By Scott Meacham
If you asked me to name the profession most similar to entrepreneurship, I would say science. Both are based on problem-solving, experimentation, data, and the confidence to recognize that failure is a critical aspect of the path to success.
Paige Johnson, founder and CEO of Tulsa-based Ten-Nine Technologies, is a noted research chemist, nanotechnology inventor, and entrepreneur who comfortably wears both hats — science and entrepreneurship.
Johnson invented the technology for a new class of non-toxic nanomaterials with energy equivalence to fossil fuels. But there were a lot of speed bumps along the way.
“I don’t think I understood that to start a business — especially a scientific business, the barriers could be so high,” Johnson said. “At one point, right after our seed round, our synthesis process stopped working. We didn’t know why. Every day we did 16 experiments per day that baked in an oven overnight.”
Johnson and her team would come in the next morning full of dread. This went on for months — 272 experiments. Finally, experiment 273 worked. The technology (with four approved and another 15 filed patents pending) was validated by two independent sources. It is a world-first achievement of fossil-fuel level energy density in a battery material. Ten-Nine Technologies received the 2017 Battery Innovation Center (BIC) award for the development of hydrocarbon parity lithium battery technology.
With validated battery prototypes, the company was ready to scale.
“It was a long hard fight to raise money, more than eighteen months” Johnson said. “We talk a lot about new manufacturing jobs, but we found that there is an undervaluation by capital markets of the creation of new manufacturing jobs. There is the perception that hard technology, or deep technology as they call it—making the physical objects that make the digital world run—is far more risky than digital, yet digital businesses go bankrupt all the time.”
The next roadblock was the reluctance of coastal VCs to invest in a Midwest company, but Johnson overcame that too, convincing a notable group of Oklahoma and Midwestern investors—funds and angels—of the commercial potential of Ten-Nine Technologies’ nanomaterial, which can significantly extend the battery life of things we rely on most. That led to $5 million Series A round.
“We are so thankful for our Midwest investors and i2E,” Johnson said. “They are absolutely critical to entrepreneurs like me.”
Ten-Nine Technologies is ramping up a dedicated manufacturing facility in Tulsa and is actively recruiting R&D chemists, electrical engineers, and a head of business development. The company’s initial application is a battery solution using nanomaterials blended with traditional battery materials to deliver double battery life.
All the while dealing with the effects of a global pandemic.
“We have redesigned everything that we planned before,” Johnson said. ‘There are certain complexities in lab work that you can’t do remotely. We are figuring out how to provide health and safety in the workplace and how to create a workplace for after the pandemic. Science teaches you to be tough-minded.”
Yes, it does. And to solve problems, to learn from failure points, to pivot, and to succeed. That’s the mantra of Ten-Nine Technologies. That’s the Oklahoma way.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state appropriations from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org.