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Cirba Solutions Gains Governmental Green Light

In October, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a $2.8 billion grant to supercharge U.S. battery manufacturing for electric vehicles and the electrical grid. Cirba Solutions, a Heritage family company focused on battery recycling, was one of the 21 companies awarded a portion of that grant. Here, in an interview with The Heritage Group, Shane Thompson, Strategy and Business Development for Cirba Solutions, discusses what a $75,000,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy means for the company and its future.

Tell us more about the grant.
It funds the first set of projects for President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The U.S. government is trying to set up a domestic supply chain for critical materials so the country can expand manufacturing of batteries for electric vehicles and the grid.

What does the grant mean for Cirba Solutions?
It allows us to put more dollars into our new facility in Lancaster, Ohio, which was already in the works when we won the grant. We’re planning to expand the number of minerals we recycle and enhance our ability to upgrade materials before they re-enter the battery supply chain.

How will the grant impact the future?
The fact that our new facility is being built with the full confidence of the Department of Energy will help us introduce our product in the marketplace. In addition to funding, the validation adds visibility and credibility that will make us more attractive to customers, employees and investors.

How did you win the grant?
We responded to the Department of Energy’s request for funding, which included a rigorous application process. Our strategy was to apply for half of the available funding in the battery recycling category. We built on the fact that Cirba Solutions is unique, and we have experience to back up what we do. Laura Evans, our director of environmental, social and governance (ESG), led the application process, which included a robust environmental justice questionnaire and requirements. We welcomed that. We prioritize sustainability and ESG at Cirba Solutions, and the grant was a great opportunity to highlight some of those practices.

Why is the grant important for the country?
We’re creating a circular economy and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and minerals mined in other parts of the world. Producing batteries and components in the U.S. will help advance our country’s goal to build a robust lithium-ion supply chain and meet the demand for electric vehicles.

What capabilities will you add?
Typically, in the process of collecting, disassembling, shredding and upgrading critical materials from lithium-ion batteries, we focus on nickel and cobalt. Our expansion in Ohio will allow us to add lithium and other materials to that list.

Now, when we chop up batteries and separate out materials, some parts of the battery — including lithium, carbon, manganese and aluminum — are sent to a third party for processing. In the future, we’ll run those materials, known in the industry as “black mass,” through a hydrometallurgical process at our plant. We’ll be able to keep the recycling process going and create more materials that can go back into the battery supply chain.

How does this impact The Heritage Group?
Winning the grant is something Cirba Solutions and Heritage employees should share in and feel good about. It shows that a company that got its start with The Heritage Group is betting on the right things, receiving validation at the highest level and growing, which is good for us all.

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Heritage Accelerator Alumnus Wins Innovation Showcase (Again)

The Heritage Group Accelerator powered by Techstars fuels innovation by giving participating startups face time with mentors from across the Heritage family of companies, access to the Heritage Research Group, and a dedicated accelerator team supporting the entrepreneurs. The latest proof of the program’s value comes from Ateios, which was selected into the inaugural accelerator program in 2019 and received additional funding from HG Ventures. Ateios placed first of 22 startups in the Venture Club of Indiana’s Innovation Showcase, which serves as a state finals event at the NCAA Hall of Champions.

Ateios CEO Rajan Kumar (left) and HG Ventures’ Jonathan Schalliol at the 2021 Innovation Showcase

Ateios aims to enable innovations through ultra-thin, flexible and conformable batteries. Compared to typical coin cell batteries, Ateios’s flexible models are more than five times thinner and deliver up to five times higher energy density. As Ateios brings their product to market, these capabilities promise to help people around the world through improved wearable medical devices.

Their innovative manufacturing process caught the eye of Jonathan Schalliol, Director at HG Ventures, when the company applied to the Accelerator in 2019. “It was clear from the first time meeting Raj [Kumar] that Ateios had great potential and was an ideal fit for our accelerator. Their novel battery technology and a team driven to do whatever what it takes to bring it to market is a winning combination.” The supportive network and partnerships that Ateios’s team built during the Accelerator made the company more competitive. Ateios has since moved from La Jolla, California to Indiana.

Kumar, CEO of Ateios, is not the first Heritage Group Accelerator founder to take home the first-place prize at the Innovation Showcase. In 2020, judges awarded first place to MITO Materials, whose specialty additives are engineered to help manufacturers create lighter and more durable products. Since the Accelerator, founders Haley Marie and Kevin Keith have been named to Forbes’ 2021 30 Under 30 list in the Manufacturing & Industry division.

There’s a good chance that one or more of this year’s Accelerator class will feature in next year’s Innovation Showcase. Until then, the founders will take advantage of the opportunities and connections provided during their 13 weeks at The Center.

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Behind Mentor Madness

Pictured: HG Ventures Senior Associate Nida Ansari consults with the Simplifyber team.

As The Heritage Group Accelerator powered by Techstars reaches its midpoint, its 2021 cohort of entrepreneurs have spent over 50 hours connecting with more than 70 mentors from both the Heritage family of companies and the Indianapolis business community. Known as Mentor Madness, these three weeks serve as an opportunity for participating startups to make important connections, practice their pitches and engage in valuable discussions about business strategy.

Startup founders meet at The Center.

Utilizing expertise from 30+ operating companies, mentors from The Heritage Group (THG) provide key insights into their markets and industries. Not only does the 13-week accelerator add value to the entrepreneurs, but mentors are exposed to innovative and disruptive technologies that could revolutionize existing processes.

Any businessperson understands that success does not happen alone. For the founders in the cohort, mentors are a vital resource who also benefit from their participation in the program. Linda Osborn, Director of Analytical Research at Heritage Research Group, states that as a mentor, “not only does this (program) allow me to pay it forward as my great mentors did for me, but it is invigorating to be around these entrepreneurs. The founders sometimes develop innovative ways to meet challenges that we face on a global scale.”

THG and program mentors share in the excitement and take pride in seeing the entrepreneurs adapt to challenges and overcome hurdles. Nida Ansari, Senior Associate at HG Ventures, states that “many of these entrepreneurs have had significant personal challenges before getting here, and we get to know what drives them. THG gives them access to labs, resources and minds that these folks will leverage to change their business in leaps and bounds.” The mentors, many with an entrepreneurial background themselves, share personal experiences that founders can relate to and then apply to their own strategies.

Founders attend Techstars’ Concept to Commerce event.

Basil Merriman, Director of Strategy on THG’s Strategy + Mergers & Acquisitions team, says, “My favorite part of being a Techstars mentor is being around the entrepreneurial energy of the founders.  It’s inspiring to see someone create something from nothing, and you can really feel the passion and vitality when working with the teams.” This same energy carries over into THG, as conversations and experiences with the Techstars cohort encourage critical thinking and spark innovation within the Heritage family of companies. “The mindset that comes with partnering with a company like Techstars forces us to think differently and gives us fresh perspective to further differentiate from the competition,” says Chris Ames, Senior Strategic Manager at Heritage Interactive Services.

Anthony Rogers, VP of Technology and Growth for Retriev (formerly Heritage Battery Recycling), says, “I think THG brings a wealth of commercial, business, and technical experience to the table. THG is able to make connections in ways most venture firms aren’t able to, and I think that adds a lot of value to the Techstars companies.” Participating founders utilize these resources leading up to and beyond the program’s culmination, Demo Day, where each startup pitches at The Center to local investors and THG representatives. While Demo Day is the last step of the Accelerator, it’s only one of the first steps in the mission HG Ventures shares with its Accelerator companies: building the future, together.

With every day bringing new chances for innovation, mentors take pride in working with founders to turn big challenges into even bigger opportunities.

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Innovate to Accelerate

How the Heritage Research Group fuels innovation for Techstars Accelerator startups.

The Center, Electrified

Those who tuned in to virtual Demo Day, the culmination of the 2020 Heritage Group Accelerator Powered by TechStars, witnessed the final product of the development, strategy and mentoring that went into the 13-week accelerator. Each of the ten founding teams participating—some of whom hailed from as far as the Netherlands—created a five-minute recorded pitch showcasing their startup’s vision, progress and plans for the future. If you just watched the video, you might have missed the months of creative collaboration that laid the foundation for the pitches.

 

Despite the impact of COVID-19, the accelerator produced an “electric” Demo Day, according to Senior Director of HG Ventures Ginger Rothrock. “The environment in the accelerator when it’s full of founders is incredibly active and upbeat,” added Chemistry Research Manager Meghan McLeod of the 13-week process preceding Demo Day. “There’s so much energy. There’s so much excitement.”

Participating founders quickly discover a hidden gem of The Heritage Group (THG) Accelerator: the Heritage Research Group (HRG). When introducing the accelerator in a May 2021 Crowdcast, Nanci Churchill of Techstars touched on this aspect of the program: “The lab that’s on site at The Heritage Group is a world-class facility that allows startup companies to run experiments in cooperation with the HRG lab team, which is phenomenal.”

 

Staffed by a team of experienced chemists and researchers, THG’s in-house research and development laboratory solves some of the biggest business and customer problems among the Heritage family of companies. Their work is behind several innovations that THG harnesses to build a safer, more enriching and sustainable world.

A Dream Team

The process begins with McLeod, whose non-accelerator months are spent overseeing analytical chemistry research for HRG. McLeod acts as a liaison between HRG and the startups involved in the accelerator. “[When] all the companies come in, I have one-on-one meetings with them, and I identify product characterization, development, and pilot opportunities that we can work on during the program,” she described. After this initial meeting, McLeod assesses the tools at her disposal, including those on-premise at HRG facilities (all of which are accessible to accelerator startups). After identifying an expert in the area in question, McLeod assembles a team of researchers to address the startup’s unique issue.

 

The Work Begins

In the case of Mobile Fluid Recovery (MFR), a startup dedicated to the cleaning and reuse of industrial waste streams, the collaboration with HRG took about a month from start to finish. CEO Justin Edmondson described the root of the challenge in his Demo Day pitch as “unlock[ing] the liquids from the solids in the waste stream.”

 

“The waste stream he had was too high in sulfur for resale,” said McLeod, describing high-iron metal fines with resale potential. “Justin already had that in mind, and when we met, that was something he identified as a particular problem the research group could help with.”

 

To resell the metal fines, MFR had to satisfy requirements for sulfur content by removing that element from the waste stream. HRG’s chemists rose to the challenge, taking a sample of metal fines and performing elemental analysis. “We helped him both quantify and type the sulfur, and then come up with an approach to remove it [from the waste stream],” McLeod said. The process evolved to a point where Edmonson’s team could perform it in their own facilities, opening MFR’s services to valuable new customers and, potentially, a new market.

 

“Industrial waste stream management is about a $60 billion industry. We recycle only about 30% of all waste streams today,” said Rothrock, “but the EPA believes about 75% of the waste streams are recyclable. MFR is unlocking the value of waste streams that are not currently recycled… and now, thanks to our research group, [Edmondson] has a solution that adds value to the company and his customer base.”

 

This waste stream innovation also underscores an essential tenet of THG’s mission: sustainability. By reusing the de-sulfured metal fines rather than disposing of them, MFR contributes to the circular economy by eliminating waste and making the most of available resources.

From the Ground Up

Some Accelerator projects have a much longer scope. Sunthetics, a startup that aims to make the development of new molecules more sustainable, harnessed HRG’s resources and brainpower to develop their pilot product: an electron reactor that enables organic synthesis.

 

“Sunthetics was developing new hardware, and we were the first pilot users of the product. So as you can imagine, there was a lot of trial and error in the lab and collaboration with the founders to get to a functional prototype,” said Rothrock.

 

The reactor, which uses electricity to produce a small-scale chemical, is paired with machine learning software, which predicts the most efficient conditions for reactions. Configuring the reactions was just the beginning.

 

“We had a lot more optimization and work that had to go into understanding the system,” said McLeod, who brought together a large team of researchers to work with Sunthetics. “Myself and one other chemist were working with the hardware to perform the reactions, and then we had another part of the team doing the chemical analysis and method development.”

 

The outcome of the accelerator for Sunthetics was an effective, repeatable framework for testing reactions. “We can run the Sunthetics system and demonstrate improvements in efficiency over multiple tests,” said McLeod. “That was a significant outcome for the Sunthetics team.”

 

A Vision Realized

For accelerator startups, the benefits of working with HRG extend far beyond the doors of The Center. For participating startup Pretred, the accelerator served as the perfect place to brainstorm. Working to mitigate the environmental impact of tire waste, founder Eric Davis envisioned road barriers made of recycled tires. “There’s got to be something we can make out of it,” he said in a Techstars Crowdcast of the tire and plastic waste occupying a local river. “It’s high volume and potentially high value.”

 

“We have members of the HRG team who have previously worked in related industries — tire, rubber, resins, all the different components that he was using — so he found a knowledgeable resource in simply having access to those people, brainstorming ideas, [and] talking about his process,” said McLeod.

 

One such team member is Research Engineer Dennis Justice. “The wide range of product and process assignments we participate in sets us apart from other research groups,” he said. “My knowledge, matured in multiple manufacturing environments, aided Pretred directly in building prototypes and rapid production improvements.”

Dennis Justice with the Pretred team and prototype

Justice aided in identifying materials and processes needed for Davis’s idea to become a reality: six-foot-long, one-ton construction barriers made of over 95% recycled material. With his help on the first manufacturing run, Pretred went from proof of concept to a full-scale product in just two weeks. “Over a short period of time, with limited resources, the Pretred sustainable construction product has gone from an idea on paper to a one-ton reality. The company continues to build on these manufacturing learnings and uses the first set of manufactured products to capture customer interest,” said Rothrock.

 

A year out from the accelerator, Pretred is looking forward to commercial scale manufacturing and product launch as well as addressing alternative waste streams. A seed-round investment of $3 million led by HG Ventures proves Pretred’s potential within the hard tech industry.

 

Justin Edmonds, founder and CEO of MFR, will be deepening his relationship with Heritage Interactive Services. “He’s made strong connections with the business unit and is actively working with them to help solve our customer’s waste problems,” Rothrock said.

 

Currently, the founders of Sunthetics are moving forward with the reaction method pioneered in collaboration with HRG. “That’s actually one of the biggest takeaways: now they have an established method for data analysis to use with targeted customers,” said McLeod.

 

After the Accelerator

Startups leave the Heritage Group Accelerator with 13 weeks’ worth of collaboration, creativity and innovation that translate into an incredible amount of business value. In return, the impact they leave behind is a major motivator for the Heritage family. “I just love that the broader Heritage Group gets exposed to entrepreneurs and their thinking, their energy,” said Rothrock. “It’s electric. It’s awesome.”

 

As the 2021 cohort of startups travels to Indianapolis for their own turn at the accelerator, Rothrock anticipates seeing The Center once again abuzz with the same lively dynamic. McLeod agrees: “There were ten different companies that were in completely different markets, and I got to learn about all of them and be involved in that process,” she said. “Our ability to catapult both their technical and business development is incredibly valuable.”

 

To learn more about the accelerator, visit hgventures.com/hgaccelerator/.