UCLA alums court success as battery-tech entrepreneurs
Campus startup culture – including CNSI’s Magnify incubator – enabled solid start
By Wayne Lewis
When someone first broached the idea of starting their own company, back in late 2015, Janet Hur and Leland Smith were unsure. They simply hadn’t considered it before.
Hur and Smith, then UCLA postdoctoral scholars, had filed a patent covering a design method they co-developed to pack unprecedented power into millimeter-scale rechargeable batteries. As they mulled over leading the commercialization of their invention, the idea grew more attractive.
“I was thinking, ‘We have this great technology, so why wouldn’t we take this opportunity?’” Hur said. “If we didn’t, we might regret it years down the line.”
Smith felt similarly. The two agreed to give it a year; if they couldn’t gain funding, they would move on.
Almost five years later, Millibatt, Inc., has developed a second-generation battery and is gearing up for a campaign to engage corporate partners. Integral to the business’s growth have been startup-friendly resources at UCLA — including the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA’s Magnify incubator, where the company maintained its headquarters for two and a half years.
“Magnify played a huge role,” said Leland Smith, co-founder and chief operating officer at Millibatt. “At first, the technology was so new that there were many different ways we could have gone in terms of which chemicals we used, for instance. We were still building up our knowledge. At CNSI, we had lab equipment that would have been astronomically expensive for us as a new company.”
Millibatt’s design technique produces lithium-ion batteries so small that 10 could sit on a dime, while yielding 10 times more power than a traditional battery the same size could. That boost may be an enabling factor for unobtrusive sensors capable of reporting measurements remotely. Potential applications include body-worn sensors that capture biometric data for medical devices or detect motion for virtual reality.
The company traces its origins to a collaboration between Bruce Dunn, UCLA’s Nippon Sheet Glass Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Chang-Jin “CJ” Kim, UCLA’s Volgenau Chair in Engineering, both members of CNSI. Their goal: to develop new methods and materials for making tiny, high-powered batteries.
Smith began working on the project as a graduate student in the Dunn Lab. Shortly thereafter, Hur joined the group as a postdoctoral scholar, having recently completed her Ph.D. with Kim’s mentorship. The two formed a partnership that accelerated the pace of progress.
“Once we started working together, the ideas came really quickly, and we could iterate just as fast,” said Hur, Millibatt’s co-founder and chief executive officer. “We created this feedback loop, and within a year, we produced a patent.”
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Going from patenting a breakthrough to founding an emerging company was a new challenge for Hur and Smith. They received guidance through the UCLA Technology Development Group’s Startup in a Box program, including help incorporating their company and free consultations with a lawyer. By June 2016, they were participating in a prestigious virtual fellowship with Mountain View, California-based startup accelerator Y Combinator. Seed funding followed in September of that year.
Hur and Smith note Dunn’s generosity in allowing them to pursue fundraising in parallel to their postdoctoral research. With the first infusion of cash, it was time for Millibatt to put down stakes. In October 2016, the company was accepted among the first batch of startups to join CNSI’s incubator, known today as Magnify.
There, the founders conducted early research and development. They benefited from Magnify’s built-in laboratory infrastructure and logistical support, as well as ready access to nearby, state-of-the-art facilities for nanofabrication and atomic-level imaging. When a new idea struck, they could test it out within hours.
Their niche within the ecosystem of companies housed at the incubator also made a difference. At monthly mixers, Hur and Smith learned about the work of neighboring startups, gleaning insights they applied to their own venture.
“That was really good practice for getting academic-minded people to talk about their ideas in public,” Smith said. “Talking to other companies and watching their progress definitely helps you understand your own company. And listening to stories from different companies helps inform how you approach your discussions with investors.”
In March 2017, Millibatt completed an early prototype of their battery. It came in handy during the company’s second stint with Y Combinator, this time as one of the startups benefiting from the funding, counsel and connections that the accelerator offers.
“It was that little battery we built at CNSI that convinced people at demo day that we knew what we were doing,” Smith said.
Millibatt “graduated” from Magnify when they moved into their new headquarters, in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, in March 2019. A year from now, Hur and Smith hope to be raising capital to scale up manufacturing through a series A funding round.
From the founders’ perspective, the transition from academia to entrepreneurship is more intuitive than some might expect.
“In engineering, everything is ideally constrained within the context of ‘How is this useful in the world?’” Smith said. “It’s kind of been the point all along to build something that people want.”