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Lokvani Talks To Michael Zimmerman

Ranjani Saigal

Prof Zimmerman is a Professor of Practice at Tufts University and the Founder of Ionic Materials, a company that is at the cutting edge of an effort to design safer batteries. The company is working on “solid” lithium polymer batteries that greatly reduce their combustible nature. Prior to starting Iconic Materials, Zimmerman was founder of QLP, Inc where he invented a new liquid crystal polymer technology and developed products in the area of semiconductor packages, new printed circuit board materials, and revolutionary materials for replacing metals in automobiles. He developed strong collaborative relationships with Sumitomo Chemical, Dupont, Freescale Semiconductor, and General Motors, raised > $50M from Venture Capital firms and strategic partners, qualified the technology in several major applications, and sold the company to a multinational company (Interplex Industries).  Prior to starting his company, Zimmerman spent 14 years at Bell Labs, and rose to the highest technical level (top 1% of thtechnical community). His area of expertise is polymer innovation and polymer processing, semiconductor packaging and electronic and optical materials. He was featured on the recent episode of NOVA. 

Lokvani had the honor of watching the Nova episode with Prof.   Zimmerman and hearing about his journey.  

What motivated you to quit Bell Labs and start your own company?

I  had an idea for developing a special kind of polymer which led to the creation of a revolutionary material unique properties. The material called Quantech, had unique properties such as low coefficient expansion and high stiffness that are ideal for structural and metal replacement applications needed for weight reduction. Metal replacement and lightweight materials are a critical need for the future of vehicle weight reduction that ultimately the improvement in fuel efficiency. The material was a great success. The company got bought by Interplex Industries.

What motivated you to start a second company?

A few years ago I got very interested in Lithium Ion batteries.  Safety is a big concern for Lithium Ion batteries. A small puncture can make them go up in flames.  My work indicated that it was possible to replace the electrolyte with a polymer, which would be very safe.  So we started a company to build the product. We were able to create a new battery with a polymer as the electrolyte.  It is my dream to create the holy grail of Solid Battery. We have a battery that is very safe. We can puncture it, cut it and do other damage without it causing any harm to the battery.

What is the potential market for Solid Batteries?

It is huge. With the advent of cell phones and other products that use batteries, the safety of the battery is very important. The public has heard about the issues with Samsung’s recent problems with flammable smartphones.  A safe battery is a critical need.  The United States Department of Energy has realized the importance for this project and has announced awards aimed at accelerating development of solid battery technologies.  We received a contract to work on this project.

How long do you think it will be before the product launches? What challenges are you working on? 

It probably will be a year. Our product is a prototype right now. We need to scale and address manufacturing and production issues for large scale deployment. 

What motivated you to become a material scientist?

I was inspired by the space program. I wanted to invent materials that could take us places we had never been before.

Entrepreneurship is hard. What drives you to keep going?

I am passionate about innovation. Working on a idea is very exciting for me. I am also fortunate to have a great team of very talented people who are very passionate. I owe a lot of the success of the companies to the team.

What are exciting areas of material science that are gaining attention at this time?

Making things lightweight and and making things more environmentally friendly are examples of two exciting areas of materials science.

It was exciting to see you on Nova and watch it with you. How does it feel to be in the media?

I am not that comfortable to be in the media. However it is exciting to see the attention that our product is getting.  It is good for people to get an understanding of the issues around batteries and understand the future landscape.

Despite being an entrepreneur you continue to be a faculty at Tufts. What motivates you to do that?

I enjoy teaching and research. I like working with students.  Being a faculty member is a rewarding experience.  My classes are a nice change from the day to day company operations.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs?

I am a big believer in entrepreneurship.  Entrepreneurs are job creators and problem solvers.  They create new products that can change the world.   If that is your passion one should pursue it. It is not an easy road.  However it is very meaningful. 


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