Cornell Dean Takes Deep Dive into Customer Discovery with I-Corps Teams

Sanjuna Stalin, Lynden Archer, and Brian Bauer appear on a video conference call on a laptop.

Cornell Dean Takes Deep Dive into Customer Discovery with I-Corps Teams

Committed to taking discoveries from fundamental research to applications with real societal impact, Dr. Lynden A. Archer, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering at Cornell University, has been a consistent ambassador for the Upstate New York I-Corps Node and its activities. Dr. Archer is the principal investigator (PI) for the UNY I-Corps Node; however, his most recent experience with I-Corps has been as a participant in the NSF I-Corps Teams national program.  

In 2011, Dr. Archer and his research team launched a startup venture, NOHMs Technologies. As a novel material, NOHMs—or nanoscale organic hybrid materials—exhibit unusual combinations of physical properties that could be used to innovate safer battery electrolyte designs with triple the energy density of today’s state-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries. Dr. Archer and his new company set their sights on the electric vehicle industry.

“We discovered that potential customers were excited about this—everyone wants three times the range in their EVs (electric vehicles)—but the challenge was that there were no supply chains developed for materials and there were really no manufacturing protocols, so we were essentially starting from scratch,” said Dr. Archer. “Basically, our innovation was cool, but the ecosystem needed to transform that innovation into an application was nonexistent, so we pivoted quite quickly to become an electrolytes company, plugging and playing with existing lithium-ion battery architectures to make them safer and higher performing.”

Located in Rochester, New York and backed by Silicon Valley venture capital, the battery materials startup is now on a mission to provide materials and chemistry for longer-lasting, safer, and more sustainable lithium-ion batteries. NOHMs Technologies is partnered with leading automotive, battery, and chemical manufacturing companies to develop and integrate custom electrolyte solutions—trademarked as NOHMs NanoLyte® Electrolytes—for automotive and mobile device products, and the startup was recently named by the American Chemical Society’s C&EN Discovery Report as one of the top 20 battery companies to watch. 

Smiling, Dr. Archer exclaimed, “That sounds like a great success story, right? But it took 7 years to get to this point and we still don’t have a product that has fully penetrated the market! So, I vowed that the next time I ever begin the process of moving a technology from my laboratory to the market, I’m not going to do it in this sort of Edisonian way where we discover the market and the product, as we launch the company.”

This is where I-Corps comes into the story. In 2019, Dr. Archer started working on a similar research project with Sanjuna Stalin, a Cornell PhD candidate and UNY I-Corps Regional Course alumni, to explore how to utilize polymer electrolytes to extend the energy density and safety in lithium batteries. Their team, PoLi, received a National Science Foundation Partnerships for Innovation (PFI) award, leading to their enrollment in the Spring 2020 San Francisco cohort of the I-Corps Teams national program to learn more about how to leverage the process of customer discovery to bring their innovation to market. Stalin took on the role of Entrepreneurial Lead; Archer served as the Technical Lead; and Brian Bauer, a seasoned international energy industry executive and a Cornell Engineering Entrepreneur in Residence, came aboard as the team’s I-Corps Mentor.

“The intention was to invert our previous experience with NOHMs Technologies and learn from the backside: Who are the customers? What do they want? And how do we configure our product into something valuable? We came out of the program with a very different perspective than we entered in,” said Dr. Archer. 

Customer discovery, the process of “getting out of the lab” and speaking with potential customers, is the cornerstone of I-Corps program. During the intensive seven-week innovation and entrepreneurship training course, participating teams complete at least 100 customer discovery interviews to collect first-hand evidence for or against product-market fit for their innovations.

In pre-pandemic times, Team PoLi would have conducted these interviews in-person, starting in the Bay Area where the cohort would have convened, and then traveling wherever else in the U.S. they needed to go to speak with their customers. However, since all I-Corps programming has shifted online, their experience varied from those in previous cohorts—in many ways for the better.

“We found that conducting the interviews virtually made it a lot easier for us to meet with individuals in the industry, because we didn’t have to worry about traveling and could easily work around the schedules of others. With the help of Lynden, and Brian Bauer, our I-Corps mentor, I learned to craft my questions carefully and facilitate these interviews effectively,” said Stalin. “Also, as a graduate student, creating a network of contacts in the industry was incredibly valuable for me.”

Dr. Archer and Stalin went into the program thinking that the market for their technology was EVs, but during their customer interviews, they discovered a new market with a greater need: the emerging VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft market, which includes drones and autonomous taxis. From their customer discovery interviews, they learned that the current lithium-ion batteries are not strong enough for the take-off and travel needs of VTOLs.

“A different audience for a researcher often translates to different research questions. I think that is a part of this loop that sometimes gets missed. An impact of I-Corps isn’t just determining the direction of your technology development—it can determine the direction of your fundamental research. This is the real pivot Sanjuna has made in this project—how can we design something that can compete in the market that wants her product the most?” said Dr. Archer.

PoLi completed the I-Corps Teams National Program with 102 interviews, the Bay Area I-Corps Node’s “Spirit of I-Corps” award and a new and impactful application for their technology.

“When we began the program, we thought our technology was close to becoming an actual product, but we learned along the way that there were a lot of challenges to commercializing the technology for our original audience. The program helped us pivot and see where we need to bridge the gap between what our technology can provide and what the VTOL industry needs. We have a much better idea now of how to move forward to meet these needs,” said Stalin.

PoLi is currently focused on furthering their research and development, based on the feedback they received during the I-Corps Teams national program, to improve their technology for the needs of the emerging VTOL market. To learn more about their research, visit the Archer Research Group website.