The Xconversation: Vaccine Developer Meets Energy Innovator, Part I

Xconomy Seattle — 

What do vaccines have to do with batteries?

Let your mind’s eye travel to the cellular membrane, where a ligand is enveloped by a receptor, spurring a subtle change in the cell. (Bear with me.) In some respects, it’s similar to what’s happening inside a battery when electrolytes interact with engineered materials to cause a current to flow.

These complex molecular-level interactions are the province of two scientists with more in common than you might think: Darrick Carter, a serial biotech entrepreneur and vice president of adjuvant technology at Seattle-based IDRI (Infectious Disease Research Institute), and Aaron Feaver, co-founder and chief technology officer of EnerG2, a company that applies novel materials science approaches to energy storage.

The work of Carter and Feaver is similar in several interesting ways, as revealed during a lunchtime conversation Xconomy hosted to kick off an occasional series we’re calling The Xconversation. The idea behind our first Seattle Xconversation—loosely modeled on The Sunday New York Times’ “Table for Three” lunchtime interviews with celebrities, politicians, and other public figures—is to highlight innovation at the intersections of disciplines. Carter, pictured above at left, is a biochemist and biophysicist. Feaver, pictured above right, is an engineer and materials scientist.

Our conversation was suitably broad: the topics ranged from the molecules they manipulate to the tensions inherent in pursuing a passion for scientific discovery within the confines of a business or nonprofit, to the forces of climate change adding urgency to their efforts to improve vaccine development and energy storage technology. They talked about what it’s like to be a scientist dad, and how their professional focus on the molecular shapes their view of the human-scale world.

We hope these Xconversations will be revealing, insightful, and fun, allowing readers to join us for lunch with top practitioners and leaders in the innovation community. It’s also an opportunity for deep dives into business, technology, and science, as well as personal stories. As always, we welcome your feedback.

The venue for our first Xconversation was Ivar’s Salmon House, a classic on the north shore of Lake Union. We were led through the cedar-walled restaurant, a replica of a Northwest Native American Longhouse, to a table bathed in late winter sunlight, overlooking the lake. The view takes in the trappings of a growing innovation economy—cranes poking up from construction projects on all sides of the lake, but especially from South Lake Union—as well as vestiges of the natural resources, maritime, and manufacturing economies that came before it.

What follows are excerpts of the conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.

Early Inspiration

Xconomy: As you were pursuing your PhDs—Carter in biochemistry and biophysics at Oregon Health Sciences University, and Feaver in materials science and engineering at University of Washington—when did you know you wanted to apply the science in industry, at a company, as opposed to remaining in an academic setting?

Darrick Carter: I always wanted to go into application. I started when I was 9 years old, to use chemistry to do something. I wanted to be a biochemist when I was 15. Went into grad school. Went into a lab that was doing drug design and did crystallography because it was on drug targets and then was hired right into Corixa, a Seattle-based biotech company, working on vaccines there, and just continued trying to get products done. I spun out my own company after that, for the same reason, to get products to market.

Aaron Feaver: How did you get interested in biotech from such an early age?

DC: Initially it was just chemistry because things blowing up was fun. Then I would learn about immunology and T-cells and cancer at the time, and I thought, ‘Hey, it would be great to work in this field,’ and that’s why I went into biotechnology, and I pretty much loved it the entire time. A lot of people said biochemistry is really hard, but it never seemed that way. I try to tell people, ‘Chess is really hard and certain video games are really hard, but if you love doing them, you don’t perceive it that way.’

How about you, Aaron?

AF: I have a little bit of a similar story, but probably with a detour in the middle. I was always really interested in energy, also from an early age. I remember going to visit Oak Ridge National Lab and learning about nuclear power, and also learning about global warming, in the ’80s, when I was still a kid.

X: You grew up in Illinois?

AF: Yes. The energy challenge has also inspired me from a pretty early age, and engineering in general has always been something I enjoy, and wanting to see real progress, and wanting to see real-world application of something is always something I’ve wanted to do. I got into engineering in general, that was a good move, but I don’t think I discovered materials science until after I’d been working at Boeing for a while, and Boeing gave a good exposure to a broad set of materials. But I simultaneously discovered I wasn’t really interested in working at a giant company for the rest of my career.

The interest in materials and my innate interest in energy caused me to do a course correction there, and so I went back to grad school and studied material science. I went straight into energy storage.

X: Washington state has really in the last couple of years made it part of its cleantech brand to be doing energy storage. You guys have been working on it at EnerG2 since 2003. What does it feel like to see this very public emphasis and sprouting of other companies in the space?

AF: It’s really good to see. There’s been a pretty good emphasis on energy storage for a while. The economic downturn for such a long period of time really put a dent in progress. If I look back to 2006, 2007, it seemed like a pretty exciting space at that point also. People were talking about electric vehicles and stuff like that. But the money went away, and the ability for companies to invest went away. Luckily for us, the government kept putting some money into it, so that helped a lot for EnerG2.

Scientist-Entrepreneur Tensions

X: I asked about your backgrounds and the decision between academics and industry, which sounds like it was pretty easy for both of you.

DC: Although, at the time my advisor was yelling, ‘You don’t want to do that! You’re never going to be able to come back into academia.’ Nowadays, I think almost everybody, advisors kind of kick them into industry. [In 1998], it just seemed like you’re cloistered in some way. You’d ruin your scientific reputation.

AF: Nowadays, I’m getting a lot of professors reaching out from the University of Washington, wanting to get their students involved, wanting to do collaborative research and projects, designing their own facilities so that they serve industry well. All kinds of stuff like that, so it’s good.

X: I sense a big cultural shift at the UW and a lot of the other research universities we cover across Xconomy. That old divide is old. A lot of issues come up with porousness between industry and academia, but I think universities are really embracing it.

DC: They’re starting to. There’s a lot of vestiges, though, still. Like intellectual property. We were talking to two graduate students who want to maybe rotate in [PAI Life Sciences, Carter’s company], but because it’s a for-profit and because the university has to keep the IP apart, how do you figure those things out?

AF: Right, one issue is whether you’re publishing or patenting stuff, you know? [Academics] have a vested interest in just getting the information out there as fast as they possibly can, and they want to publish. Professors are measured on publication primarily, and we’re not.

X: How do you balance those? Do you have that impulse as individuals any more, the tension between getting your research to the widest possible audience, and the demands of your business and organization?

DC: [IDRI is] grant funded, so it’s hard to get grants if you don’t have high-quality papers out there. We have over $100 million in grants. A lot of it depends on getting high-quality papers, but at the same time, we want to commercialize so we also need to file patents. But it’s not that difficult. You file your patent beforehand, and by the time your paper’s gone through all the review cycles and everything…

AF: It’s a challenge from my side of things. I think it’s tough. My natural bent would be to want to share information, have open collaborations with people, and stuff like that. It’s not the way the system is built. In order to get to the point where that works, you’ve got to build relationships and get to the point where there’s a mutual trust between another company and us, or even a university or a national lab and us. I wish there was an easier way for information to be shared broadly.

DC: Like Tesla, didn’t they dump all their patents? An interesting move, I thought.

AF: They recognized that if this industry grows, it floats everybody’s boat. And I think that’s true to some extent. One of the industries that we’re in—well, it’s not even an industry. We’re looking at natural gas storage in carbon materials. It doesn’t exist as a market. I just go out there and do anything I can to help everybody in that market because if everybody’s worried about competing [for] this tiny fraction of nothing right now, it’s never going to become anything. Whereas if we’re all just like, forget it, let’s work together, if something comes of this market, than those of us that were here in the beginning are going to have a big piece of the pie, no matter what. There’s plenty to go around, if you develop it.

DC: But you’re right, if you’re a small company trying to raise money. The first question you get is, ‘Well, what do you really have? Do you have a patent? Do you have anything that we’re buying in to?’ Unless you have a huge reputation, they just trust you personally, it’s going to be tough.

Integrated Complexity of Cells, Batteries

X: So, part of the premise in bringing the two of you together is your focus on discovery, synthesis, and processing of novel molecules—using the broadest terms—for two important but very different applications. Let’s talk a bit about the science and technology at the core of each of your areas of focus.

DC: Right now, to me, the most interesting aspect has been a new adjuvant that we discovered that triggers the innate immune system. It modulates something in your body. But the fascinating realization was how natural nature is, in that we always have thought of receptor-ligand interactions as: There’s something on the surface of the cell. It rings a doorbell. Something happens. Very binary. What we’ve realized now is that none of this is binary. It’s all integrated and it all flows together.

The receptor seems to be feeling the ligand rather than just binding it. It’s not a one-to-one trigger. And the surface area of the receptor is large enough to kind of envelop the ligand, and it changes its shape in a very subtle manner, and that causes a very subtle change inside the cell. So when we make tiny alterations to the molecule that binds, we get a big alteration in how the cells respond. It bothered me in some senses, for the longest time, because as a biophysicist, you’re taught this binds, this brings, this happens. I think what we’ve been doing is we’ve been taking nature apart analytically, when in reality it’s all so much togetherness that it’s really hard to describe.

We’ve been trained to think of each component as a functional component, because that’s the way our brains work. But that’s not really how the system is working. The system is all integrated into a single thing. I think we’re going to learn more and more with these systems biology approaches, how integrated this all is. If we pull something here, something’s going to happen there, and a lot of times, we’re not going to be able to predict what that’s going to be.

A receptor-ligand interaction (TLR4 binding to an agonist).

A receptor-ligand interaction (TLR4 binding to an agonist). Image courtesy of Darrick Carter / IDRI

AF: I actually see a lot of the same sorts of things that can happen. What both of us are doing is engineering things at a molecular scale, or at the nano scale, or at the atomic level. That’s where the interactions are happening. That’s where everything actually functions.

So you take most battery systems, and what you’ve got is a molecule. Every single one of them practically has an electrolyte, which is just solvent and charged ions, with various structure to that, and various tendency to react with the surface, to transfer, or move in and out of materials, to undergo a redox [reduction-oxidation] reaction. All kinds of things like that will occur universally in these systems. And what we’re doing is engineering the materials that then interact with those electrolyte molecules.

What we’re doing is designing these materials to do the right thing. The complexity that you mentioned, and the interactions that occur, are extremely complicated.

[Various battery system components, each optimized to increase conductivity], are interacting with each other, and having an impact on each other, whether it’s the voltage profile that the device operates at, or in some cases of a lead-acid battery, our sulfuric acid electrolyte actually undergoes a redox reaction, alongside the negative and positive electrode. So there’s a lot of complexity.

Moore’s Law for Batteries?

DC: So how do you design one of these? A lot of times, we use nature as a guide, because we have all these molecules and we say, ‘OK, we want to improve it.’ But how do you go about that because you really don’t have a guide, right?

AF: The good thing is, I guess, we’re not dealing with nature, so in some ways, maybe we have better controls over the actual materials that are interacting. So you can build model systems, where you say, ‘OK, we’re going to change this attribute, we’re going to change that attribute. We’re going to specifically modify the way it functions.’

People are using the beamlines [from particle accelerators] at Argonne and Lawrence Berkeley [national laboratories] to really fundamentally probe what’s happening at the material interface between an electrolyte molecule and a material that you design, and try to really just understand the fundamentals of what’s going on.

You’re building on decades of research and trying to understand what is the mechanism that occurs there. Nature is already this optimized system that you can go and study and see how it works. A battery is not near as elegant, I’m sure, because it’s only had decades of mankind tinkering with it for that optimization to have occurred, but that’s what you’ve got.

DC: If you plotted [battery] capacity improvement over research time, would it be more of a jagged line, or would there be a punctuated equilibrium, where there’s big leaps?

AF: Everybody always hopes that there’s big leaps here and there. In future technology, for instance, people want to come up with a lithium sulfur battery. Well nobody’s deployed this commercially yet, but they’ve been researching it for 10 or 15 years. And everybody will make a lot of noise about it because it’s going to be six times better than the current lithium ion battery. But it’s 10 years out, and so by the time you get to the point where it’s actually ready, people have improved the existing technology to the point where by the time that first lithium sulfur battery is deployed, it’s not a big leap anymore, it’s an incremental change.

So, unfortunately—I think we see this with all kinds of subtle changes—you get 5 percent a year, every year.

DC: Is there a Moore’s Law then?

AF: It’s 5 percent a year.

DC: I was reading about liquid batteries and thought one day it would be really cool if you could take your electric car, you have a nozzle, just like at a gas station, you’d shove it in, and one part would suck out the used battery, another part would pump in charge. Is that a thing, or is it all just going to be taking out a big block?

AF: Some people have actually developed flowable electrodes, which is going to be your used component—that’s the actual material. Electrolyte is a liquid already. The solid portion is the anode, which is coated on foil, and the cathode, which is coated on foil. The challenge with those—they’re all solid materials—so you mean like a slurry or something?

DC: Yeah.

AF: Which could work, but then, your ability to have good electron conductivity in that flowable medium is diminished. Your ability to arrange it and make sure it’s packed into dense space is difficult. Is it possible, could it be out there in the future at some point? I think maybe so.

[Editor’s note: Check back on Wednesday for the rest of The Xconversation.]