Metamorphosis: Peter Frischmann on pivoting, ARPA-E, and becoming a businessman

Last fall, mere months after joining Cyclotron Road Cohort 2, Sepion Technologies shifted its focus and was awarded funding via the ARPA-E IONICS program. I sat down with co-founder Peter Frischmann a few weeks after the award was announced to chat about this early success and what it means for him and his company.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Cyclotron Road innovator Peter Frischmann, cofounder of  Sepion Technologies

Cyclotron Road innovator Peter Frischmann, cofounder of Sepion Technologies

Levi Gadye: I heard you recently got some good news.

Peter Frischmann: We found out in September that we are a co-awardee for an ARPA-E grant, dubbed IONICS, which [aims] to develop solid-state electrolytes that enable lithium metal batteries. Electric vehicles that go 400 miles, or cell phones that last four days on one charge, suddenly become a feasible outcome of this technology.

We applied for this grant with Carnegie Mellon University, Berkeley Lab, and 24m, and together we've been awarded about $4 million. It's a three-year program and we're really focused on scaling up and validating our composite membranes for this application.

LG: You were originally focused on making lithium sulfur batteries. What led you to pivot to lithium metal?

PF: We've had a big change of heart from our lithium-sulfur project. I did a lot of digging with potential investors and strategic partners on the side of lithium sulfur, which is interesting because that battery is very lightweight. Word on the street was, great idea, people interested in electrified flight really want it, but there’s no way to fund that technology moving forward. The market is too nascent and the timeline to develop the technology would be five, probably closer to ten years.

In response to that feedback, we've taken a step back and focused on our expertise in microporous materials and membrane design. We're now rebranding ourselves as a selective membrane company, with our early market opportunities in batteries. We're also open to developing our materials for [other markets like] water treatment, desalination, [and] chemical separations. Membranes affect us in many ways that people don't think about, and they're actually a pretty big market. We're looking to generalize our application space and broaden our opportunities.

In the meantime, batteries are still our primary focus and that's what this [ARPA-E] grant is all about. It's a really exciting opportunity. I consider ARPA-E to be the American Idol of grants. People pay attention to this. Winning this award [and] being able to show our technology's been vetted by one of the top-notch funding agencies should give us a lot of traction.

LG: Is lithium sulfur still on the horizon?

PF: [By focusing on membranes] we’ve simplified the solution that we have to deliver. If our technology makes safe lithium metal anodes work, there’s already large markets in cell phones, laptops, and electric vehicles that demand the energy density boost. The same membranes could also be a technical solution for one of the many issues facing lithium sulfur batteries. If, in ten years, we're still around and someone else has solved the other problems of lithium sulfur, then we'll be ready to sell them this technology that we've developed for this earlier opportunity.

LG: Has this grant allowed you to build your company? What practical things have happened with the money or what things are going to happen in the near future?

PF: It's definitely catalyzed discussions with private investors. We'll probably hire two more employees and hopefully have some money to buy more equipment. That'll be important for testing our devices, a huge boost for us.

LG: How has Cyclotron Road helped catalyze this?

PF: They've been incredible mentors, especially with regards to targeting the right markets. Their encouragement to do customer discovery with venture capitalists and strategic partners, to determine whether or not lithium sulfur was a fundable path, whether or not customers wanted it, and whether there was actually money out there, capital, to build the business based on that value proposition and that market. They really encouraged me to go out and talk to people, and it was a resounding “No” for the most part. Had it not been for that insight and that encouragement on their part, I would be barking up the wrong tree right now.

LG: It's October. You got this new grant last month, but you guys were taken on by Cyclotron Road just this past summer. That's impressive.

PF: We made that decision about three months into the program, but we were really prodded by Cyclotron Road to go find out the answers to these questions sooner than later. Spending two months determining whether or not you're actually building the right thing for the right problem, that’s time well spent relative to spending the next year and a half and all our resources making the wrong thing and finding out, once it was built, that we had screwed up a year and a half earlier.

LG: So 24m [your partner company], what have they been working on?

PF: Their big focus is on reducing the time to manufacture Li-ion batteries by around 80%, and the cost by 30%. They're using conventional Li-ion chemistries, but a whole new manufacturing process. It's much more modular. If their technology really proves out, future investments in traditional Li-ion manufacturing will look like a waste of money.

LG: What's their background? Obviously there's going to be mentorship, big company to small company, but is their story anything similar to your story?

PF: They’re much more experienced and technically savvy in the field, so it's a real honor and it's exciting to be able to work with them… particularly the fact that they're inspired by our technology and want to be a part of it. 24m is going to do a lot to validate our technology in real, life-size cells.

The other advantage of this pivot for us is that our supply chain and manufacturing pipeline is dramatically simplified. We only have to make one component, and we deliver it to someone else who puts everything together. In this case, we would probably still have to partner to contract out the manufacturing, because if this really took off, the scale could be massive. Nevertheless, we're in a position to at least be involved in the manufacturing process once we've developed the technology. Perhaps at some point through 24m’s connections we could reach out to some strategic partners that would want to manufacture our brands.

LG: Clearly they're excited it about it. You now have the resources of a respected and healthy company to do that half of the work, must be an exciting time for you.

PF: Whole new shift. New technology, based on our old technology, new challenges.

LG: How's it make you feel about this decision that you've made, in the past year, to jump headfirst into entrepreneurship?

PF: [It was a] great decision. I'm learning so much, really branching out. It feels like I’m going through a metamorphosis, from academic to businessman. I'm definitely still cracking out of the chrysalis, I’d say.

LG: I was watching a nature documentary the other night, Frozen Planet, and I saw this little part about a moth that lives in the Arctic, the woolly bear moth. This species spends 14 years as a caterpillar, freezing and unfreezing each winter, before it grows big enough to transform into a moth.

PF: And so in that last month it mates and dies?

LG: Yup.

PF: Well I hope to have more of a tropical metamorphosis.

LG: Happy to hear that for you the metamorphosis is happening quickly!

PF: Fourteen months would be fine; fourteen years, we'll avoid.

LG: In 14 years hopefully your company will have actually made an impact on battery production.

PF: I hope that we are in every electric vehicle in 14 years.

LG: And now, that is both bold and realistic for Sepion.

PF: No promises but we're pushing for it.