Cash Money at EnergyTech UP

By Miles Kohel

When looking at the short time frame that was available for producing a business plan for a prototype technology that efficiently recycles lithium-ion batteries, it is quite remarkable that a group of undergraduate students were able to go toe-to-toe in the national competition with groups of students further along in both their business plan and academic careers.

This spring semester while enrolled in the Pathways to Renewable Energy Grand Challenge Curriculum Course, I had the privilege to work with a randomly selected group of undergraduate students of different majors and backgrounds and produce a business plan for a sustainable energy technology. It all started January 23 when each student filled a spreadsheet with their rankings of various energy technologies to help abate the worst effects of climate change.

The technology that my group members and I had presumably ranked high on the spreadsheet was a prototype technology developed out of Ames, Iowa to more efficiently recycle lithium-ion batteries. Instead of physical and mechanical processing steps, followed by chemical conversion, this technology uses a single mechanochemical step. This higher energy efficiency results in a vast reduction in chemical waste. Sounds like a technology with the potential for a lot of profit, especially given the increased demand for these critical batteries used in electric vehicles.

After being assigned this technology, there was a quick turnaround required to try to produce a rough draft version of a pitch deck of our business plan for this technology. This is what would be judged at the EnergyTechUP regional competition that all groups in the class would participate in. Upon receiving feedback from this rough draft, the group was able to really emphasize the value propositions for this far more efficient recycling process, especially when considering the complex supply chains and morally suspect mining practices that exist currently.

Before we knew it, the regional competition was upon us in the third week of February. Gavin Fucks was determined and composed enough to be the spokesperson for the group and CEO of the business, BaTech Recycling Solutions. He presented the pitch deck with great poise online, enough to win the $2500 prize money and the regional crown.

The attention would turn towards the national competition, which we had no idea at first if it would be scheduled in person at Carnegie Mellon University, the school sponsoring the event as part of their “Energy Week.” It would turn out to be online like the regional competition, which required the creation of a short video to accompany the slide deck. Spring break for our campus came the first full week of March, where I could recharge before the group set up meetings with the Ames Laboratory, as well as with local businesses and initiatives associated with transitioning to clean energy. The biggest challenge during the runup to the national competition was definitely coming up with the relative estimates of the economic costs and capital expenditures associated with our business. This was because of the fact that the technology we were leveraging was in a prototype phase; however, that is what the meetings and all the feedback was for.

The national competition was finally upon us on March 24, where Gavin would present the polished product with actual economic figures. In comparison to the regional competition, we knew we would have our work cut out for us when viewing how far along some of the more well established technologies and their groups were. After all, we were only a group of undergraduates, largely second-year students, who had to compete against students from various universities who were even in PhD programs. One group in particular from Stanford University was leveraging the same exact technology as ours. They even stated that one of the professors from Ames who our group had met in the leadup to the national competition was their “advisor” for their presentation, which we all thought was peculiar. Anyways, the Stanford team ended up winning the national competition, which had us thinking that we did a solid job and may have been close to placing ourselves. Their presentation complemented ours very well and really drove home the point that a highly efficient recycling process for lithium-ion batteries is a No-brainer.

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