Environmental & Life SciencesView profile
We caught up with Dr. Athan Fox, Founder and CEO of Ever Resource, as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. Ever Resource are working to create a world without waste by developing and commercialising innovative cleantech. Their flagship technology recycles lead-acid batteries, not only reducing carbon by 85% and waste by up to 90% but simultaneously improving the energy density and charge acceptance of lead batteries.
The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.
Athan: Sure, I am Athan Fox. I did a PhD in Chemistry at the University of Cambridge and I have been through several U-turns in my career before getting to this point. I started up by choosing Chemistry as a subject; I think I was in Grade 5 in primary school when I decided to go down this road. At the time I was having some sort of existential crisis; I was not a very happy 9-year-old! Around 8 years old I realised that the particles inside my body are alive and are not very different to the inanimate objects around us because everything is made of atoms, whether they are alive or not. I began to realise that these atoms came from stars and that many years ago these particles were inside the bodies of dinosaurs and other people, and now me!
I suppose I was looking for answers and not very many answers were at hand. I decided that Chemistry could provide the answers, and this was the original reason I gravitated towards the field. My first U-turn was putting research behind me and starting to train as a patent attorney – this is a person who trains in a legal sense in the art of protecting technology by filing patent applications. The reason I moved away from research was because I felt it was a little bit narrow and I decided that my brain needed a lot more technological breadth and cutting-edge innovation. This was enough to push me towards patents.
The second U-turn came about as a result of the “credit crunch”; those were difficult times. I moved to technology transfer. This is a field that focuses more on the technology and less on the law. I was at quite a low point in my life during this time; things were difficult because I had graduated around the same time that Lehman Brothers went bust, sending shockwaves throughout the economy. Careers were shrinking, companies were going out the window. I lost my patent attorney job twice by then. These were crazy, crazy times! I suppose young people today are experiencing something similar, but for different reasons.
My third U-turn was venturing from tech transfer into the start-up world, and that was in 2016. I was really excited and passionate about this U-turn, so I was at a really high point in my life because I knew I was setting out on this magical journey to develop something new and exciting that could have a huge positive environment and the economy.
My driver for the start-up was the passion to make the world a better place. It sounds like a cliché but for a lot of founders in climate tech and the environmental science space, this is what brings us all together to do what we are doing!
The business Ever Resource is what we call a circular economy innovator. We convert end of life materials and waste into products that can be reused in industry. Our speciality is batteries, or more specifically, the battery metals. To put it simply, we invent and develop new processes which allow us to recycle these metals via a low carbon, low cost, environmentally sensible technology. Mainly using Chemistry rather than furnaces and electricity-hungry processes.
Athan: Certainly. Metallurgy is the science of processing metals. Metals are often thought of as blocks of metallic components but in the world around us, whether it is the natural or material world, metal compounds can be a little more hidden. There is, for example, metal inside organic materials, in plants, in humans. Metallurgy has several different categories that are named after the process that is used to condition the metal. Pyrometallurgy is when you use those hot furnaces, or smelters to process metal. Hydrometallurgy involves liquid based processes, such as water. Therefore, you don’t have to process the metal at high temperatures, you can also dissolve it in water based or liquid based chemical processes to extract the metal and refine it. Anything related to this sphere of metallurgy is called hydrometallurgy.
Athan: Sure. The technology origins were in early 2000s. I was a university student then, completely oblivious to the Chemistry that I am now so excited to be a part of! In the early 2000s, that is when Professor Kumar who was (and still is) based at Cambridge University invented the very exciting process for the recycling of lead acid batteries. Cambridge University filed its’ first patent and continued doing research on the technology.
15 years later I came across the technology in my role in Technology Transfer at Cambridge Enterprise. I joined the Cambridge Enterprise, which is the Cambridge University technology transfer and commercialisation arm, and this was one of the technologies that happened to be in my books as a junior associate. A gentleman by the name of Miles Freeman had recently left his job at a major lead battery recycling company and he came knocking on our door asking for a licence to develop and scale-up this technology. I decided this was my moment to also venture into the start-up world. By August 2016, I had joined Miles to work on this project under the roof of a recycling company based in the West Midlands. I recruited a team of researchers from Cambridge University and Professor Kumar formalised his partnership with us by acting as a consultant to the project. We set off on this exciting journey to scale-up what we knew was a transformative technology. We went from a few grams in a flask in the laboratory to multi-tonnes per hour with the system, and eventually we achieved up to 10 tonnes per hour production of materials. For every 1 problem we solved along the way, 2 new problems arose, until eventually we nailed the process and made the product.
But then things outside of our control started happening all around us. First it was Brexit, and then COVID. During the first lockdown in early 2020, the company we were working under could no longer support the development of any project, not just ours. They ceased all kinds of support on the research program. The same day that the research team found itself without jobs, I made the decision that we had to start a business dedicated to the development of this technology because we believed in its’ potential. Most importantly, we had to secure the team. Without the team, there is no technology – this is true for every early-stage venture. You lose the team, you’ve lost the venture! Luckily, Miles Freeman who was acting CEO of the former company decided to resign and join us – this was a massive boost for Ever Resource. But then the pressure piled on, because we could not tap into any of the support that was available at the time, like the Furlough Scheme, Bounce Back Loans, the COVID Business Interruption Loan. We basically registered our company (Ever Resource) after the lockdown had started so we missed the boat. We had to resort to self-financing and re-mortgaging our houses and things like this! The team was incredibly excited that we went down the road of the tech start-up. I guess it is a very unusual background study for a start-up, but I believe we will hear a lot of stories like this over the next couple of years as a result of COVID and the economy.
Athan: Some employees lent money to the company and a lot of employees agreed to work for a certain amount of time without getting paid. Our team knew it was going to be a difficult ride for the company and it was a group effort. I think that the way we have all worked together to stabilise the ship and keep the dream going has had an amazing impact on us as individuals. We have become friends and colleagues on a whole other level!
Athan: Sure, absolutely. What is unique about this technology is in 2 different spheres. 1 sphere is the environmental impact and what it costs, both economically and to the environment for you to process materials and what else is out there. Number 2 is the specifications of the product we make and what makes it so good.
In terms of the environmental value proposition, we have very significant reductions in the carbon footprint and have lowered this by up to 85% compared to the traditional recyclers. We have cut their waste by more than 90%. We are also able to produce a product with a cost saving of up to 20%, depending on the costs of the reagents used in the process. Developing something that is greener and more economically sensible is great to start with, but many times it is not enough. You’ve got to produce something that is at least as good as the off-the-shelf products. If it costs the incumbents very little to do something environmentally damaging, then you as a cleantech company need to be greener but also cost-effective – being green but more expensive does not usually cut it unfortunately. In our case, we are blessed by our Chemistry in that the product we produce happens to be of higher quality, higher specification, and out-performs the competing off-the-shelf products. Through our recycling process, we manufacture something that is technically superior when compared to the materials being recycled. This is called Upcycling. We have seen improvements in energy density of up to 40% compared to what the primary industry, the miners, are able to manufacture!
The reason for that is simple – the products we make possess higher surface area and porosity. These properties are the bread and butter of electrochemistry.
Inside the battery, there are materials which carry out chemical processes. You have a process going one way, when you discharge the battery, and another process going the other way when you recharge the battery.
The amount of energy that we can store per unit of volume of battery increases by up to 40% with our materials. This is because, once the particles have gone through our process, they become ‘spongey’ or sponge-like. If you look at them under a microscope, you will see that the porosities and surface areas substantially increase as a result of passing through our system. This in turn allows enhanced interaction between the materials in the battery – and so the chemistry per unit of volume increases. Originally, we estimated that we would get 10-15% improvements in energy density and we were getting excited about that! Then we gave our materials to companies who make batteries, and these were able to squeeze up to 40% of an improvement out of our materials which completely blew us away.
Athan: At first, we thought it was a mistake! Then we realised that there was a lot more to these materials than we know. That is another great thing about science, and about chemistry; you learn things as you go along and can get results you don’t expect. This leads to the discovery of new things that you didn’t previously appreciate. The kind of excitement that follows new discoveries is what keeps us in the field, despite the challenges!
Athan: With technological development, there is very often the risk that you end up living in a bubble. You can surround yourself with four walls designing a magic process or a system that takes away a pain point in the industry whilst being completely oblivious about the new problems that your process is creating. The reality is that there is no such thing as a perfect solution; you solve a problem by creating a new problem. Ideally, you are creating a problem that is considerably less problematic than the one you have just eliminated.
Our philosophy focusses on understanding the industry which we serve. To achieve this objective, we have partnered with existing recycling plants to get our hands dirty. We made it our mission to understand the supply chain from the beginning to the end; from the primary mining industry right through to recycling, refining, and even battery manufacturing. We asked questions around how we could integrate our process, rather than disrupting the industry. Our approach is ‘don’t disrupt, unless you have to’. I know that disruption is every investor’s favourite word, but sometimes to me, it feels like a swearword.
Take battery recycling as an example. If a furnace costs tens of millions to implement, can you ask the industry to throw their furnaces down a cliff in favour of something else? They could be so heavily invested in those furnaces that it is simply impossible to throw them away. Instead of competing with a furnace, our approach has been to develop a process that runs alongside the furnace, taking the components that are difficult and expensive to incinerate at high temperatures. This is synergistic – we can run our process without disrupting the furnace; in fact, our process runs alongside the existing operations, making the furnace cleaner and more economically sensible. An approach like this can help open doors and scale up the technology more rapidly for everyone’s collective benefit, including the Earth’s.
In the end this could mean taking a smaller slice of a much bigger pie, which isn’t bad if it means going to market sooner. Of course, these dynamics can change rapidly once investors are involved, but we try not to lose sight of the bigger picture.
Athan: The lead battery’s infrastructure is so impressive. You know, the lead battery is the world’s most successfully recycled commodity item. How is it that something which was invented in the 1850s, before anyone talked about global warming and recycling, become the King or Queen of circularity?
The simple reason is because lead metal is infinitely recyclable and the economics work very well. This is why the lead battery and its infrastructure have reached every corner of the world.
Athan: There are two ways to improve a battery; either the architecture or the optimisation of the active material inside. For lead batteries, the majority of innovation in our space over the last couple of decades has focused on architecture. Arguably the most important ingredient, the electrochemically active lead oxide, which is the heart and soul of the lead battery has not been optimised that much. It has generally been a one size fits all except there have been some recent breakthroughs in additive technology that can affect the active material.
Our technology produces what the industry refers to as a metal organic framework. This basically means it is a complex molecule that contains both carbon and metal; in chemistry, organic just means carbon. From this, we can access all of the next generation materials such as the 40% improvements in batteries etc. But this improvement also creates a conundrum – if you are working with a next-generation material, how can you harvest the very best in its properties if your battery manufacturing technology is decades old? The manufacturing process may need to change in order to make the best of these new materials.
In any event, we have made the active materials, but we are actually a long way off being able to have our product in batteries on the shelves. The next stage will be working alongside the battery industry to test our materials.
Athan: Well, lead batteries are already inside today’s electric vehicles. The growth trajectory of the battery is still positive and will continue to be for some time – although we expect the industrial battery market to grow more rapidly than the automotive market when it comes to lead acid. This is because as the world is trying to become greener and more sustainable, whether it is hydrogen or lithium or something else at the forefront of the transition, the need for more energy storage increases. Whatever happens in the future, one thing is almost certain – our hunger for power, or energy storage, is increasing. The greener the world gets, the more relevant the battery becomes, and so the market is on a growth trajectory. Within the battery space, there will always be a need for the battery that offers the lowest cost, most recyclability, and highest levels of safety. And that happens to be the lead battery.
Albert Einstein once said that ‘Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.’ How can you relate this to batteries? If you are setting up a renewable energy infrastructure, and you happen to be looking for a low cost, recyclable and safe battery, then lead is probably your best bet. You can’t compare lithium’s recyclability and safety with lead, just as you can’t compare lead’s power and energy densities with lithium. Knowing which battery is the right fit for your application is critical.
Athan: Over the years I updated my ‘right answer’ to the investment question so many times that honestly, I don’t know how to answer this anymore! My fundraising success has not been fantastic.
One piece of advice I would give to fellow entrepreneurs would be to be more aware or conscious of who you are speaking to. I’ve learnt the hard way that not everyone who wants to listen to you wants to help you. Sometimes they want to know what you know, who you’re talking to, and what your product does, not to invest in you but for self-serving reasons. I’m not saying you should become paranoid but don’t assume that everyone who wants to chat with you has good intentions. This may sound crazy, but try not to shine too bright…
Thank you for your time, Athan!