in five years?
In five years, I expect we will be producing thousands of tons of silicon anode-based battery material per year in the United States. I see NanoGraf becoming a strategic supply chain partner to the battery industry’s leading electric vehicle battery manufacturers — and that our technology becomes the lifeblood of carbon emissions reduction in our country and throughout the world through the adoption of electric vehicles.
10. What makes NanoGraf Corporation a great place to work?
However cliché it may sound, the truth is, our people are what makes NanoGraf such a great place to work.
We have the most inspiring team of smart, caring, and talented people who are truly creating pivotal change for our industry and society at large. While the commercialization of our technology is exciting to work on and develop, our people are not only the brains behind our cleantech solution — but really what makes NanoGraf such a pleasurable place to work.
11. What’s one question you wish we asked you?
I’d love to be asked about the current state and fever pitch of battery technology start-ups…
My take is that there’s no shortage of speculation and claims about battery technology and valuation. We’ve witnessed millions of venture capital dollars thrown into companies with the hopes of disrupting the categories that historically change very slowly. We’ve also seen a rise in mechanisms like SPACs to support the hyped trajectories. It is all very concerning, and reminiscent of the cleantech bust a decade ago.
NanoGraf, however, has taken a very realistic, almost Midwestern approach, to developing technologies and making well-thought-through, staged and meaningful progress over time.
That rings true today, as we come out of our recent announcement of developing a 800 watt-hour per liter (Wh/L) silicon-anode based cell. We’re delivering on our hard work and vision in a capital efficient manner. And that’s something I, and our entire team, are very proud of.
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Are you an aspiring climate technology innovator? Let us know if you have any other questions for Dr. Wang by emailing us at email@example.com.