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UW Associate Professor Impresses at Entrepreneurship Competition

April 3, 2019
woman and man in lab coats in a lab
University of Wyoming chemical engineering Associate Professor Katie Li-Oakey, left, and entrepreneurship Assistant Professor Matt Fox discuss patents, applications and ways to help market Li-Oakey’s research as a product. (UW Photo)

Katie Li-Oakey knew her coal conversion technology was solid, but getting positive feedback from some of the top venture capitalists in a national competition provided even more validation.

Li-Oakey, an associate professor in chemical engineering at the University of Wyoming, and her team were among a handful of those chosen to present at a prestigious entrepreneurship competition last fall. Her startup company, TLS Materials LLC, was among 20 semifinal entries for the 2018-19 Department of Energy Chain Reaction Innovations competition. Now in its third year, the competition featured 122 total entries.

Her pitch took place Jan. 10 at the Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) outside of Chicago, the leading national laboratory for energy storage materials and devices. Participants were tasked with a 10-minute presentation on their technology, followed by 10 minutes of question-and-answer with the panelists. The panel was composed of venture capitalists, industry specialists and scientists from ANL.

“I was honored to pitch our technology to this group of seasoned investors, industry leaders and prominent scientists in the field,” she says.

Li-Oakey’s team has developed supercapacitors, devices for energy storage and release, which were fabricated from coal using a zero-waste process. Solvent is applied to raw coal at room temperature, which separates compounds in the coal into liquids and solids. Li-Oakey’s research uses the solid portions to create elastic and high-strength carbon fiber.

“We directly convert coal to carbon fiber using a low-energy process,” Li-Oakey says. “This is about finding new uses for coal. We’re trying to use coal as a feedstock for value-added products, versus just burning it.”

While the pitch did not make it to the finals, Li-Oakey says she received very good feedback from the panel and fellow competitors and attendees. She will pursue other competitions to hone her presentation, and adds that the next step for TLS Materials is to scale up and recruit potential industry partners to get feedback and improve performance.

“User feedback is important. We’re trying to move this technology out of my lab,” she says.

Li-Oakey says Wyoming coal is particularly good for the application because of its inherently high oxygen content, and that UW’s Carbon Engineering Initiative supports the research in many ways, from providing equipment to cost-share contributions required by federal funding agencies, such as the Department of Energy.

“This whole competition process, including my presentation in Chicago, really provided the high-level exposure to investors as well as needed validation,” Li-Oakey says. “We know our technology is strong, but it is nice to receive that confirmation.”

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