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Dr. Francis Wang of NanoGraf: “Have the discipline to know when to stop”

…Have the discipline to know when to stop. Technically-minded business leaders like me sometimes need to be reminded that research can’t go on forever, particularly if you’re running a business and especially if you’re running a startup. It’s key to understand early that you’re in a business, and you’re not a professor. You need to ask […]

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…Have the discipline to know when to stop. Technically-minded business leaders like me sometimes need to be reminded that research can’t go on forever, particularly if you’re running a business and especially if you’re running a startup.

It’s key to understand early that you’re in a business, and you’re not a professor. You need to ask yourself: Does what I’m working on have real value in the world? Do customers like what I’m producing? Technical people get emotionally tied to ideas even when customers tell them they wouldn’t pay for those ideas. So my advice would be, know when to stop — and move on.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Francis Wang.

Dr. Francis Wang is the Chief Executive Officer for NanoGraf Technologies, an advanced battery material startup whose patented silicon-graphene anode technology enables longer-lasting, higher-energy, and higher-power, lithium-ion batteries for consumer electronics to electric vehicles.

Francis brings over 20 years of experience in technology innovation and commercialization in the energy storage and clean energy spaces. Francis has held positions in some of the world’s largest battery, consumer products and energy companies, including Duracell, Proctor & Gamble, Gillette, Boston Scientific and the Shenhua Group.

Francis received his Ph.D. in 1998 from the Department of Chemistry at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is the author of over 45 US and International patents, over 20 scientific publications and a recipient of the National Thousand Talents award in Energy Storage.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My dad had a great deal of influence over my career path. Like me, he was a chemist, and many of my early memories are of us working together on science fair projects. I guess you could say he helped lay the foundations for curiosity and creativity. Those early memories with my dad are what probably led me to eventually get my doctorate in chemistry.

After graduate school, I worked for a number of Fortune 500 companies as what might be called an “intrapreneur”, leveraging my passion for innovation to create value within a large organization. Those work experiences eventually led me to what I consider my true calling: a technology entrepreneur. The last six years with NanoGraf, although not without struggle, have been the most fulfilling years of my career.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Over the past three decades, lithium-ion batteries have been central to enabling a more portable and mobile world, as evidenced by the ubiquity of portable electronic devices like smartphones. Lithium-ion battery technologies are currently enabling an even greater disruption: the electrification of the automotive industry. But the speed at which electric vehicles are adopted is arguably directly related to the limitations of the battery (i.e., energy density and cost).

To solve this problem, NanoGraf has developed a silicon-based anode technology that will enable the lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles to run considerably longer and charge faster than traditional lithium-ion batteries.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

At NanoGraf, we attract local talent from universities here in Chicago. There were a few occasions when going through the interview process, that I failed to realize that, for some of these candidates, this was their first job interview ever.

As a result, I didn’t consider how explicit I needed to be in my language, and I can recall more than one occasion when an applicant thought they were hired and showed up to work, even though no official job offer was given. After that, I worked on being much clearer in my communication to prospective hires!

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

There are a lot of people who could be named here, but I think it’s especially important to call out our younger team members. I’m not that old — I’m a Gen-Xer. But millennials, in many ways, have taught me a great deal (“reverse mentoring.”)

A stereotype of millennials is that they don’t particularly have respect for hierarchy. Growing up in an Asian household, hierarchy was everything. Respect for what came before is a huge part of Asian culture. But that’s not the case for millennials. If they’re hellbent on changing something, they will — regardless of tradition or hierarchy. That fearlessness and challenge of the status quo has made me a better CEO and a better entrepreneur.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Disruption is at the heart of what technology entrepreneurs do (and dream of), but more often than not, the scope of the disruption, particularly in the energy sector, can be too ambitious and can lead to negative outcomes.

The cleantech bust (2008–2012) is now in our rear-view mirrors, and is a great example of where the scope of the disruption, if unmanaged, can lead to negative outcomes. Between 2008 and 2012, the rush of capital to cleantech companies with dreams of fundamentally disrupting the energy sector was historic. Although the reasons that many failed are complex, one common theme was an ambitious scope of disruption. I continue to see this in the battery world: high flying disruptive battery start-ups touting to fundamentally change the nature of the battery industry. There can be a hubris by those attempting to disrupt that disregards the fact that the energy sector changes very slowly.

It’s a big part of why we chose the approach we did for NanoGraf. At NanoGraf, we are focused on enhancing the lithium-ion battery industry with meaningful performance benefits and scalable solutions, rather than fundamentally altering the way in which batteries function or are manufactured. “Drop-in” scalable solutions are central to our strategy at NanoGraf.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

The first is: “Focus on the road, not the wall.” It’s from a book by Ben Horowitz (co-founder of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz), called “The Hard Thing About Hard Things.”

The idea behind the quote is that one of the first lessons race car drivers learn is that when they’re going around a curve at 200 mph, they need to focus on the road, not the wall. If they focus on the wall, they’ll drive right into it. But if they focus on the road, they’ll stay on track.

The takeaway is: there will be dark days at a startup, days when it feels like you should just give up. It’s in those moments when you just need to just put one foot in front of the other and not think about how you might fail. If you’re constantly thinking about how you’ll fail, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The second word of advice is: socialize problems. In the last ten years, this is something I’ve come to learn is extremely important.

I started off my professional life as a technical person. It’s true that technical people tend to be introverts. They prefer to internalize things. They don’t like to broadcast the challenges they’re working through.

It’s been invaluable for me to talk about my problems with others. As CEO, I make a lot of decisions. The decisions are mine, and I make the hard ones alone. But to get there, I like to socialize the problem. A group of smart people will always arrive at a better solution than one person stewing over a problem.

The third piece of advice is: have the discipline to know when to stop. Technically-minded business leaders like me sometimes need to be reminded that research can’t go on forever, particularly if you’re running a business and especially if you’re running a startup.

It’s key to understand early that you’re in a business, and you’re not a professor. You need to ask yourself: Does what I’m working on have real value in the world? Do customers like what I’m producing? Technical people get emotionally tied to ideas even when customers tell them they wouldn’t pay for those ideas. So my advice would be, know when to stop — and move on.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

We live in exciting times, especially for batteries. Electrification and mobility services, these will soon fundamentally change our lives. For the past 25 years, the battery industry’s been mostly centered in Asia. But now, there’s momentum with Biden’s administration to fight climate change and make a new foundation for job growth in the U.S. I can foresee the next frontier in the battery industry being a return to the U.S. in terms of both supply chains and manufacturing. NanoGraf will be a big part of that.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Recently, I’ve enjoyed Ben Horowitz’s ‘The Hard Things About the Hard Things.’ It’s great for entrepreneurs or anyone interested in becoming a leader at a startup. It shows what CEOs and leaders at small companies face. To get an idea of what it’s about, look up the chapter called “The Struggle.” It’s full of good advice and gives a realistic account of what starting a company is like. Startup life is often glorified, and people don’t realize how tough it can be. As Elon Musk says it’s “like staring into the face of death.”

That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but only a bit.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When delivering the commencement speech at Reed College in 2005, Steve Jobs said a quote that really resonated with me when I heard it. It’s: “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

At the time that I heard it, I was still working for a big company, and felt I wasn’t following my dreams. Hearing that quote gave me the courage to make the full jump into entrepreneurship. I ended up risking a lot and earning less, but I was much happier.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Climate change is the single biggest problem facing the world. We’ve wasted a lot of time not recognizing it. We’ve been denying the science and denying the facts. But I’m hoping the current movement around accepting these facts gains momentum. I know it will. I have spent the last decade of my life trying to do something about it with what I know: energy storage, whether that’s for the grid or the electrification of vehicles.

But whether you’re an expert in energy storage, or you’re passionate about something else, everyone can do something for this movement. I encourage the next generation of scientists and entrepreneurs to figure out a way to help. For example, a former colleague from NanoGraf is working to create a company that makes plant-based foods. That is a big way to make a big impact on climate change. It’s a good example of someone with a passion turning it into a solution.

How can our readers follow you online?

People can find us at: https://www.nanograf.com/, or on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/company/sinode-llc/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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