Joining an elite list of young entrepreneurs looking to shake up the energy industry, University of Chicago Booth School of Business MBA candidate Lin Chen has been named to Forbes’ 30 under 30 list for 2019 in the Energy category for his pioneering work in lithium battery technology.
Chen, 29, is founder of Beltech, a startup battery company that is shorthand for “Beyond Lithium Technology,” and has developed a patented technology for materials in lithium batteries. The materials contain solid electrolytes and thin lithium anodes that major battery producers could insert into their current processes to reduce battery costs by up to 50 percent per Kilowatt-Hour (kWh), increase energy density more than two-fold, and improve battery safety.
The company has sent its materials prototypes to several companies for testing. Meanwhile, Chen continues to fine-tune the battery materials through ongoing research collaborations with Argonne National Lab and other large companies and startups. If successful, Beltech’s materials could lead to wider adoption of electric vehicles and other consumer technologies that rely on lithium batteries, some of which are key to reducing carbon emissions.
“From my undergraduate years, I always had this idea that I wanted to create something good for society, something useful,” said Chen, who earned his PhD in materials and engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology last year. “I like business and technology, doing research to get a result—it’s more exciting.”
The technology is promising enough to elicit notable interest. In late June, Beltech beat out 23 teams to win a U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Cleantech University Prize, which includes $35,000 from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). Even more importantly, Beltech through the competition scored its first customer in a DOD contractor that will provide continued financial support.
The team also has $150,000 in Phase I funding from DOE’s Small Business Innovation Research program to develop the prototype, which Beltech aims to begin showcasing soon. Based on the prototype’s performance, the company could secure Phase II funding of up to $1 million and Phase III assistance with full commercialization.
Birth of a Creation
The company’s founding story is a mix of grit, determination and serendipity. In spring 2017, Chen met Rick Yeh, a fellow Booth MBA candidate with a legal background, at a UChicago event. Chen had been working on the research component for two years at Argonne, where he conducted his PhD thesis research in applications of battery projects.
“Lin has huge determination in what he’s doing and is defying the odds on a lot of things,” said Yeh, Beltech’s legal counsel. “The product he’s working on is cutting-edge. It’s something that’s next generation, something that could revolutionize the industry.”
The secret is in the metal. Beltech’s proprietary ultra-thin lithium metal is for the battery’s anode, which stores lithium and thus determines a battery’s capacity—how much energy the battery can hold on one charge. As demand for lithium batteries has risen, so too has the demand for high-energy anodes. Beltech says its higher-capacity metal anodes can pair with any commercialized cathode, and integrating the ultra-thin lithium anodes with solid electrolytes would make batteries safer by removing some of the flammable electrolyte materials used in today’s lithium batteries.
The collaboration between Yeh and Chen really started after Chen tapped Yeh as the entrepreneurial lead at Argonne’s Accelerator program last year. Yeh had spent the previous nine years as legal counsel for a semi-conductor company and was ready for a change.
“For me, coming to Booth was because yes, you get paid well as a legal counsel, but there’s the purpose of challenging yourself in life. After a while, it can wear you out unless you go to another company, but I’d still be doing the same thing,” Yeh said. “With the start-up, you have to wear many hats. For me, that’s much more exciting. You’ve got to have a little bit of purpose in life.”
While pursuing their MBAs, Yeh and Chen used the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s Small Business Growth Program, in which small teams of highly-skilled Booth students assist small business owners to help them grow and scale their businesses.
Chen said the program helped Beltech better understand the wider battery industry, from what types of batteries and what level of performance potential customers want to which area of the industry to penetrate first.
Armed with that information, team Beltech has participated in several pitch competitions with confidence. And regardless of a competition’s outcome, they have been valuable, Chen said. In addition to getting to practice their pitch in front of a knowledgeable audience, they also connect with others in the industry—such as with representatives from the manufacturing giant 3M after a recent event—as well as potential investors.
“Once the company becomes bigger,” says Yeh, “the vision expands. As it goes farther, it could revolutionize the whole industry and change the whole landscape. Think about how we use batteries for phones—but what if we trip the life span of that battery? What if we make the battery safer?”
Yeh and Chen would agree with characterizing their company as an “early-stage” enterprise. They’ve set key milestones to gauge their progress: making the industry prototype, testing and developing the prototype with manufacturers, and having their materials in every battery in the future.
In the meantime, Beltech must grind through a step-by-step, patience-testing process.
“Behind every success, there’s many failures, and you shouldn’t be discouraged by any failures, barriers or roadblocks,” Yeh said. “You definitely have to see that there’s always an alternative way of solving the problem.”
It’s so far, so good for Beltech in its quest to become a household name in the world of lithium battery materials. Regardless of how far the company goes, its underlying mission is what keeps Chen, Yeh and the rest of the team motivated.
“We want to create a sustainable imprint in the future,” Chen said. “We want this green world for all of us, we want to have high-energy density batteries that can power everything.”
About Forbes 30 for 30
Forbes compiles a list of 30 individuals under the age of 30 in various industries based on their innovation and entrepreneurial success. Eventual winners are chosen from thousands of nominees and are sorted by industry category, including Art & Style; Celebrities; Consumer Technology; Energy; Food & Drink; Retail & Ecommerce; Enterprise Technology; Immigrants; Games; Healthcare; Finance; Law & Policy; Manufacturing & Industry; Marketing & Advertising; Media; Music; Science; Social Entrepreneurs; Sports; and Venture Capital. Learn more at here.