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UC San Diego Student Takes on Challenge: Making Graphene for the Market

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UC San Diego NanoEngineering Ph.D. candidate Aliaksandr (Alex) Zaretski

San Diego, CA, June 2, 2015 -- A University of California, San Diego graduate student has found a way to mass-produce graphene, an allotrope of carbon that is one atom-thick – and his technology is getting noticed by investors and venture capital firms.

The large-scale graphene can be used for applications such as flexible electronics and water desalination membranes.

“Graphene is more conductive than any metal we know of and it’s 200 times stronger than steel because of the way the atoms bond to form a hexagonal pattern (think of chicken wire) with a cloud of free electrons hovering above and below it,” said UC San Diego NanoEngineering Ph.D. candidate Aliaksandr (Alex) Zaretski.

According to Zaretski, no one has been able to produce graphene on a large-enough scale for industrial applications. 

There are ways to do it – graphene can be grown on a copper substrate and pried off, but only after a few hours in an acid bath.

As an intern at Cornell University under the mentorship of graphene expert Paul McEuen, Zaretski had an idea. What if graphene could be liberated from its substrate by overcoming the adhesion strength with a greater force?

Determined to pursue this research project, Zaretski arrived at UC San Diego as a NanoEngineering master’s student. Under the supervision of Darren Lipomi, professor of NanoEngineering, Zaretski developed a method in which graphene is grown on a copper substrate and overlaid with a sheet of nickel. Because graphene adheres better to nickel than to copper, the entire graphene single-layer can be easily removed and remains intact over large areas.

“The layer of nickel still needs to be removed using an acid bath, but it takes only a few seconds, rather than a few hours,” said Zaretski. “This method is much more cost effective and time efficient for mass production.”

“Once I had enough evidence that my idea was feasible, I began looking for help to commercialize my technology,” said Zaretski. “I was interning at the Torrey Pines Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) at the time, and one of the senior scientists recommended that I participate in a pitch competition called the UC San Diego Entrepreneur Challenge. That was really the beginning.”

At that time, Zaretski was looking to transfer into the nanonengineering Ph.D. program at UC San Diego. He joined Lipomi’s lab, where he was encouraged to explore his ideas.

"Alex is full of creativity," said Lipomi. "He is the kind of student a faculty member encounters only rarely in his or her career. I have been happy to support Alex's research and entrepreneurship, and his is the first startup originating from our laboratory."

Zaretski founded GrollTex, a company that seeks to commercialize a new method of fabricating large-area single-atom monolayer sheets of transparent graphene.

After winning the UC San Diego Entrepreneurship Challenge, Zaretski caught the attention of Rosibel Ochoa, Senior Executive Director, Entrepreneurism and Leadership Programs at the Jacobs School of Engineering, who suggested he apply to the Southern California Clean Energy Technology Acceleration Program at the von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurism.

“It was a really eye-opening experience,” said Zaretski. “I not only had great peers in the program, I also had great mentors who propelled my business idea to the state of a viable high-tech startup”

With the funding he received through the program and the Entrepreneurship Challenge, combined with research funding from Lipomi, Zaretski was able to purchase a reactor to grow graphene on copper and demonstrate a new method of transferring it to flexible substrates. Last year, among several other graduate students from the Jacobs School of Engineering, Zaretski was awarded the prestigious three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship to further his graphene related research.

Things took off – Zaretski and Lipomi patented the technology through UC San Diego’s Technology Transfer Office and obtained an exclusive license. From there, he went on to form a core team by hiring a CEO – Jeff Draa, President of Tech Coast Angels. Grolltex has also received pre-seed investment from the UC San Diego affiliated Triton Technology Fund.

GrollTex wins first prize California Dreamin’ Competition

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Aliaksandr (Alex) Zaretski at Chapman University’s 4th Annual California Dreamin’ Business Plan Competition in April

Zaretski’s startup took home $25,000 and first prize at Chapman University’s 4th Annual California Dreamin’ Business Plan Competition in April.

An invitation-only event, California Dreamin’ is a nationwide entrepreneurially-focused higher education competition. This year’s competition took place April 24-25, 2015 at Chapman University’s campus in Orange, CA. It featured 28 schools competing for prize money and potential equity investment, along with connections to venture capital firms.

GrollTex beat out 27 other companies showcasing everything from smartphone apps to new drugs for the top spot in the competition.

The future of GrollTex

After representing UC San Diego in Chapman University’s 4th Annual California Dreamin’ Business Plan Competition, Zaretski hopes to continue networking with the potential investors and venture capital firms that were in attendance.

“We’re currently talking with companies about lab space and strategic partnerships,” said Zaretski.

Zaretski says none of this would be possible if it weren’t for the unique culture at UC San Diego that fosters entrepreneurship.

“That’s one of the reasons I chose UC San Diego,” said Zaretski. “I wanted to go to a graduate school where my ideas would not only be accepted, but embraced and nurtured. It’s because of programs and centers such as von Liebig and mentors such as Rosibel Ochoa that GrollTex has come this far.”

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Media Contacts

Deborah Jude
UC San Diego Center for Microbiome Innovation
Phone: 858-534-8390
djude@ucsd.edu Liezel Labios
Jacobs School of Engineering
Phone: 858-246-1124
llabios@ucsd.edu

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