Issue Date: August 20, 2012
Theodore Goodson III
Ted Goodson wasn’t intending to start a company. He wasn’t even looking for new kinds of energy storage materials. But now the 43-year-old serves as chief science officer for Wolverine Energy Solutions & Technology (WEST), a small start-up firm that does just that—making novel organic energy storage materials and capacitors based on those materials.
Goodson is a chemistry professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. About six years ago, his group was conducting fundamental studies—ultrafast laser spectroscopy analysis—of candidate materials for harvesting solar energy.
“We were studying fast energy transfer in highly branched macromolecules,” Goodson recalls. The group was aiming to discover promising materials for collecting sunlight. They planned to tweak the molecular structures synthetically to optimize their optical properties and make new types of photovoltaic devices.
With that objective in mind, Goodson’s Ph.D. student Meng Guo observed that one of the macromolecules they were studying, a dendritic (or hyperbranched) phthalocyanine compound, exhibited unexpectedly large and delocalized polarization. That property indicates that under the influence of an applied voltage, charge carriers are free to hop around the dendrimer’s structure.
Studying the material further, Goodson’s group discovered that it was endowed with a high dielectric constant and other electrical properties that are quite unusual for an all-organic compound. They soon realized that instead of harvesting light, the material they made is better suited to storing charge. Specifically, they had discovered a material that could serve as the dielectric medium in new types of capacitors (C&EN, March 5, page 46).
Capacitors are everywhere. They’re found in small electronic devices, large power stations, pulse-driven instruments such as lasers, and many other applications. Like batteries, they store electrical energy. But unlike batteries, capacitors deliver the stored energy and are recharged quite rapidly, repeatedly, and sometimes at high frequency, depending on the application.
Commercial capacitors often make use of ceramic dielectrics such as barium titanate. Others rely on common organic polymers. Goodson’s group recognized that their materials significantly outperform ceramics and common polymers in some electrical properties, but because the dendrimers are organic, they aren’t fragile, bulky, and heavy, as ceramic capacitors are. The combination of desirable attributes was the Goodson group’s ticket to research support from the Office of Naval Research, which had been searching for new types of pulse-power systems to run electric ships and drive electromagnetic launch systems to propel airplanes from aircraft carriers.
Research went well, Goodson says, so well in fact, that soon various military agencies and a number of companies wanted test samples of the materials and devices made from them. Research accelerated. It soon became clear to Goodson that his university research program wasn’t the right home for this venture.
“We knew that to move forward, we would have to launch a start-up,” Goodson says, adding that this was an idea he wasn’t eager to execute. Ph.D. student Guo, on the other hand, was keen on the idea. She had a strong business interest and had taken courses in Michigan’s entrepreneurial studies program. She also recognized that, in addition to select military applications, there was significant opportunity to target the new capacitors to the hybrid-electric-vehicle market. She now serves as WEST’s chief executive officer.
Equally enthusiastic was Goodson’s wife, Stephanie Goodson, a medical doctor and now the company’s president. She developed the plan for marketing the capacitors to the medical device sector, for use in implantable defibrillators. “It was Stephanie and Meng Guo’s urging that led us to start the company,” Goodson asserts. The three of them soon found brand-new lab space the university had set aside for scientific start-ups and launched their new company in 2010.
The company now has five employees and is working to perfect prototype devices and expand its clientele. It hasn’t been easy, Goodson says with a laugh. Working to build such a small company means being involved in every detail, he says. “It has been incredibly challenging” to build a company while leading a productive university research group, attending to group members’ needs, and properly fulfilling other academic responsibilities. Judging from his recent receipt of Michigan’s Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award, Goodson is managing this huge balancing act.
“I’m not only focusing on the money,” he says. “I’m confident we have a solid scientific result, and I just try to focus on doing the things that are most important for successfully commercializing our discovery.”
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