Michael Lefenfeld is a powerful thinker. You can see it in his eyes and the expression on his face. And he has a knack for turning a creative idea into reality. One of Lefenfeld’s best ideas so far is figuring out a way to make user-friendly alkali metals for large-scale chemical reactions. His discovery led to the formation of New York City-based SiGNa Chemistry, for which he now serves as president and chief executive officer.
Lefenfeld, 31, began tinkering around with ideas for new technologies at an early age. Originally from New York City, he started out as a premed student on a medical research scholarship at Washington University in St. Louis. But he quickly found that he didn’t like doing the research, he explains. He had a friend who was a chemical engineering major. “I liked what he was doing,” Lefenfeld relates. “It made more sense to me.” So he shifted his major to chemical engineering.
That change in direction sparked a wave of creativity and led to several commercialized products. For example, at age 19, Lefenfeld invented a sensor that became a model for most pulse oximeters in use today. These sensors, typically placed on a fingertip, monitor the oxygenation of hemoglobin in a patient’s blood.
After graduating from Washington University, Lefenfeld worked briefly for Bell Labs and DuPont before going to Columbia University, where he earned a master’s degree in chemistry.
In the meantime, Lefenfeld sold the sensor company he had started. The proceeds from the sale enabled him to get SiGNa off the ground in 2003 without raising other start-up funds.
SiGNa wasn’t supposed to be a chemical company, Lefenfeld admits. The idea was to develop a new type of temporary bathroom deodorizer. It started with his grandfather, who had quit smoking and no longer carried matches. Striking a match is often a poor man’s version of a bathroom deodorizer.
“My grandfather wanted something simple and discreet that could be dropped into the toilet so no one knew he had been there,” he recalls. Lefenfeld considered using a fragrant oil that could be dispersed in water. “But you have to figure out a way to volatilize the oil, using something with kinetic energy that generates heat and gas.”
Lefenfeld remembered from freshman chemistry that sodium metal has those properties. But the problem with sodium and other alkali metals is that dropping them in water results in a violent burst of flame as the metal oxidizes and hydrogen gas forms. That pyrophoric nature has limited the large-scale use of alkali metals as reducing agents and catalysts.
The challenge for Lefenfeld was to come up with a sodium formulation that was just active enough to react with water to generate heat and gas to dissipate bathroom odors. Lefenfeld was working at Bell Labs and thinking of how this might work when he decided to call Michigan State University chemist James L. Dye, a renowned expert on alkali metals. “And we were off and running from there,” Lefenfeld says.
Dye and Lefenfeld tamed the alkali metals by heating sodium or a sodium-potassium alloy and then mixing the molten metal with nanoporous silica gel. The result is a sandlike powder with encapsulated metal that’s easy to handle. SiGNa's name comes from combining the elemental symbols for silicon and sodium, with the middle letter G for gel.
Year founded: 2003
Products: Alkali-metal powders for oil-well recovery, industrial catalysis, hydrogen generation, and environmental remediation
Number of employees: 65
Source of start-up funds: Sale of previous start-up
Profiled founder’s current role in company: President and CEO
Advice: Seek business partners who can help get your new products to market quickly and reduce your initial business risk.
SiGNa’s products, of which the company sold about 1,000 tons last year, are now primarily used to controllably generate heat and hydrogen gas to help push the last drops of oil from oil wells and to catalyze petroleum refining processes. They are also used as catalysts and reducing reagents for pharmaceutical and industrial synthetic processes and for environmental remediation to destroy hazardous organic pollutants.
Lefenfeld believes an application with the greatest potential might be generating hydrogen from water to power fuel cells for portable electronics. In one example, SiGNa is supplying hydrogen-generating hockey-puck-shaped cartridges, called PowerPukks, for use in Stockholm-based myFC’s PowerTrekk fuel-cell mobile-phone charger.
Managing SiGNa’s day-to-day operations is Lefenfeld’s primary charge these days. “I am a scientist, and diversifying our core technology is what I think about most,” he explains. “But as CEO I need to think about planning strategy and developing relationships to help our company grow.”
His advice to others starting a new venture is to seek business partners early, companies that can help with manufacturing or creating markets for new products and reduce the initial business risk. “Small companies can’t do it all themselves,” he says.
For example, one of the key parts of Lefenfeld’s business plan for SiGNa was forming partnerships to outsource manufacturing. “We believed having third-party manufacturers would give confidence to our customers, who build our materials into their processes, that they would always have access to the chemicals even if something happened to SiGNa,” Lefenfeld says.
And about that discreet bathroom deodorizer based on sodium? It’s an idea that worked, although it didn’t go commercial.