Battery Chats: Thomas Heenan, CEO and Co-Founder at Gaussion
A convo with Thomas Heenan, CEO and Co-Founder at Gaussion + some other battery news
Thomas Heenan is the CEO and Co-Founder of the magneto-electrochemistry company Gaussion. Thomas received his undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering and a PhD working on Solid Oxide Fuel Cells at University College London (UCL). During his PhD, Thomas invented the magneto-electrochemistry “MagLiB” technology and after graduating has been working for the Faraday Institution with his time split between fundamental research into battery degradation and the commercialisation of magneto-electrochemistry. Thomas’ work has been quite diverse: building off-grid control systems for energy companies, organising research at particle accelerators and testing for safe space exploration with NASA. Outside of work you can find Thomas surfing, mountain biking or enjoying a cold beer.
More info: www.gaussion.co.uk
Intercalation: Tell us the Thomas Heenan origin story. How did you become interested in science and engineering, and more specifically in batteries?
Thomas Heenan: Motivations to improve air quality and impede global temperature rises have brought considerable media coverage to batteries in recent years, and for good reason, they present a genuinely viable route away from a global catastrophe. They also, however, still suffer from significant technical barriers. In short, the ideal battery will store large amounts of energy quickly within a small volume at minimal weight, whilst also being safe to operate. This is a massive but highly exciting challenge, and is the reason my efforts are focused on batteries.
Intercalation: Tell us more about the Faraday program in the UK, and what your thought process was when you decided to start a company after your PhD?
Thomas: My invention was actually conceived during time as a student, but the process of taking an invention to market requires considerable time. From the initial conception, to bench-top testing, to commercial validation and now the spin-out; each step has required new skills, funds and effort from many parties. The reason that we look to form companies is simple: as researchers (academic or industrial) our role in society is to contribute towards a particular challenge; for example, battery recharging times. Often the most efficacious mode of disseminating our findings is within journal article publications, however, if the impacts of the findings are large enough there may be scope to take the innovation(s) to market. In doing so, there can be opportunities to create new jobs, add value to supply chains, and improve consumer products. It’s therefore our responsibility as researchers to ensure that findings in the lab translate into the ‘real’ world, and help the wider society; and often, as with Gaussion, a spin-out company is the best way to do that.
Even with an excellent idea, starting a company can often be challenging to gain momentum due to lack of particular skills, insufficient funds, and access to certain facilities… However, the UK is very fortunate to have a concentrated effort in enabling energy storage innovations led by the Faraday Institution, the UK’s independent institute for electrochemical energy storage research, skills development, market analysis, and early-stage commercialisation. The Faraday Institution supported our technology with a 12-month Entrepreneurial Fellowship that allowed us to scale the innovation from research materials fabricated in our lab to commercial cells for electric vehicles. Without the support from the Faraday Institution we would not be where we are today.
Intercalation: What is the MagLib technology you have developed, and what will your company Gaussion do?
Thomas: To summarise Gaussion briefly, we are a magneto-electrochemistry company (possibly the only one in the world) and we modify charging and battery units so that they can exploit magneto-electrochemistry to enable faster charging times without degrading the cell. Our technology which we call MagLiB is a patent-protected magneto-electrochemistry technique for improving charging times. We employ highly specialised magnetic fields to reduce the resistances within Li-ion batteries. In doing so, we can charge batteries faster. We can apply this technology to any battery, actually, any electrochemical cell.
Intercalation: What are you and the Gaussion team looking forward to in the next 12 months?
Thomas: Partners, prototypes, and products. Over the next 12 months we plan to take this technology out of the labs and into real-world products. To do this, we’ll need several development partners. If you work in a field that might require faster charging I encourage you to reach out to us (firstname.lastname@example.org). We also want to grow our team and take on more substantial funding. Particularly we’ll be looking for expertise from circuitry and electromagnetic systems engineers, battery chemists, and a commercialisation officer.
Intercalation: There’s a lot of players in the fast charging space today working from all sorts of angles, from a materials standpoint all the way to infrastructure. What are your thoughts on the landscape today and where Gaussion will fit in?
Thomas: Fast charging methods generally involve novel chemistries and microstructures that require years of development and stringent quality assurance during scale-up, moreover they cannot be applied to existing cells; fast charging software, while applicable to existing cell types, are always restricted by the fundamental material and chemistry limitations. Our unique selling point lies in the versatility and ease of implementation. Our technology can be applied to new and existing cells of all sizes (e.g. smart-watch to EV), commercial chemistries (e.g. nickel- and iron-based cathodes; graphite- and silicon-based anodes) and geometries (e.g. pouch and cylindrical). Consequently, we do not have many competitors; we see them as collaborators.
I think it’s important to think back to the ideal battery: a long-life (10,000 cycles) and truly fast-charging (sub-5 mins) cell, which can store a large amount of energy in a small volume and at low weight, whilst still being safe! Different applications will have different requirements and this mission statement will change accordingly but generally speaking until we see commercial cells being consistently manufactured close to those specifications, there will always be battery innovations disseminated in the form of cutting-edge academic research through to new start-up companies. The battery that can finally achieve all of those criteria will be composed of many innovations, requiring national and international collaborations.
Some applications will not require fast charging, but I would describe our market penetration as this: any application that would benefit from over a 50% charging time reduction probably requires magneto-electrochemistry, and therefore Gaussion’s MagLiB technology.
Intercalation: We have many readers who are PhD students and other early-career academics interested in starting an entrepreneurial career. What’s your advice for others who are thinking about starting their own company?
Thomas: Establish if it’s a lucrative idea, obtain protection (e.g. patents), bring on as much equity-free funding as possible, and fill your skill gaps. But my strongest piece of advice is to actively learn, all of the time. Whether it’s by studying your competitors, keeping up with market movements, or learning from others. People are always making mistakes in business (someone somewhere is making a business mistake right now), learn from their mistakes by speaking to them or reading; people are generally quite open about these things and there is a wealth of knowledge available in books and online.
Intercalation: Thanks for chatting today, Tom!
📚 On our reading/listening list
The Electric. Making for Forever Battery. Steve Levine with Gene Berdichevsky, employee No. 7 at Tesla and CEO of Sila Nanotechnologies Inc. Sept. 8 at noon ET.
Climate Tech VC. Accelerating EVs: fits and starts #69. Speed bumps on the road to the EV transition and Rivian’s IPO.
Wall Street Journal. Lithium Booms in the Battle for Electric Vehicle Batteries.
Battery Bay. The Most In-Demand Jobs in the European Battery Industry in 2021.
BYD. Inside BYD's ultra-safe Blade Battery factory (YouTube).
🌞 As always, thanks for reading!
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About the writers: Andrew is a PhD researcher at the University of Oxford (@ndrewwang). Nicholas is an Associate Business Manager at UCL Business (@nicholasyiu). Ethan is a battery scientist and researcher in Jeff Dahn’s Research Group (@ethandalter).