Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer
Creating Material Solutions for Greener Lithium-ion Batteries
Samir Mayekar’s interest in the energy industry took shape while he worked in the White House as director of the national security team for former President Barack Obama.
“On my last day in the administration, before I left for Kellogg, he (Obama) encouraged me to continue advancing the fight against climate change from the private sector,” Mayekar says.
Now Mayekar’s the co-founder and CEO of NanoGraf Technologies, a Chicago-based battery technology company. Mayekar built the startup as an MBA student during his study at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management – his second time at Northwestern since graduating in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
“When I was a Kellogg student, there was an oversupply ratio on the market,” Mayekar recalls. He’s talking about an abundance of batteries that could not meet our power demands.
Over the past two decades, lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) became the primary technology powering the rapid growth of portable electronics and, more recently, electric vehicles. Yet the current LIB technology cannot meet the energy needs of these technologies.
NanoGraf’s goal is to enhance the performance of LIBs through material solutions that enable longer lasting and faster charging batteries to address the current limitations in the performance of electric vehicles due to battery technology. “Driving range and cost are two limitations of today’s electric vehicles, which our technology addresses,” Mayekar says.
NanoGraf has patented a low-cost manufacturing process of a high-energy density anode material. The technology utilizes a composite of silicon and graphene in a layered structure that helps stabilize the active material during charge and discharge. The silicon-based anode material can be customized to achieve the capacity – the amount of electric charge it can deliver, that’s about five times higher than what current graphite-based anodes can offer in LIBs.
The startup idea developed in 2012 when Mayekar participated in the class NUvention: Energy that paired graduate students across campus in teams that combined innovation and entrepreneurship in the sustainable energy and clean-tech space.
“The underlying technology and patents of the company were developed in the engineering school,” he says. After reviewing available Northwestern technologies, he and three other classmates decided to commercialize the innovative battery research being conducted by Walter P. Murphy Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Harold Kung, given the importance of batteries in the clean energy marketplace.
“The resource base of the university was critical to establishing our foundation,” Mayekar says. Besides technology support from Northwestern, his team also received support in business plan competitions and the applications for grant funding. They also leveraged the diversity of Kellogg’s curriculum to build their first business plan, learn about negotiations, and receive training in entrepreneurial finance.
Case studies at NUvention on green energy companies that went into bankruptcy inspired Mayekar to turn to unconventional funding streams –large companies specializing in materials, batteries, or end devices such as smartphones instead of acquiring funding from venture capital.
Beyond the electric vehicle market, NanoGraf is creating collaborative agreements with companies making drones, power tools, the internet of things devices, and in other industries.
“Energy is a highly technical industry,” says Mayekar. His suggestion for anyone interested in invention within the energy industry is to gain experiential learning through internships at startups, major industrial players, and investors to gain as much industry exposure as possible.
Editor's Note: In May 2019, Samir Mayekar was named deputy mayor for neighborhood and economic development in the administration of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. See the story in the Chicago Tribune.
* Editor's Note, November 2022: Samir Mayekar is now Deputy Mayor for Economic and Neighborhood Development at the City of Chicago.