Posted: June 01, 2011
Research rock stars: Storage star
CSU chemistry professor Amy Prieto aims for all-electric vehiclesBy Rob Reuteman
Amy Prieto is in hot pursuit of the automotive industry's holy grail - a battery powerful and cheap enough to make all-electric cars the go-to clean energy vehicle.
The young CSU chemistry professor parlayed her research in nanotechnology into Prieto Battery, a 2009 startup that hopes to produce batteries far more powerful and longer lasting, and much cheaper, than traditional ones. The technology also has potential applications that range from the military to health care to smart phones.
"If our battery works to its potential, it could be the ideal battery for an electric car," Prieto said. "We've had some cool breakthroughs recently, so I'm pretty excited."
Once a battery is "turned on," much of its efficiency is derived from how many live wires come in contact with each other. Using nanotechnology, the wires used in Prieto batteries cover a surface area that is 10,000 times greater than a traditional battery. A thousand such nanowires could fit in the width of a human hair.
Prieto joined CSU in 2005 as an assistant professor. She did her post-doctoral research at Harvard and received her doctoral degree from the University of California-Berkeley. She is now part of the university's Clean Energy Supercluster, known as Cenergy, which was formed to commercialize the research done at CSU. In 2009, when Prieto cofounded Prieto Battery, it was Cenergy's first startup.
Tim Reeser, Cenergy's chief operating officer, also lent a hand as unpaid CEO of Prieto Battery for a year.
"What stood out with Prieto Battery was the potential for transformational change," Reeser said. "If you look at the other battery startups around, almost all of them are trying to achieve incremental change. They either have a battery that is 10 percent better, or they have one that is much better but costs a fortune."
Prieto Battery also represented the first investment made by CSU Fund 1, a private equity fund set up to help the university bring its faculty's research to the marketplace.
"We were looking for game-changers, and this is one," said Mark Wdowik, executive director of the fund, which invested $250,000. That money, along with funding from Bohemian Asset Management in Fort Collins, has taken Prieto's battery research closer to the marketplace.
"We've grown from doing research out of my lab to a lab with three full-time Ph.D. scientists and one full-time technician," Prieto said. "We also added a chief finance officer and a vice president for marketing and strategic alliances."
Prieto Battery is hardly alone in its quest. Several dozen U.S. companies, from startups to General Motors, are racing to build better batteries.
"Almost all the others are trying to optimize one piece of their battery," Prieto said. "We are building a whole new kind of architecture. Now that we have discovered some new materials, we can build full batteries and see how long they last and how fast we can charge them."
Prieto's business plan calls for shipping a prototype battery to third-party testing labs in six to eight months.
"All our in-house testing looks really good," she said. "Once it's thoroughly tested, we can move pretty aggressively to commercialize it. That's why we have a marketing person - to begin establishing relationships with customers."
At CSU, Prieto has adjoining labs with her husband, Matt Shores, also an assistant chemistry professor. They share an equipment room - and also share a daughter, Alena, who will turn 3 this summer.
Rob Reuteman is a freelance journalist, former business editor of the Rocky Mountain News and immediate past president of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.