Researcher Profile: From Science To Startups
October 06th, 2015
Of all the skills John Christopher (Chris) Burns picked up over the course of his PhD in Physics at Dalhousie, one of the most useful had little to do with science and everything to do with being a good salesman.
“The thing I realized I enjoyed doing was presenting my work at conferences,” explains Chris. He credits his Dal advisor and noted battery pioneer Jeff Dahn with helping him sharpen his presentation skills about a year into his degree when he was publishing papers and conference-hopping around the world.
Chris realized during those trips there was a clear demand for the kind of high-precision battery-testing technology he was helping to create in the lab with Dr. Dahn and other researchers. Gradually, conference presentations turned into pitching sessions.
“Everybody was basically saying, ‘We want to buy this stuff. Where can we buy it?’” he remembers.
So, Chris and research partner David Stevens decided to answer that question by launching a startup company called Novonix in 2013 to facilitate the commercialization of their research.
The seeds of that technology were actually planted years earlier, soon after, Chris first met Dr. Dahn and entered into the masters program in physics in 2009.
After spending his final year as an undergraduate at StFX immersed in a highly theoretical particle physics project, Chris was eager to shift gears to focus on application-driven science. Joining Dr. Dahn’s battery group at Dal proved to be the right move.
“We’re doing fundamental research, but there’s a clear goal right in front of you,” says Chris, who assumed growing up that he would follow his parents’ path and become an engineer.
One of his first projects at Dal was helping Dr. Dahn set up lab equipment used for testing small cellphone-style lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. That benchmarking work ended up forming the basis for his master’s thesis, which he then expanded upon in his doctoral research by actually using the equipment and learning more about the battery cells they were testing.
Chris says Dr. Dahn was “extraordinarily flexible” when it came to helping him juggle the demands of his academic work with those of getting a business up and running.
“Jeff allowed that balance to exist,” he says, noting that the professor also likes that he and Stevens intend to keep the startup here in Nova Scotia despite offers to move it to Silicon Valley, the world-renowned tech hub in California.
Instead, Silicon Valley came to them. About a month after defending his doctoral thesis earlier this year, he began working part-time from Halifax as a materials researcher for the Palo Alto, Calif.-based automotive and energy storage company Tesla Motors, which recently signed a five-year research partnership with Dr. Dahn.
While Chris has plenty to focus on day-to-day as president and CEO of Novonix and a researcher for Tesla, it’s still the big-picture stuff that motivates him. Stuff like grid-based energy storage which, he says will become increasingly necessary as the world moves toward more renewable power sources such as wind.
“The wind doesn’t blow when everybody turns the lights on and you don’t turn the lights off because the wind stops blowing, so you need energy storage that’s going to last for decades,” he says. “Everything is a stepping stone to that.”