Eleven words uttered to me by a mentor in a dark ballroom three years ago fueled the fire in my belly that’s been driving me towards success. Today, my company, Summit Nanotech, is valued by Series A investors at 30M dollars US. We have 12 active customers in five countries, and we invented the “holy grail” of lithium extraction, according to lithium industry expert investors. I’m sure you’re wondering what the 11 words were that inspired me to work so hard, so let me set the stage.
It was November 2018, and I was at a pitch competition in Calgary, Alberta, and the prize for first place was a small amount of cash and 1 hour with a business mentor to get advice. I walked into a huge ballroom and sat down at an oversized circular table with the number 12 propped up by a stick. I knew I was in the right place, but the room was a bit dark, so I had to strain to see the person walking towards me. He was a tall, burly man with dark features. He was a businessman from Edmonton who was assigned to me through Alberta Innovates to give me advice. We shook hands, and he sat down across from me at the table.
I spent the next 15 minutes pitching my heart out to this mentor about how I am a professional geophysicist with 18 years of resource extraction experience in the mining and oil & gas sectors and how I had seen the problems that needed solving in the mining sector with my own eyes. I had an idea for a better way to extract lithium from underground brines. A method that would make lithium production more sustainable and less expensive. I told him about my vision, my excitement, my whole plan to achieve success. When I stopped talking, he leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms and looked at me. I could see a look of sympathy pass over his face, and then he said 11 words that have not left my mind in three years. He said, “Why are you doing this? This is too big for you.”
My mother raised me to be strong enough to take hits in the field, and so although his 11 words crushed me, I showed no emotion – I thanked him for his opinion and walked out of the ballroom and into the lobby. I stood there for a long time, looking around at all of the strangers at this conference. Then, a quote from football legend Vince Lombardi came to mind, “It’s not whether you get knocked down in life, it’s whether you get back up that counts.”
Why am I doing this? Because the world needs lower cost, sustainable lithium, as we shift to a new energy future, we need to store renewable energy in lithium-ion batteries, and we need to get EVs out to the millions, not just the millionaires. Green, inexpensive lithium is required to support this future.
This is too big for you! Well, this is too big for anyone. This is a huge market. EV demand alone is expected to grow 1000% in the next ten years. Every major car company in the world has pledged to stop making combustion engine vehicles and switch to electric vehicles, and they’re going to need a lot of lithium.
At the current lithium production rate of 300,000 tonnes per year, the industry has already bottlenecked operational supply, and the price of lithium is climbing. So I had to get my technology to the market fast, and I knew I couldn’t do it alone.
In 2019 my team and I started working at NRCan’s Canmet Energy Lab in Devon, Alberta. With access to millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and the help of the NRCan researchers, we were able to invent technology for extracting lithium, and we’ve already filed three patents to secure our freedom to operate.
Lithium is found in concentrated deposits all over the planet – extraction is usually done by hard rock open pit mining or huge brine evaporation ponds. These methods are archaic as they use large amounts of chemicals, fresh water, high temperature and high pressures processes.
Our technology was originally modelled after the human kidney. It leverages the selective nature of nanomaterials to directly pull lithium out of salt water using low energy, low pressure, no fresh water and very few chemicals.
With deep market research, we identified that there are two types of lithium-ion batteries being made today for EVS. The market is cut in half, so in response, to this we invented two processes because we didn’t want to segment our growth potential by leaving half the market off the table.
The first process uses lithium selective sorbents that act like lithium sponges to suck lithium out of the brine. The second one uses lithium selective membranes that act like flypaper to trap lithium on an immobilized surface. Both processes are delivered in modular, skid loadable units with plug and play automation.
Our value proposition for lithium miners is disruptive. Compared to the traditional extraction method, we double yield, lower costs, and get the product to market in one day rather than the traditional 18 months of processing time – its’ like bullet train for lithium. We increase our customer’s IRR significantly and future-proof their operations by having the best environmental impact and a focus on being socially responsible.
We just built our first pilot unit into a 40 ‘ sea container, and we’re taking it to South America in Q4 2021 for a multi-client pilot program with six mining companies from Argentina and Chile.
Scaling technology is complex, but the science behind it comes naturally to me. I maintain that physics is easy compared to business because it is predictable, and the laws of physics cannot be broken! Running a company, on the other hand, is unpredictable and follows no rules.
Why are you doing this? Well, I am doing this to create leaders.
I have built an amazing Team – they are all smarter than I am. They are professional engineers, chemists and geoscientists with decades of transferable experience. It took a lot of work to build an incredible culture of transparency and respect at Summit Nanotech. Now, everyone knows that they can challenge ideas and speak up when they have something to say. This creates a space where people can show up as themselves and innovate without constraints.
The coolest thing is that we recently discovered that our technology also works in the lithium-ion battery recycling space. So, after we’ve extracted enough lithium from the ground to fill up the circular economy, we can stop extracting and use our technology to support recycling in the future.
Those 11 words stoked my fire. If I saw that mentor today, I would thank him but also let him know that with every breathe I take, I’m proving him wrong. I have built a brand of integrity and honesty. I have demonstrated with hard science that by imagining the mine of the future, we set new global standards for lithium extraction today. I am doing this because it needs to be done, and although this is big, it is not too big for me because I have the support I need to grow a globally competitive company.