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HOW SCIENTISTS-TURNED-ENTREPRENEURS SUCCESSFULLY COMMERCIALISED THEIR LAB INNOVATIONS AT UNIENERGY TECHNOLOGIES

Reference No. 18/001 Publication Year 2018
Author(s) Li Dongya Ariel, Lo W H
Company UniEnergy Technologies
Industry Utilities
Geographic setting United States
Functional Area Innovation/ Entrepreneurship

Synopsis

Not all entrepreneurs are born with high-risk appetites, but they are likely born with the spirit of scientists: an orientation to make bold assumptions while trying to prove them conscientiously and carefully. Dr. Gary Yang (“Yang”) and Dr. Liyu Li (“Li”) are scientists as well as entrepreneurs. The former was a Lab Fellow and the latter a chief scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (“PNNL”) of the US Department of Energy (“DoE”). They joined PNNL at the turn of the century and from there, they conducted decade-long research on numerous energy storage-related projects. Energy storage systems are critical infrastructure required for the sustainable deployment of renewable energy. Both Yang and Li have played pivotal roles in the development of the core technologies behind vanadium-based flow batteries (“VFB”) that are deemed “a breakthrough in energy storage”. 

After successfully inventing the core technologies at PNNL that fueled the development of VFB, Yang and Li made a courageous decision in 2012 to commercialize their invention by taking their work beyond the laboratory. They resigned from their stable jobs at PNNL and founded a private company, UniEnergy Technologies, LLC. (“UET”). Their entrepreneurial venture was made possible by government funding from the US DoE and a private funding source through Yang’s network. Five years down the road, UET has become a leading supplier of VFB in the growing global market of energy storage.

How did Yang and Li manage to successfully commercialize their inventions? What key decisions did they make during this process? Why did they make those decisions? What are the factors that have contributed to their success in transiting from scientists to entrepreneurs? With the worldwide demand for renewable and clean energy on the rise, the battery market is becoming increasingly competitive with a growing number of VFB manufacturers and the commercialization of different energy storage technologies. What should they do in face of this growing competition?

Learning Objective

Innovation and entrepreneurship are the major drivers underpinning sustainable economic, technological, and organizational growth. Entrepreneurial practitioners generate value by inducing and exploiting changes, by identifying and discovering opportunities, and by meticulously commercializing innovation. While studies have indicated that there are such traits as entrepreneurial personalities which enable certain people to have a higher chance of success if they choose to start their own business, [1] Drucker posits that entrepreneurship and innovation should be viewed as a practice and a discipline. For decades, students and business practitioners have benefited from the wisdom of the thinking, principles, and teachings of Drucker’s “Innovation and Entrepreneurship”, which are of equal importance to start-up ventures and to existing corporations. The fact that Drucker sees the subject matter as a discipline implies that there are behaviour and processes that contributes to the success of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Drucker views innovation as a specific tool of entrepreneurs and innovation is one of the most fundamental processes underpinning growth.[2] This holds irrespective of whether it is the success and growth of a start-up, or the revenue and profit increase of established corporations. Therefore, entrepreneurship is not only important and relevant in starting a new venture, but also is much required and sorted after by established organizations for their long-term growth and survival. That is why surveys have indicated that employers are also looking for candidates with entrepreneurial exposure.[3]

Drucker advocates that sources of innovation can be systematically exploited. For entrepreneurial initiatives to be successful, be it initiatives championed by established corporations or by a start-up, one must practice systematic entrepreneurship. “Entrepreneurs need to search purposefully for the sources of innovation, the changes and their symptoms that indicate opportunities for successful innovation. And they need to know and to apply the principles of successful innovation.”

The core objectives of this case are:

1. To enable students to appreciate “innovation and entrepreneurship” as a practice and a discipline.

2. To develop students’ knowledge needed for purposeful searching for the sources of innovation.

3. To draw upon the rich reserves of Drucker’s principles and practices on innovation and entrepreneurship to critically evaluate the works of UET, and

4. Most importantly, to critically consolidate and systematically extend Drucker’s advocates to face a proposed entrepreneurial challenge.

 

[1] Shane, S. (2010) Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders: How Your Genes Affect Your Work Life. Oxford University Press: New York.

[2] OECD (2010) “SMEs, Entrepreneurship and Innovation”, http://www.oecd.org/berlin/45492981.pdf (accessed 4 December 2017).

[3] Campbell, A. (20 January 2016) “Ask That Job Candidate if He or She Ran a Lemonade Stand”, Small Business Trends, https://smallbiztrends.com/2012/05/ask-job-candidate-lemonade-stand.html (accessed 4 December 2017).