Alumni Spotlight: Nicholas Yiu (MSE’16)
Wharton Energy Network's Alumni Spotlight Series seeks to highlight Wharton and Penn alumni who are changing the game in the energy industry.
Our inaugural edition kicks off with Nicholas Yiu (MSE’16, Nanotechnology). Nicholas is an Associate Business Manager at UCL (University College London) Business, Venture Fellow with Berkeley SkyDeck, and Co-Author of Intercalation Station, a newsletter about battery innovation.
Wharton Energy Network: Hi Nick, thanks for participating in our alumni spotlight series, where we seek to highlight Wharton and Penn alumni doing big things in industry. Ready to dive in?
Nicholas Yiu: Thank you for inviting me on. Excited to be here!
WEN: So you've had quite a varied path in your career journey thus far -- first as a process engineer, then as a battery scientist, now as a business manager commercializing research at UCL (University College London). What have been your big takeaways from each of those experiences?
NY: When I graduated, my primary goal was to build and invent cool products related to clean technologies and nanoscience. My first role was as an early employee at Heliotrope Technologies in the San Francisco bay area, a UC Berkeley spinout working on electrochromic smart glass for green buildings, and the technology stemmed from the co-founder’s PhD project. It was incredible to be on the technical team helping to scale and transition from the PhD project to pilot line production, and I learned a lot about inventing and building the first minimum viable product, as well as helping a company grow from <10 to >50.
My second role was as engineer #2 at a company in London called Addionics which was started by Imperial College London academics working on novel 3D battery architecture. As an early-stage startup, I wore many hats ranging from my main duties as a battery scientist into other roles like marketing and business development which was valuable experience to help an early-stage company get kicked off, and go to learn and experience the startup ecosystem in London and Europe.
As time went on, my goal shifted to understand how technologies moved from the lab to the market to overcome the so-called “valley of death”, and I became increasingly fascinated in the first 12 months of a commercialisation journey. I joined UCL Business which is the commercialisation company for University College London (UCL), supporting licensing deals, spinout companies, and early-stage investments at the university. UCL has a wide wealth of research knowledge which comes in so many shapes and sizes - I love working with entrepreneurial academics to help bring these innovations to the real world. I’m also very fortunate to work closely with our venture capital arm UCL Technology Fund supporting early-stage/proof-of-concept funding and this has been very eye-opening for me. The pandemic has hit universities quite hard, and it’s been positive to see that commercialisation projects are still moving forward despite the situation and my teams who I work with are resilient and have been able to adapt effectively.
WEN: Tell us more about the newsletter you launched last year, Intercalation Station. What inspired you to start it?
NY: I love reading about energy storage in the news and try to consume as much news as possible on the topic. This includes a wide variety of media: daily news journals, scientific literature, blogs, the twittersphere, LinkedIn, among several others. I learned battery news is quite scattered and it was important for me to stay tuned into all these channels to understand the full picture of the story. I wanted to consolidate news content for the wider battery community and provide commentary that would be useful and digestible for a wide range of audiences, ranging from battery experts to investment professionals and everything in between. I linked up with my friend Andrew Wang, an active battery Tweet-er who I met at UC Berkeley and currently a PhD candidate at Oxford, and we worked on this together. We started Intercalation Station during the UK national lockdown for Covid-19, so we had extra time on our hands to put together content and commentary for the community. It’s been received very well by the industry and we hope to expand significantly in 2021.
WEN: What do you make of the flurry of SPACs in 2020 linked to the EV industry? What do you think are long-term trends that folks should pay attention to versus the short-term hype?
NY: SPACs are a wild west for startups. Previously when startups wanted to raise large amounts of capital, they would take the company public through an IPO where they were required to show healthy financials and strong sales growth. With SPACs, they forego this and instead raise money on the future prospects of the company, with very limited revenue or results. This is quite important for deep tech startups like battery companies which require a ton of capital and time to bring a product to market. Sometimes, traditional venture capital financing is a poor fit for deep tech startups, and SPACs provide a route to raise money to continue product development while the company is still pre-revenue. The downside is that it introduces a lot of risk and hype to the public market. Battery technology is an industry where hype does more worse than good and it’s important that battery data is not overhyped by the public media and can lead to a huge disconnect between the battery performance versus public expectations. Unfortunately, a lot of data is overhyped, and the electric vehicle market in 2020 was very frothy. Overall, the growing trend of companies going public via SPACs will see many companies benefit and allow them to develop and scale up their product, but also a large handful will fail hard as well due to the lack of scrutiny and performance mismatch with public expectations throughout the company’s lifetime.
WEN: In addition to Intercalation Station, what are some other resources on energy storage you recommend folks tune into? It’s set to be a big growth area for the 2020s.
NY: Where to start! I feel like 2020 was the boom of online battery resources, everything from blogs, podcasts, newsletters, webinars, and others.
The main reason I’m passionate about the energy space is because of the climate crisis, so I’ll start there. Two resources I discovered and really enjoyed in 2020 was Climate Tech VC written by 2 investors in the field Sophie Purdon and Kimberly Zou, and My Climate Journey podcast hosted by Jason Jacobs. I’m also excited to read Bill Gates’ new book “How to avoid a climate disaster” coming out in Feb 2021.
For resources more specific to battery technology, Steve LeVine is an excellent technology storyteller and his newest blog The Mobilist has some amazing coverage on the industry. Steve also wrote a book called “The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World” which I highly recommend. For expert talks, I recommend the Battery Modeling Webinar Series (BMWS) founded by Venkat Viswanathan (Professor at Carnegie Mellon University) where they do talks weekly on specific battery-related topics with academic and industry experts. I also take part in a monthly event called BatteryBrunch founded by industry experts Yen T. Yeh (Voltaiq) and Linda Jing (Tesla). It’s a well-organized virtual meeting each month attended by 100+ professionals from all over the world. It’s a great way to meet someone! I recently worked with the BatteryBrunch team to publish a report called the State of Batteries to capture the key developments in the battery world in 2020.
WEN: What were some highlights from your experience at Penn? How have you stayed connected with campus since then?
NY: Some of my favorite activities were the many interdisciplinary competitions on campus. I remember taking part in the Y Prize pitching an idea for arthritis treatment, the Penn Design Challenge working with American Express to develop a card product for the underbanked and unbanked population, and also had the opportunity to build my own idea working on music production hackathons with funding from Wharton Innovation Fund. I loved these collaborative events and being able to work with people from all over campus from so many backgrounds. Since graduation, I’ve stayed connected by volunteering as a judge at the annual Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship Challenge and also as an alumni interviewer on the UK committee. I always enjoy connecting with new Penn alumni so if you’re reading this, please reach out to me on LinkedIn.
WEN: Last question -- What do you do to “recharge” your personal batteries?
NY: I like to move as much as possible. If I’m not working, you will find me at my nearest indoor climbing gym, Crossfit box, or just jogging around the city. Otherwise, I will be reading a book or watching a funny TV show.
WEN: Thanks so much for your insights.
NY: Absolutely, thank you for having me!
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Nicholas Yiu is an Associate Business Manager at University College London and a Venture Fellow at the Berkeley SkyDeck Fund based in London. He is passionate about bridging the gap between basic science and commercialization to solve tough tech problems around climate, energy, and sustainability, with startup experience in San Francisco and London. Nicholas received his M.S.E. in Nanotechnology from the University of Pennsylvania and his B.S. in Chemical Engineering from UC Berkeley. You can learn more at nicholasyiu.com.
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