Dr. Zhongwei Chen - Professor & Canada Research Chair

Dr. Zhongwei Chen is a Professor & Canada Research Chair in Advanced Materials for Clean Energy, Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering, Director of Collaborative Graduate Program in Nanotechnology, Director of Applied Nanomaterials & Clean Energy Laboratory at University of Waterloo and Associate Editor of ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces. His current research interests are in the development of advanced energy materials for metal-air batteries, lithium-ion batteries, and fuel cells. He received his Ph.D. in Chemical and Environmental Engineering from the University of California – Riverside.

Prior to joining the faculty at Waterloo in 2008, he was focusing on the advanced catalysts research by the Chancellor’s Dissertation Fellowship in the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) at New Mexico, His current research is on advanced materials for fuel cells, batteries, and sensors. He has published 1 book, 6 book chapters and more than 200 peer-reviewed journal articles including Nature Nanotechnology, Nature Communications, JACS, Angewandte Chemie, Advanced Materials, Advanced Energy Materials, Energy & Environmental Science, Nano Letters and ACS Nano. These publications have earned him to date over 12,000 citations with H-index 53 (Google Scholar). He is also listed as an inventor on 18 US/international patents, with three start-up companies in USA and Canada. Dr. Chen also serves as an editorial board member for peer-reviewed journals including Scientific Reports (Nature Publishing), and the Vice President of the International Academy of Electrochemical Energy Science (IAOEES). In 2107, he was elected to be a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering, recognizing his outstanding abilities. He was also recipient of the 2016 E.W.R Steacie Memorial Fellowship and the member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists in 2016, which followed shortly upon several other prestigious honors, including the Ontario Early Researcher Award, an NSERC Discovery Supplement Award, the Distinguished Performance and Research Excellence Awards from the University of Waterloo.

How did you get started in this business? What inspired you to start this business?

I started my business while working as a professor at the University of Waterloo. My company is developing an electricity storage solution that will change the way electric grids are operated worldwide. We developed high energy metal-air batteries in 2016. The battery can provide a very high energy density because air is used as the reactant and is stored outside of the battery until it is discharged. Besides its high energy density, this battery is environmentally friendly, safe, and low cost. Such a battery could store energy from solar panels or help utilities better manage energy on the power grid. The market for using batteries for the power grid is rapidly growing in Canada, U.S, Europe, and China. With this in mind, I was thinking of starting up a company to commercialize this battery technology for this application. About two years ago, I founded a company with the goal of commercializing the technology. I believe that this technology will enable the more widespread use of renewable generation like wind and solar, reduce power prices and increase system reliability.

How do you make money?

My answer sounds altruistic, but I didn’t start up my battery business for the money. Recently, my company has just demonstrated the pilot plant with first production zinc-air flow batteries. I am quite confident that my battery business has a strong competitive advantage in the market and will become profitable.

How long did it take for you to become profitable?

Bringing new battery technology to commercial success is hard. The process is not entirely knowable or amenable to predictable timelines. Many new battery makers have struggled over the years, facing the high costs of research and factory development. I didn’t give a new estimate for when commercial sales of my batteries would start, but my firm’s core rechargeable zinc-air flow battery tech remains unchanged. At the moment, our future is looking bright.

When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?

In general, I can say I am satisfied with running my own business, and I’ve learned a lot. There are times I wanted to just drop everything and go back to working regular hours of the university. But, in the end, I love being able to reward myself, thanks to the hard work I put in. You can’t get that working at most places where you are just a salary-oriented employee. But when you have created a business, you can see the rewards of your work, and that makes it worth all the time and effort you have put and continue to put into it.

How did you get your first customer?

My first customer was actually my first ventures investor who was excited about my technology and decided to support my battery businesses for the emerging large-scale stationary energy storage market.

What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?

I would say battery exhibits and trade shows provide good opportunities to access thousands of prospective customers for my business and even potential partners.

What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?

It was the toughest decision for me to end a business partnership with one of my partners. Breakups are tough. The reason for the breakup was that we didn’t work toward the same business goals or agree on how to achieve them as the company was growing.

What do you think it is that makes you successful?

I would say that being patient and honest with yourself will allow you to really dig deep and see what it takes to achieve your goals. Networking is also very important. Remember, even though you own the business, you are relying on customers, suppliers, bankers, investors, and whatever other outside factors who impact your business. If one or more of these fail you, you can fail as a business.

What has been your most satisfying moment in business?

While there are too many moments to mention, I would say that the most satisfying moment in my business has been to see my batteries beginning to come to life, finally providing myself with a salary.

What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?

New technologies for storing power from wind and solar farms will be key to a clean-energy future. The good news is that the market for large storage systems is widening as more wind and solar energy projects are built. I know that my battery business has huge potential in this field and thus I will work to ensure that it is scaled efficiently and sustainably over the next few years. I am also excited as I start to see more and more clean-energy start-ups coming out these days. These start-ups are also driving innovation in the area of energy storage technologies faster than ever, and the resulting innovations will really revolutionize the way the world uses renewable energy for sustainability.

What business books have inspired you?

I would recommend Magic of Thinking Big. I believe that it’s always the people who think big who end up accomplishing the most. In this book, David Schwartz encourages readers to dream big — financially, personally, and in every other way– and then take the practical steps necessary to turn those big dreams into an even bigger reality. This book helped define my business by clarifying my thoughts, ambitions, and values.

What is a recent purchase you have made that’s helped with your business?

I recently purchased an airline ticket to Beijing, China for setting up a successful marketing collaboration.

What is your favorite quote?

“Working on the right thing is more importantfavoriteking hard.” – Caterina Fake

Can you describe your general decision-making process?

  • Step 1: Identification of the target
  • Step 2: Gathering information
  • Step 3: Analysis of the consequences of different choices. …
  • Step 4: Making decision
  • Step 5: Evaluation of results
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