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Nov 15, 2022 2022-11 Accountancy Alumni Business Administration Faculty Finance Student

Post iVenture, EV battery innovators attract $2M funding, government contracts

Natrion Co-founder Alex Kosyakov and his partner Thomas Rouffiac have been in synch since high school.

“We were always hustling, even then,” said Kosyakov. “We met on the track team and ran relays together. Our friendship grew as we started playing around with the idea of getting a company up and running.”

What started as an idea for a device that stores excess solar power has evolved into a patent for a rechargeable battery component that has captured the attention of high-profile investors and the US government. This summer, Natrion secured $2M in seed funding from Shark Tank’s Mark Cuban, Illinois Ventures, Tamarack Global, and other private investors in a financing round led by Chicago-based Tech Nexus Venture Collaborative. It has also received multiple contracts from the US Department of Defense to further develop its products.

“We were only in school for one semester before COVID-19 hit. With more flexibility in our schedules while going to school remotely, I began exploring incubator opportunities at the University and wanted to find ways to learn more about entrepreneurship,” said Kosyakov, a materials science and engineering major who added a business minor his junior year. (He continued to collaborate with Rouffiac who attended another Big Ten school.)

Kosyakov credits his ability to draw interest in Natrion to his time spent with the iVenture Accelerator program. Launched in 2015, the iVenture Accelerator is a system-wide and cross-campus program housed in Gies College of Business that provides opportunities for student-led startups to create economic and social value. iVenture supports student entrepreneurs with knowledge, funding, and access to the world-class University of Illinois resources and alumni.  Since its inception, iVenture has incubated 100 ventures led by 250 student entrepreneurs who have gone on to raise more than $100 million for their work, created over 300 full-time jobs, and won various accolades across the globe.

“You can’t learn to pitch in a classroom. We made a couple hundred pitches before we had a product that was compelling to an investor. You need to continue to go out and innovate,” said Kosyakov, who with his partner developed a patented and proprietary technology called the Lithium Solid Ionic Composite (LISIC).

“We’ve come a long way from what we first envisioned— a big battery that would link up to rooftop solar to provide backup power at night or if your electricity shuts off in an emergency. The first time we pitched that to iVenture Accelerator Senior Associate Director Manu Edakara, he told us, ‘No way is that going to work.’”

With Edakara’s advice, they went back to the drawing board to develop an idea that wouldn’t be cost prohibitive to the end user, and instead would be scalable and have more applications.

Kosyakov ultimately iterated the technology toward high-performance end uses in electric vehicles and consumer electronics and simplified its pitch to rechargeable battery components for driving farther and charging faster. Their innovation eliminates liquid-state components in batteries to improve electric vehicle fire safety, driving range, charge time, and overall lifespan.

"Alex is a wunderkid and one of the hardest workers I've met,” said Edakara. “He set the standard for work culture in his cohort and was incredibly helpful to his fellow peers. We're so proud of him."

Natrion’s prototypes are being developed at Research Park in Champaign, IL, where the company has built out a full-size battery prototyping line that is one of only a few such facilities in the state. With the recently raised capital, Natrion intends to validate the performance and safety of these full-size battery cells. This will allow it to qualify LISIC for use in electric vehicle battery packs, which will be Natrion’s first step toward scaling up and building out a pilot production line targeted for 2023. 

iVenture Accelerator was also instrumental in teaching Kosyakov how to build and run a team. Natrion has 12 employees based in Champaign and three at its headquarters in the duo’s hometown of Binghamton, NY.

“Since last year, we have had a CTO and chief scientist join our team along with PhDs working in our labs. It was a big leap to learn how to manage them, and we couldn’t have done it as successfully on our own,” said Kosyakov. “We’re here in Research Park to take advantage of talent and resources of the University of Illinois.”