PRIETO BATTERIES: FAST, CHEAP, ECO-FRIENDLY — AND INCREDIBLY POWERFUL

PRIETO BATTERIES: FAST, CHEAP, ECO-FRIENDLY — AND INCREDIBLY POWERFUL

by Tony Phifer

When Amy Prieto came to Colorado State University in 2005 to join the Department of Chemistry faculty, she wasn’t thinking about starting her own company. Or serving as CEO. And she certainly wasn’t thinking about striking a deal with chip giant Intel.

But all of those things have happened. And it all started with an idea to give graduate students an opportunity to gain experience working on a meaningful project utilizing ground-breaking science.

“I wasn’t thinking about something that could be commercialized quickly, and I was not thinking about starting a company,” said Prieto, associate professor of chemistry. “I was thinking about science that was really deep and a lot of people could work on. I started thinking about things backwards.”

The result of that thought process is Prieto Battery, a startup company backed by CSU, that debuted in 2009. Prieto hopes to mass-produce 3-D lithium-ion batteries that hold significantly more power and charge much more quickly than traditional lithium-ion batteries.

The potential for these batteries is almost limitless. The simplest application is likely in personal electronics – phones, laptops, etc. – but Prieto believes the batteries can greatly improve performance in hybrid-electric and all-electric automobiles and other large-scale projects.

“The ultimate for any battery technology is a battery that has incredible performance but, ideally, is also really cheap,” she said. “You can use inexpensive materials, and you can use inexpensive processing to achieve that goal. And I also wanted to use environmentally benign chemistry. My personal interest is the environment, and we are trying to be good stewards of the environment.”

TO ACHIEVE THOSE AMBITIOUS GOALS PRIETO CHARGED HER TEAM OF SCIENTISTS WITH A LIST OF DESIRED CRITERIA TO MAKE THE PROJECT WORK…

The results have been gratifying. Reusable water-based solutions are utilized throughout the manufacturing process, so there is no need for expensive ventilation systems. Production equipment is operated at room temperature, cutting down on heating/cooling expenses.

  • DON’T USE EQUIPMENT THAT IS EXPENSIVE OR REQUIRES LARGE AMOUNTS OF ENERGY TO OPERATE.
  • DON’T USE TOXIC CHEMICALS IN ANY PART OF THE PROCESS.
  • UTILIZE MATERIALS THAT ARE INEXPENSIVE AND EASY TO ACQUIRE.

“This led to thinking about developing chemistry in a different way, and that helped us solve some problems in industry that we would have run into if we had been using conventional chemistry,” Prieto said. “One of the intangible benefits was that it motivated us to be a little more creative in the way we thought about building the battery.”

WORK BENCH TO BOARDROOM

While Prieto has greatly enjoyed the invention process and working with students and other scientists to fine-tune the chemistry and manufacturing, there are challenges associated with running a company that she simply was not prepared to tackle. Solving a complex scientific puzzle is her strength. Convincing investors to sink their money into the project, not so much.

Investors not only want to know about Prieto’s products but those of her competitors, and they want to know where Prieto Battery stands in the race to full-scale production. Prieto said she always assumes competitors are ahead of her team and tries to think of ways to close the gap.

“I think business people speak a different language than scientists, and you have to be very good at translating that language if you hope to succeed. It took me a while to learn that,” she said. “Scientists are much more direct with each other. When I’m talking to my board of directors or investors I need to be able to teach them what I’m proposing is important, but I also need to be open to feedback. It’s been an interesting learning experience.”

Prieto apparently has adapted quite nicely to her role as inventor/CEO. Intel, the multinational processor manufacturer, recently entered into a business collaboration with Prieto Battery that includes an initial investment from Intel Capital.

The collaboration, announced Nov. 3, is aimed at accelerating the introduction of Prieto’s 3-D battery into the marketplace. Prieto Battery, with Intel’s backing, will complete a series of milestones to demonstrate the battery’s performance and readiness. In exchange, Intel gets first crack at implementing the technology in its products.

“The commitment from Intel, one of the global leaders in computing devices, is important for us at this stage of our company,” Prieto said. “We’ve been deliberate about trying to build relationships with companies like Intel that can help shape our commercialization roadmap and deliver strategic value for all stakeholders – most importantly, the end user of the technology.”
The collaboration with Intel is part of what Prieto described as “a fantastic year for us in terms of technical breakthroughs. The next 12 to 18 months are going to be pretty exciting.”

While the Intel deal is a significant coup for Prieto Battery, 2015 has also been personally gratifying. Earlier this year, her research was included in an exhibit called “Places of Invention” at the Smithsonian Institution’s Lemeslon Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. The exhibit features six American cities throughout time and what makes them incubators for innovation. Prieto is one of six innovators with CSU ties included in the portion that highlights Fort Collins and its commitment to clean energy development as a current Place of Invention.

Prieto, whose father emigrated from Colombia after earning a college degree in the U.S., could only smile when asked what it meant to be included in the “Places of Invention” exhibit.

“It’s pretty wild to think about,” she said. “For my father, just one generation from being an immigrant to having a daughter whose work is in the Smithsonian is pretty amazing. My daughter also thinks it’s pretty amazing, which I think is pretty cool. That’s actually the best part of it.”

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