Since winning the DSM Bright Minds Challenge in June 2017, the expert support received by Inquimae has proved to be truly invaluable, says Professor Ernesto Julio Calvo.
So just how do you take an idea from the concept to commercial success?
“The types of knowledge you need to do this are so far outside the traditional comfort zone of a scientist like me that it’s hard to even know where to start,” says Professor Ernesto Julio Calvo at the University of Buenos Aires and director of Inquimae.
Specifically, the Inquimae team received support from DSM and partners in amongst others three key areas: market analysis; industrial scale-up; and Intellectual Property (IP).
Defining the landscape - Sytze Dijkstra, Senior Principal of Sustainability Research, Accenture
"We helped Inquimae gain a better understanding of the global lithium market and thus where to focus their commercial efforts. I led a team of five researchers at Accenture and we used various analytical and modeling tools to assess the market both now and in the future.
"We looked at global demand (which is growing rapidly due to the increasing scale of battery production for electric cars and remote electrification of unconnected communities, among others); and global supply - including lithium producers and their asset portfolios. Eventually we helped Inquimae focus in on the ‘sweet spot’ for their technology; to understand potential partners and customers for their technology; as well as advising them on how to start a dialogue with the relevant industry players."
Says Professor Ernesto: “At the university we’d found it very difficult to find objective information on the global lithium industry. We just did not know where to look, or who to ask. The information that Accenture provided was crucial in focusing our efforts.”
Scaling up - Tjien Tjioe, Senior Chemical Engineer, DSM Materials Science Center
At DSM my role is to develop, scale-up and design new chemical production processes (as well as improve existing ones) – and this is where I’ve been helping the Inquimae team, especially in developing a pilot installation.
On the one hand, many principles of industrial scale-up are universal: for example, production needs to be fast, efficient and in high concentrations. On the other hand, Inquimae really is an extraordinary concept - so it was fascinating for me to learn about using electro-chemistry to extract and store lithium from natural salt flats.
In the very simplest terms, when it comes to scale-up you imagine what the finished pilot plant will look like…and then you work out a detailed plan of how to get there. In particular I advised Ernesto and his team on four critical milestones that they needed to reach before making the big investment in a pilot plant. It’s now in their hands!”
Says Professor Ernesto: “It was invaluable for us to have an expert onboard who knows how to think and plan processes at scale. It’s another topic we knew nothing about but Tjien gave us that insight.”
A smart IP strategy - Dietmar Pressner, Senior Vice President of Intellectual Property, DSM
"The key to a good IP strategy is finding the right balance between risk and opportunity.
By helping Inquimae review their patent estate in different countries we not only enabled them to protect their IP but we broadened their mindset to create ‘the right to invite’. In other words, opening up potential new revenue streams, such as licensing their lithium technology."
To provide a deeper insight here, we also conducted some patent searches to look at who has been active in this field. Who owns patents in lithium extraction? How were those patents granted? Were they built on pre-existing patents? And if so what does that tell us about the nature of the companies we are dealing with? Aggressive? Innovative? Both?"
There is always some uncertainty in the field of IP…but at DSM we’ve done what we can to help Ernesto find some creative solutions - and potential partners - to take the business forward. I believe there are some very exciting times ahead for Professor Calvo and his team.”
Says Ernesto: “Dietmar and the DSM team really helped us understand the true power and potential of IP. As a direct result of their advice we are developing a private company that offers lithium extraction services in much the same way as a mining company would!”