Jolt Energy gets funding, research support for battery technology

Major financial and research support from the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Ill., have put a jolt in Jolt Energy Storage Technologies LLC, a Holland-based spinoff from Michigan State University that hopes to reduce or eliminate the danger of lithium-ion batteries overheating and exploding from being overcharged.

It came in April when Argonne announced that company co-founder Thomas Guarr had been named one of six winners of its Chain Reaction Innovations program from a national field of 83 applicants. The program pays recipients a salary of $89,000 a year for two years and provides the company $220,000 for R&D work at Argonne, half provided internally by Argonne and half by the U.S. Department of Energy. It also provides $20,000 in travel money for Guarr and provides coaching on customer acquisition, entrepreneurship and manufacturing by mentors from the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago and the Purdue Foundry at Purdue University.

The program, overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, will also provide introductions to potential investors.

Jolt got a second jolt in October, winning the top award at an energy conference in Savannah, Ga. Jolt won the Orcelle Awards' grand prize of $100,000 at the annual pitch competition hosted by the Ocean Exchange, a seven-year-old nonprofit whose mission is to help advance technology and create prototypes in energy sustainability.

Guarr and his co-founder, Jack Johnson, have demonstrated in the lab that they can use organic-based molecules that change their shape when lithium-ion is verging on overheating. The carbon-based molecules look akin to butterflies, but as they begin to overheat, they fold in their wings, which causes heat to dissipate.

Jolt calls their compounds voltage-regulating-electrochemical shunts.

"The first step for us at Argonne is to make and test lithium-ion batteries with our additives," said Guarr. "We'll look at different lithium-ion chemistries. There are several out in the marketplace batteries. And we'll look at different levels of our additives."

Guarr said that while they could do a lot of that sort of testing in Holland, "If we were to test cells ourselves, battery manufacturers aren't going to take our word for it. But if Argonne is doing the testing, we can get a foot in the door with manufacturers."

The business plan is to sell their organic-based compounds to battery manufacturers.

In addition to providing compounds to make small batteries safer things like cell phones and laptops, Jolt hopes to prove that its technology can be applied to what are termed redox flow batteries, which provide large-scale energy-storage applications for commercial power companies. Because energy from renewable sources like wind and solar tends to be intermittent, reliable energy storage at the grid level is important to provide smooth power output.

Guarr retains his position of director of research and development at the MSU Bioeconomy Institute in Holland, a former Pfizer Inc. facility, where Jolt has recently opened a small lab, and he continues to run the internship program at the institute.

Jolt, which was formally launched in 2014 but remained below the radar while it worked on its technology, licensed intellectual property on the use of organic compounds in batteries from MSU in 2016. The technology was developed in the Organic Energy Storage Laboratory at the Bioeconomy Institute.

Jolt has three patents pending.

While Guarr is the point person for research and has the title of chief scientist, Johnson is chief engineer and heads up business development. At the same time he co-founded Jolt, which does not yet pay him a salary, he founded Holland-based Volta Power Systems LLC, a maker of energy components and energy-storage systems for the RV, marine and heavy equipment markets. It now employs 13.

Johnson spent almost 16 years at Johnson Controls, the last five as manager of advanced manufacturing for lithium-ion battery production. Under his leadership, Johnson's plant in Holland grew to be the largest lithium-ion plant in the country. He left Johnson controls to co-found Jolt and found Volta.

"I have a relationship with all the major battery manufacturers," said Johnson. "They all know I'm working on something big. They just want me to come back with data."

Joining Guarr and Johnson on the management team is Scot Lindemann, the former president of J.R. Automation Technologies LLC, a Holland-based maker of factory automation equipment. "He knows a lot of the big guys in advanced technology. He made a lot of machines for those guys," said Johnson.

Jolt has raised a total of $650,000 in funding, including $100,000 from the Muskegon Angels, $25,000 each from three other angel investors and $50,000 from Red Cedar Ventures, a funding subsidiary of the nonprofit Michigan State University Foundation created to commercialize faculty research, helped launch Jolt with seed funding.

"The Muskegon Angels want to invest in companies first in Muskegon, but also West Michigan that have the potential to impact the triple bottom line — profits, people, planet. Jolt's technology clearly hit all three aspects," said Bill Cousineau, the group's president. "As the technology is proven out, the growth will in turn provide additional jobs to support families and profits to those that have invested in their vision. The Muskegon Angels are thrilled to be a part of this exciting opportunity."

"We saw a great team forming with Jack Johnson and Tom Guarr," said Jeff Wesley, Red Cedar Ventures' executive director. "First of all, Dr. Guarr is recognized nationally, and going to Argonne, that validates the technology. And look at Jack's background. He knows the battery and auto space. Tom focuses on the research, Jack on the marketplace. It's a match made in heaven."

Dave Washburn, the executive director of the MSU Foundation and president of Red Cedar Ventures, said the company is eligible for further funding of up to $500,000 from the Opportunity Fund, a $5 million fund Red Cedar manages for follow-on investing.