Sustainability is an issue. No longer a hot topic or breaking news, sustainability now has firm roots among the greatest challenges of our century – and who knows for how many more years. The protagonist is undoubtedly the environment, which finds itself being both ‘problem’ and ‘solution’ at the same time. The more resources it provides us with, the more it loses, acquiring more and more pollutants and elements that are totally harmful in the short, medium and long term.
However, more and more programmes and initiatives have been working hard for and with sustainability for years. Take, for example, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: the action programme signed in 2015 by the 193 UN countries with its 17 goals, also known as SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). These are in fact ‘common goals’, i.e. they ‘affect all countries and all individuals: no one is excluded, nor should anyone be left behind on the path needed to put the world on the road to sustainability’ – as quoted by the United Nations on the page dedicated to the 2030 Agenda.
The contribution of innovation is also a decisive part of this path. An ecosystem that is growing stronger and stronger in Italy, especially in recent years, innovation is the setting and meeting point at the same time for researchers, scientists – on the one hand – investors and companies – on the other – that ground the so-called Green Tech: today a real sector of study, research and market.
An example of this is Sinergy Flow: an innovative startup that grew out of the university career of Alessandra Accogli, Gabriele Panzeri, and Matteo Salerno and their work on the development of Sinergy, a flow cell battery that works to support electricity efficiency.
A technology – conceived, studied and developed in the laboratories of the Politecnico di Milano – that aims to reduce energy costs while respecting the environment, thanks to the reduction of polluting emissions.
Sinergy’s rational and innovative energy utilisation – together with a solid project structure and research team – led the technology to be one of the winners of the Intellectual Property Award (IPA Award): an initiative organised by the Patent and Trademark Office of the Ministry of Enterprise and Made in Italy (then Ministry of Economic Development) and Netval aimed at technology patents from Italian universities, EPRs and IRCCSs. The 35 participating technologies participated in the exhibition and award ceremony during EXPO 2020 in Dubai.
A year, and more, after the IPA award, we were curious about the impact of the 7 winning projects. This resulted in a series of interviews that we will periodically share with you.
On the occasion of WIPO’s World Intellectual Property Day – which for 2023 proposes the theme “Women and IP: Accelerating innovation and creativity” – we met Alessandra Accogli, CEO & Founder of Sinergy Flow, whose entrepreneurial spirit and continuous research fully embodies the “can do” attitude celebrated by WIPO.
Hello Alessandra and thank you for your time. Before looking through the magnifying glass at all of Sinergy’s developments, tell us what – in your opinion – is the current scenario when we talk about the circular economy and electricity management efficiency. What is happening?
Sinergy is a flow cell battery conceived and developed around the concept of sustainability, which cannot be ignored in research and business. The technology developed employs an innovative chemistry that exploits abundant and low-cost materials. It was conceived during my PhD in which I focused on the development of energy storage technologies with sustainable chemistries as alternatives to existing ones. In fact, the development of devices using low-cost and environmentally friendly raw materials would allow these technologies to have a greater impact on the market than those currently on the energy storage scene and make the energy transition possible.
Certainly the starting point of the whole research path, which culminated in a series of patents, was not only the use of abundant materials. Together, there was also the idea of developing devices with a completely circular perspective, in order to reduce their impact at all stages, including end-of-life. Thinking for example of the main electrochemical energy storage technology, i.e. lithium batteries, we can identify two main critical issues: the supply of raw materials and end-of-life waste. For the first case, let us consider the case of cobalt: its extraction, in fact, involves very critical situations also at an ethical and social level, including the exploitation of child labour. In addition, many of the raw materials used are strongly geo-localised in certain regions of the world, establishing geopolitical oligopolies in supply.
To solve this problem – and to ensure ethical and democratic access to raw materials – it is necessary to use materials that are highly available on the planet and/or waste. In our case, we have chosen sulphur: a waste by-product from numerous industrial processes (all petrochemical refining, for example) and scarcely used. Sulphur is transformed into a product with high added value. In parallel, as the aim is also to reuse all battery materials at the end of their life, we have developed recovery strategies in a fully circular perspective. We have further reduced the impact on the environment so as to generate a non-vicious but virtuous cycle for all components used.
The energy issue is of crucial importance today. We have evidence of this in these times. Rethinking a fundamentally different energy system with a reduced environmental impact requires a broader outlook. It must also take into account the abundance of materials used and the supply chain. Thus breaking down geopolitical oligopolies, ensuring ethical and democratic exploitation of resources and opening up new market opportunities.
The sector today. Green Tech and renewable energies are increasingly growing, both in terms of scientific research but also in terms of development and investment. This is really a very positive fact, symptomatic of a radical change. In my opinion, if this process had started about ten years ago, perhaps we would be in less of a slump today and we would have seen remarkable changes and results. Fortunately, it has become a central theme, initiating an unstoppable change of course. There are many start-ups working on new technologies and new ways of managing energy. This is certainly a good sign. Energy is an important topic for all of us, as is sustainability, which has become a real market: this is shown by the investments, which are increasing substantially.
Sinergy at the moment falls into a very hot, important and very strategic context. What is the ‘industry’ challenge you set yourself when you started this research project and what goal do you want to achieve (realistically)?
Some time has passed since IPA 2020. We have set up an innovative start-up called Sinergy Flow, which has an exclusive licence for the patent that was awarded in Dubai. The goal is to bring our technology to the market, encouraging widespread penetration thanks to its unique features. We are targeting a segment of the market that today is crucial for ensuring the energy transition, but for which there is still no well-established technology: long-life stationary energy storage. These are, in fact, all those storage devices that are able to store energy for a very long time – for our device more than 20 continuous hours – thus solving the problem related to the intrinsic intermittency of energy production from renewable sources. The integration of our device, in fact, would lead to a substantial change in the energy paradigm by enabling a penetration of renewables of up to 90 per cent, thus practically comparable to current fossil fuels, and thus making a real ecological transition possible.
Clearly, we are not the only ones. There are also other competitors working on long-life energy storage technologies. Therefore, developing a technology that is competitive, sustainable and adheres to the principles of the circular economy gives us a not inconsiderable advantage. It is clear, however, that time-to-market will be crucial and we are working hard on this.
In fact, we have recently closed the first investment round with two venture capital funds: 360 Capital Partners, which invested through Poli360 funds, in partnership with the Politecnico di Milano and A+360, a fund dedicated to energy transition in collaboration with A2A, and Tech4Planet, the National Technology Transfer Pole for Sustainability set up on the initiative of CDP Venture Capital SGR through the Technology Transfer Fund. The €1.8 million investment round will be mainly invested in technology scale-up: specifically, we are developing a kW-scale device to be integrated with a real application, in order to validate not only the technology but also a business case. In addition to technology development, the capital raised is earmarked for the expansion of the team, increasing the company’s human capital and expanding its skills.
How much did IPA’s participation and victory impact Sinergy and then Sinergy Flow? What did it mean for your research team? And more generally, what value do these types of events have – in your opinion – for Italian research? What more can be done in your opinion on this front to support research teams in the creation of new companies/spinoffs?
When we participated in IPA, the start-up idea was already under way. We established the company in April 2022, but the journey started with S2P – Switch To Product 2020 at Politecnico di Milano. This path allowed us to start a collaboration with PoliHub that introduced us to the world and dynamics of Deep Tech, technology transfer and doing business. This step was fundamental for us to understand the impact that a research project, if properly developed from an entrepreneurial perspective, could have in the lives of many people and the constant work of exploring the market and its needs. In order to create value and bring innovation, I believe it is crucial to create an ever closer contact between research and business: a fundamental role could be played by Technology Transfer Offices and the strengthening of an ecosystem involving incubators, universities and investment funds. It is important that researchers have the possibility – and the opportunity – to understand and understand how to do business and how to move towards transforming a scientific project into a product that can approach the market. In Italy we have some of the most advanced scientific research: are we really ready for this closer ‘contact’ with the entrepreneurial fabric, so that there can be a fruitful contamination of these two worlds, promoting innovation. I have also noticed this in my personal experience, during my time at MIT: the US situation has a much smoother progression from this point of view. Initiatives of this kind can bring young researchers closer to the world of enterprise, which is a very challenging world, with different logics from scientific research. We certainly need support and training: we have all the resources to do this, we just need to strengthen the ecosystem and facilitate development procedures because in the start-up world, time is your greatest friend and enemy at the same time.
Knowledge Share platform: How did you get to know about the platform? What role did and does the KS platform play in the field of Research and Technology Transfer at your university?
We came to know about the platform from the Technology Transfer office of the Politecnico di Milano. We were still researchers at the time, so it was definitely the most immediate channel. Maybe today I would have come into contact with Knowledge Share through the web, social or other channels. One support that the platform could give is to increasingly strengthen the information and network between all the actors that populate this ecosystem today. For instance, on the one hand making researchers aware of these opportunities, and on the other hand making people more aware of how and how much scientific research can have an impact on society.
A very interesting detail is the Team: in 3 of you, you have achieved remarkable results. How was the power play between you?
The team has always been our strong point. We are three materials engineers, but we have very complementary personal attitudes and technical skills that have allowed us to grow very quickly and work with an uncommon synergy. We have shown over time that we are able to achieve increasingly ambitious goals, such as the investment round, and we are very happy about that. The path is definitely still long, but we are not afraid.
The innovation ecosystem is changing: I really hope that Italy can get closer and closer to global giants such as France in terms of opportunities and spin-offs.
What was the initiative or series of events that gave you the most concreteness and structure for this transition, and which other steps should be strengthened instead?
As the main initiative, I would definitely mention S2P – Switch To Product in the first place, which brought us closer to the world of start-ups: in fact, although we had already approached some market research to understand what needs and what sector our device could address, it was the real starting point for us. The second is Cleantech Open – an acceleration programme in the United States – which allowed us to get to know new market logics and new approaches. Finally, Eggs Collider, which allowed us to learn new methodologies to investigate the market and to innovate. As entities that have supported us, I would definitely mention PoliHub because it has accompanied us in understanding the logic of the startup world, in exploring the market and supported us throughout our growth path, and EniJoule, Eni’s school for enterprise, from which we have received and continue to receive constant support.
As for the steps that should be strengthened, certainly to speed up technology transfer and encourage the growth of new companies, we should facilitate dialogue between universities and start-ups, regulating and simplifying procedures for licensing intellectual property, working together to create value for the country, and thus make the entire ecosystem grow.
‘Sinergy – metal-polysulphide flow cell battery’ is a technology on the Knowledge Share platform: Sinergy – Metal-polysulfides redox flow battery | Knowledgeshare (knowledge-share.eu)