Shift by Alberta Innovates

Alberta clean tech crushes the status quo: Kelly Krahulic from Summit Nanotech

February 05, 2023 Shift
Alberta clean tech crushes the status quo: Kelly Krahulic from Summit Nanotech
Shift by Alberta Innovates
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Shift by Alberta Innovates
Alberta clean tech crushes the status quo: Kelly Krahulic from Summit Nanotech
Feb 05, 2023
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Summit Nanotech has been on fire for the last little while. Company founder and CEO Amanda Hall was the $1 Million grand prize winner of the Women in Cleantech Challenge in 2021. They took first place in the smart cities, vibrant communities category at Inventure$ 2020. They were named one of the 50 most investable clean teach companies at the of 2022, and they started 2023 by raising CDN $67 MIllion for lithium extraction technology to support the energy transition to net zero.

We sat down with the company's Vice President of Technology & Innovation and technology co-developer, Dr. Kelly Krahulic to learn a little more about Summit Nanotech, where the ideas came from, where the company's headed and a whole lot more!

Welcome to Shift.

Bio

Kelly Krahulic, Vice President, Technology & Innovation, Summit Nanotech 

Kelly is a PhD chemist (University of Calgary) with broad expertise in catalyst design, air-sensitive synthetic chemistry, and technical communication. In addition to her deep technical knowledge, she has experience facilitating the smart growth of start-ups through technology development, grant discovery, strategic business development planning, marketing, and management.  

Since 2018, Kelly has been the leader of technology development at Summit Nanotech, working to develop a direct method of lithium extraction with a focus on improving speed of extraction, reducing environmental impact, and unlocking the lithium supply required to expedite the electromobility transition.

Kelly is passionate about the potential of green technology to provide economic and environmental sustainability for current and future generations. In her spare time, you can find her with her kids, most likely in the mountains.


Summit Nanotech 

Summit Nanotech is a cleantech organization transforming how the world accesses lithium for the global energy transition. Through their patented and sustainable direct lithium extraction (DLE) technology, Summit Nanotech is conserving natural resources and optimizing operations for lithium producers in Chile and Argentina. Established in 2018 and headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, Summit Nanotech has been awarded to the 2022 Future 50 for fastest growing sustainability companies in Canada, the Foresight 50 for most investable cleantech venture, and the Solar Impulse Foundation's Efficient Solutions Label. Learn more at summitnanotech.com




Shift by Alberta Innovates focuses on the people, businesses and organizations that are contributing to Alberta's strong tech ecosystem.

Show Notes Transcript

Send us a Text Message.

Summit Nanotech has been on fire for the last little while. Company founder and CEO Amanda Hall was the $1 Million grand prize winner of the Women in Cleantech Challenge in 2021. They took first place in the smart cities, vibrant communities category at Inventure$ 2020. They were named one of the 50 most investable clean teach companies at the of 2022, and they started 2023 by raising CDN $67 MIllion for lithium extraction technology to support the energy transition to net zero.

We sat down with the company's Vice President of Technology & Innovation and technology co-developer, Dr. Kelly Krahulic to learn a little more about Summit Nanotech, where the ideas came from, where the company's headed and a whole lot more!

Welcome to Shift.

Bio

Kelly Krahulic, Vice President, Technology & Innovation, Summit Nanotech 

Kelly is a PhD chemist (University of Calgary) with broad expertise in catalyst design, air-sensitive synthetic chemistry, and technical communication. In addition to her deep technical knowledge, she has experience facilitating the smart growth of start-ups through technology development, grant discovery, strategic business development planning, marketing, and management.  

Since 2018, Kelly has been the leader of technology development at Summit Nanotech, working to develop a direct method of lithium extraction with a focus on improving speed of extraction, reducing environmental impact, and unlocking the lithium supply required to expedite the electromobility transition.

Kelly is passionate about the potential of green technology to provide economic and environmental sustainability for current and future generations. In her spare time, you can find her with her kids, most likely in the mountains.


Summit Nanotech 

Summit Nanotech is a cleantech organization transforming how the world accesses lithium for the global energy transition. Through their patented and sustainable direct lithium extraction (DLE) technology, Summit Nanotech is conserving natural resources and optimizing operations for lithium producers in Chile and Argentina. Established in 2018 and headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, Summit Nanotech has been awarded to the 2022 Future 50 for fastest growing sustainability companies in Canada, the Foresight 50 for most investable cleantech venture, and the Solar Impulse Foundation's Efficient Solutions Label. Learn more at summitnanotech.com




Shift by Alberta Innovates focuses on the people, businesses and organizations that are contributing to Alberta's strong tech ecosystem.

Jon:

Good day. Welcome to Shift by Alberta Innovates. My guest today is Dr. Kelly Krahulic, the Vice President of Technology and Innovation with Summit Nanotech, Calgary based firm. Hello, Kelly. How are you?

Kelly:

Hi, Jon. I'm doing great. Thanks for having me here.

Jon:

It's our pleasure. Now, let's dive in a little bit. So I know you're the co-inventor along with Amanda Hall, the CEO of the company, of the tech you guys have, direct lithium extraction. Can you tell us just a little bit about that, what it means, what it does, and how it's different from a more traditional style of mining?

Kelly:

Yeah, absolutely. So traditional mining, they actually... There are two methods that they pull lithium out and extract lithium from. And, these main sources are either brine and so that's down in South America. And, there's also hard rock, and most of the hard rock is in Australia. So, we're really focused on the brine assets. And what they traditionally do with the brine ponds is they actually pull the brine out from underground and put it into these large ponds, and then they sequentially crystallize out the impurities that they don't want in the liquid until they just have a concentrated lithium solution.

But, this type of process takes a lot of land and it uses up the water so they can't re-inject the water to protect the aquifer and the water balance in that area. And, it also takes about two years to get from the salar underground to actual lithium that they're able to produce and send off. And so, what we're really trying to do is reduce the water use and then also make it a lot faster to get that lithium to market because there's huge pressure now with the EV market expanding as it is, and that electromobility revolution that's occurring. We really need more lithium in order to support that. And, the lithium that's coming online with current methods is not going to achieve that.

Jon:

Oh, okay. So when you say EV, electric vehicles, obviously.

Kelly:

Yes.

Jon:

Electromobility, is that fancy way of saying cell phones and computers?

Kelly:

That's just a fancy way of including trucks and scooters and motorbikes.

Jon:

Oh, okay. I see.

Kelly:

Dealt with it generally within that kind of vehicle realm.

Jon:

Oh, okay. I see. Now, so what is your process? What is Summit Nanotech's process in terms of timelines?

Kelly:

Yeah, so Summit Nanotech process can get that out within basically a day. So, the same type of thing that takes...

Jon:

What? From two years?

Kelly:

Two years to a day. Yes.

Jon:

That's unreal.

Kelly:

I know. It's a huge, huge, huge change and that's why there's such a drive for this to happen in Chile and in the South America.

Jon:

Holy cow.

Kelly:

Yeah.

Jon:

So let's dive a little bit deeper into the tech. So, you've described the way it used to be. Now what exactly is the direct lithium extraction technology doing to be able to take something that was a timeline of originally two years to reduce that to one day?

Kelly:

Right. Yeah. Well, remember how I said that we essentially... or the traditional process just removes all of the contaminants in turn?

Jon:

Yeah.

Kelly:

Well, what we do instead is just grab the lithium out, leaving everything else in solution, and we can actually put that solution right back underground into the salar to retain that water balance.

Jon:

So you're just going in there with tweezers, plucking out the lithium.

Kelly:

Yeah, when we were... Exactly.

Jon:

This sounds like it incorporates some fancy technology and it's in the name Summit Nanotech, so it's nanotechnology that you guys are using as those tweezers.

Kelly:

Yeah.

Jon:

I'm just trying to come up with an analogy for some of our listeners that will...

Kelly:

No, it's very good. When we were developing it, we kind of thought what would be perfect and we envisioned all these little kind of men who would go in there and grab the lithium and pull it out. And so, what we tried to do is use our material science background to get as close to that as we possibly could. And so, this is based around absorbent. It's very similar to say a resin that just goes in and only lithium attaches to it and everything else just flushes by it. So, it's a bit like a lithium magnet and holds onto the lithium. Everything else flushes away.

Jon:

Wow, that's really cool. And now this is something, this is technology that you guys have identified and secured. Nobody else is doing this sort of thing?

Kelly:

No, there's other people in the world, of course, that are working on similar types of technology, but ours is patented. It's proprietary, and it's something that we develop from scratch in house.

Jon:

That's so exciting. Now, Kelly, what's your background? You're a doctor, a PhD and you studied chemistry?

Kelly:

I did, yeah. Yeah, Calgary born, did both of my undergrad and doctoral degree at the UC.

Jon:

Okay, SO tell me how that, and pardon my ignorance, but how does that play into... because you're talking material science, identifying this sorbent, this magnet for lithium, how did your chemistry background play into that?

Kelly:

Yeah, well, that's exactly what we're using is actually inorganic chemistry to produce the sorbent that does this, that extracts the lithium. And so, my background is in synthetic inorganic chemistry so it was a perfect alignment with the skillset that we needed. But really, the benefit of a doctoral degree really is that you're used to doing a lot of deep research into big problems and being able to communicate that technically as well as manage the different stages of that project. And so, really it's not so much the focus of the degree, it's more kind of the outcome and the learnings from a degree that I think are so valuable.

Jon:

Yeah, that's really cool. And, I noted that as I was reading a bit about you that you're also a Google Scholar and you've got a lot of papers that are cited on the academic side of things. So not only are you helping to commercialize a significant technology, you're also... you're doing that knowledge translation as well, which is...

Kelly:

Exactly. Yeah.

Jon:

Is pretty cool. I've heard this story when Amanda had something about seeing a monk with a cell phone, and then that was the big epiphany for her. When she had this idea of how do we get lithium, how do we do this in a more sustainable way, had you two known each other already at that point? How was the genesis of that relationship business wise?

Kelly:

Yeah, I think this is something I'm really excited you asked about because I really do want to share this because I think a lot of people right now are thinking about how to transition their careers and maybe what does the future look like and what is the startup market. And so, I actually didn't know Amanda originally when she came up with the idea and was at the time just transitioning my own career. I wanted to get back into chemistry. I really wanted to do something that was going to promote Alberta's diversification in a meaningful way and create future jobs for everybody. And so, I found a few different spots that really helped out with that and one of them was Rainforest Alberta. So, I joined that group, and I believe that's supported by Alberta Innovates as well. And, that was a very, very good place to meet a lot of different people with a lot of different skill sets and really do that really essential networking.

So, that was one spot. And the other place I ended up looking at was Higher Landing and that helps a lot with kind of career transitions for people, for professionals, and for even professional athletes. They help them make that shift and market themselves into these new roles and that was absolutely invaluable as well. And through both of these, I ended up meeting people. I think there were three separate people who said, "You know, need to talk to Amanda Hall" because I was coming in with a very technical background, and she of course had this very large vision and is an amazing, amazing fundraiser and so good at sharing her story and her vision. And so finally, I said to one of them, "Can you connect me for that coffee?" So, we sat down for a coffee at perfect timing, just as Amanda was kind of separating from her original co-founder because they had different visions. And so she said, "I need the CTO type role filled." And, we sat down for coffee and it just went from there. By two days later, I was on board and we were running full tilt.

Jon:

Wow, that's a really cool story. Congratulations. I love hearing how the ecosystem comes together to help people find support that they need and those gaps. That's really cool. So 2022, the end of 2022 was pretty big for Summit, and the beginning of 2023 was pretty big. So end of 2022 at the tail end, you guys were named amongst Canada's Top 50 Most Investible Clean Tech Companies by Foresight Canada. And then of course, in the middle of January, you guys get 67 million Canadian for lithium extraction technology to support the energy transition to net zero.

Kelly:

Yeah.

Jon:

So first off, congratulations.

Kelly:

Thank you.

Jon:

That's a great accolade to have and it's nice that people support financially like that. Tell me a little bit about what that means to Summit Nanotech, the accolades and that money. How are you guys going to invest that and move the company forward?

Kelly:

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, the accolades are absolutely essential for gaining the traction in the investment and getting that funding that we need to make this a reality because what we're doing is hard technology. And, as soon as you're in the hard tech realm, every single experiment you do is very expensive and you have to scale up. So right now, we have a pilot running in Chile, and it's been running there for about five months now and just getting it there even costs an insane amount of money these days because of the supply chain, the shipping challenges, things like that.

So, it takes a lot to develop the pilot. And now that we have this money in hand and the results from the pilot, now we're looking at doing demo stage units on sites with customers. So, we're going to be installing those over the next year, and that's where most the majority of this funding goes. And then of course, we also have all of the research and development that we're doing in house still to really make... continue to make our product the best product out there and improve the environmental metrics of the lithium extraction.

Jon:

Right. What does the demo site look like? Describe that to me. Is it a small portable little factory? Give me a sense of the dimensions.

Kelly:

Yeah, I think the quick answer is that we don't know what it's going to look like yet.

Jon:

Okay. No, and that's fine.

Kelly:

Yeah, we're still designing it. We're still trying to figure it out. And so, there's a lot of factors that you're optimizing when you think about that next stage of upscaling. It's important to upscale fast, but sometimes we don't know exactly what that's going to look like.

Jon:

Okay. No, that makes sense. Are we okay to keep that in?

Kelly:

Yep. We can keep that in.

Jon:

I think that's okay. So I'll just take off that chunk there and then this chunk. We talked about, or pardon me, everything we just talked about makes me think about this transition to net zero. This is huge. So, let's talk a little bit about that global shift from fossil fuels and the challenges inherent for moving to what is the status quo, entrenched technology, this is how we mine, this is how we extract fossil fuels and create energy. What is Summit Nanotech's role in all of that, and how do you guys foresee this playing out over the next 30 some odd years?

Kelly:

Yeah, that's another great question. It's not an easy thing to achieve, of course, because there's huge change management, there's a lot of entrenched industries, especially mining where they're using very traditional technology often. And so, that's one of the big challenges that we have is just convincing miners that this is something worth trying because of course there's risks with any new technology that comes on board. We're lucky in that this is being driven very hard by a lot of the auto manufacturers because they require the lithium so they are asking for a lot of lithium from these miners, and the miners need to figure out how to get that into their hands faster. And it's also...

Jon:

And two years just ain't going to cut it.

Kelly:

Well, unfortunately, no, they just can't scale it up fast enough with the current technologies. And, it's also being driven a lot by policy in the Latan region, so Latin America. There's a real push around water recovery. A lot of these areas are very, very high altitude, deserty regions with basically zero rainfall over the year. And so, the communities that actually do live around there, they cannot lose any of the water to any of the mining that goes on in that area. And so, one of the key factors for us is actually maintaining that water recovery. So, we are trying to make ours a zero net fresh water process, which is a big challenge, but it's been our focus from the very beginning for that reason. But, the world is going to transition in terms of all of these technologies, especially as we drive towards these very, very aggressive targets for converting over to electromobility versus internal combustion engines.

Jon:

Right. Yeah.

Kelly:

And so, it's going to take a lot of really fast, fast movement and really disruptive technologies and a lot of risk that's going to have to be accepted along the way as well. And luckily, there's a huge investment support for this because I think the investors see that drive and also understand that this is something that's going to happen whether they're involved or not.

Jon:

Right. And, there's a lot of incredulity, I suppose, when we talk about Canada's goal to hit net zero. I guess because you guys are working a lot in Chile, what's the thinking like down there? Can you elaborate or flush that out a bit more for me? Are they as governmentally or are they as focused on net zero as aggressive as other populations are, as other jurisdictions are?

Kelly:

That's interesting. I'm not quite sure what their government policy is on that, but I do know that Chile in particular has a very progressive government at the moment that's very focused on gender equality, environmental metrics and things like that. And so, that is helping to drive a lot of this transition.

Jon:

And then speaking of gender equality, Summit Nanotech is... it's all female leadership. Am I correct in that?

Kelly:

We have a lot of female leadership, yes. Yeah. We do have a few men in the VP roles as well, I'd say. Yeah, it's about 70% female I think.

Jon:

And that's fantastic. I think it's so cool especially because typically these aren't... boy, I don't even know how to say it without sounding like a knucklehead, but like you think 30 years ago, it just would've been almost a men's only, a boys club thing. How is it to navigate through that? And I understand that there is still challenges, but what are those challenges like and how do you navigate them as predominantly female led leadership team?

Kelly:

Yeah, I think it's interesting because we did have really good timing from a certain perspective because it was just when there was a lot of spotlight on bringing women up and enabling those opportunities for them. And so, Amanda was involved in, say, Women In Clean Tech, which it was a huge asset for us because they provided lab space, they provided funding, and they also provided mentorship for Amanda with that core group of female entrepreneurs that was in that group. That was invaluable to Summit's success. So I think to some degree it was an advantage, but certainly, even though we only know our own experience, it was interesting going into investment pitches.

We would have these difficult questions go back and forth and at one point, we had a mentor come in and just listen in and he said, "Wow, they were really hard on you" and we were like, "What do you mean? That was a pretty normal pitch." And, he was like, "Really? No, that was way more difficult than the typical pitch that I see."

Jon:

Interesting.

Kelly:

And so, it was really interesting for us because as women, we didn't realize the other side. Wait, we don't have the experience of what it would be like as a man and I'm sure that's not universal. I'm sure it's in little pieces. We certainly don't feel like it's really held us back in any way, but it's certainly, when people come in from the outside, they do notice the different times still. We still work to do, but I think we are moving very quickly in the right direction.

Jon:

Yeah. Yeah. I'm assuming more supporters than detractors.

Kelly:

Absolutely. Absolutely, and especially when it comes to employees and recruitment, people are really excited to work for a female team of leaders, and we've been able to get some really fantastic people on board, and that's helped us immensely as well.

Jon:

Cool. Kelly, I'm wondering, typically the podcast, part of what we talk about is entrepreneurship and all that, coming on the way you are as the CTO, do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?

Kelly:

Absolutely. Yeah.

Jon:

Excellent. Okay.

Kelly:

Yeah, I think everybody in an early stage startup has to have the entrepreneurial mindset.

Jon:

Yeah. For sure. So what do you think, as those early stage startups, what do you think those biggest challenges are? And for example, how can an organization like Alberta Innovates or the other service providers in the Province, how can they help? How can we continue to help companies like yours succeed?

Kelly:

Well, absolutely Alberta Innovates was a huge supporter of Summit Nanotech. We obtained a lot of grants initially, and some of those actually kept us going when otherwise we would've had a really tough time keeping going. So, Alberta Innovates is absolutely key in the funding that they provide and also just the networking. So, we found that through a lot of our funding agencies, NRC IRAP for example, is very good at connecting different companies within their ecosystem when they see that there might be some synergies or mutual challenges or something like that where you can help. So, that networking is so essential as well.

Jon:

Yeah. Well, we talk often internally, how can we continue to build the ecosystem because there's so many different players in the Alberta ecosystem that have very similar goals, and at the end, that's to help Alberta businesses like yours succeed and how can we work together to help create that lattice of support. So, I'm glad to hear that it's... and, glad to see it's working, obviously.

Kelly:

Yeah.

Jon:

I'm curious about one thing, I remember I'd read an interview recently with Amanda where she says, and this is a quote, "We do plan on extracting lithium from oilfield brines in Alberta someday, but not right out of the gate. We need to establish a strong revenue stream internationally first." This got me thinking, and I've heard very similar stories, the plays and the theme that tech innovators need to go out of the country to validate their technology and then come back in order to be accepted. And, I may be putting you on the spot here about local adoption, but what does something like that play out?

Kelly:

For us, it's a slightly different challenge. So, I can't speak to exactly what you're referring to. But for us, it's actually the quality of the brine that is available in Latin America versus the quality of the brine that's available here. And so, that's why we really need to prove our technology out there, improve its efficiency. That's the really key part, is that we need to make it as efficient as possible so that we can bring it back and actually have it be an economic play in Alberta.

Jon:

I see. Okay.

Kelly:

Yeah.

Jon:

And then, the technology can get refined to be able to work with not as perfect a brine as they have in Chile.

Kelly:

Exactly. Yeah, and a lot of that's dependent on water recovery technologies improving as well, because there's a little bit of that pre-processing that needs to happen, and water recovery technologies are a key piece of that.

Jon:

Okay, thank you for that.

Kelly:

Yeah, no problem.

Jon:

So since 2018, Summit Nanotech has grown from 26 employees, filed three patents. I could be a little off on some of these numbers, but I think I'm pretty close.

Kelly:

You're pretty close. Yeah.

Jon:

Has 12 active customers in five countries.

Kelly:

Yeah.

Jon:

Where are you guys at now?

Kelly:

So I believe that would've been 2021 that you're referring to there.

Jon:

It could be. I just said 20... since 2018.

Kelly:

Yes. So currently we're at 71 employees. I just looked before I came on this call.

Jon:

71?

Kelly:

It changes every day it feels, so I had to check that. So, 71 employees, similar number of customers that we're investigating... or sorry, not so much investigating, but interacting with. I don't want to put them on the spot there. And, we're also developing another technology. So currently, as I said, our original technology isn't suited so much for those low lithium concentration brines so we're developing another technology that'll treat kind of lower lithium concentration brines, as well as battery and clay products. So, that sort of battery recycling products and clay leachate products. And that's again, to unlock those other sources of lithium mostly in North America.

Jon:

Oh, interesting. Okay, so that would be...

Kelly:

So that...

Jon:

... the technology that's more applicable to what we have here in the oil sands.

Kelly:

Exactly, and battery recycling, which I think will be very key to that North American lithium supply chain as well.

Jon:

Okay. Now most of us, when we think of batteries, of course we're familiar with lithium-ion. We've heard it. We have it everywhere, but people are also familiar with, and this is probably outdated technology now, but nickel cadmium or other sorts of batteries. Are there any other competing elements that Summit Nanotech and others are looking at, or is lithium kind of... That's the big one right now? That's the crown jewel.

Kelly:

It really is the crown jewel, and it'll take a lot to take it down off of its throne because it's just the lightest, most energy dense element that there is. So in terms of having stationary energy storage, the weight doesn't matter as much, but when you're talking about anything that you have to carry with you or put into a vehicle, then the weight is so essential to keeping that an efficient system. And so, that's why lithium is so important right now in the battery world.

Jon:

I see. Okay. Well, there's a lot and it's exciting the work you guys are doing, and I was so happy to learn about your background as well.

 

Kelly:

We’re, just very thankful for the Alberta ecosystem. It really has been fantastic, and we've had so much support from all of the government agencies and just the Province as well. It's a great place to be doing clean tech because everybody is excited about clean tech right now. So yeah.

Jon:

Awesome. Kelly, thank you very much for your time today.

Kelly:

Thank you, Jon.