2012-2013 Wharton Entrepreneurship Advisory Board Intern Fellow
How did you find the position?
Through Penn’s Center for Technology Transfer UPStart program
What was your motivation for working at a startup this summer?
I’m interested in venture capital as a career and wanted the experience
What advice would you give to students interested in working at a startup this summer?
Don’t expect to make an impact immediately, but realize that the opportunity will inevitably present itself for you to make a huge contribution!
I wasn’t really sure at all what to expect going into this summer. I was offered a job at Graphene Frontiers, a young materials science startup, in about February 2012. But over the next two months, I had a difficult time getting in touch with my employers to determine schedules and duties, so I was shrouded with uncertainty up until the last minute. Graphene Frontiers has two employees, the CEO and CSO, who are both extremely busy, so I understand why it was hard for them to worry about an intern over the summer when they had so many other pressing issues to attend to.
I was extremely fortunate to attain this position. I had attended a guest lecture arranged by my dual-degree program, and the speaker happened to be Michael Poisel, the director of the UPStart program at the Penn Center for Technology Transfer. UPStart aims to help faculty create entrepreneurial teams to put their ideas into some form that can benefit the university and society in general. At the end of his talk, he asked us to give us our resumes if we were interested in working with one of the UPStart startups, and I willingly obliged. A few weeks later, I received an email from the CEO of Graphene Frontiers, and quickly accepted an offer to work for him.
Graphene Frontiers is in the business of manufacturing graphene, which is a relatively newly discovered material consisting of a one atom-thick layer of carbon atoms. It has been hailed as the new super-material, like its “predecessor,” carbon nanotubes, and graphene was even the subject of a Nobel Prize in 2010. Despite its amazing qualities, it is a very difficult material to produce with consistent quality, and this is what Graphene Frontiers is aiming to do.
Most of my day-to-day tasks involved the scientific side of things. I split my time between Graphene Frontiers’ facility on Market Street, and a lab in DRL, where the technology was originally pioneered by a Penn faculty member. In due time, I was trained to operate the furnace in which graphene was grown, and I learned how to transfer the graphene from substrate to substrate. The first month went relatively slowly, as I spent most of my time shadowing the CSO and various researchers in the Penn lab. In my spare time, I did a lot of background reading on the scientific background of our experiments, but to be quite honest, most of it was way beyond my level of comprehension. Still, I learned what I needed to in order to perform all of the requisite experiments, and a bit beyond that.
By far the most interesting part of my summer was trying to assemble my own electropolishing station in our lab. The graphene is grown on copper, and since it is deposited directly on the surface, it is important that the surface of the copper is very smooth. Electropolishing is a way to smooth a metal surface on an atomic level, theoretically creating a surface much smoother than any mechanical method can produce. The CSO gave me a few papers on it, and asked me to figure out how to electropolish our own copper. The task involved a substantial amount of background reading, and even calling electropolishing companies to ask for advice. The first ten or so companies I called were unwilling to help, but I finally stumbled across a smaller company that had an extremely helpful employee. With his help over the course of several phone calls, I was able to scrape together a rudimentary electropolishing rig in our lab.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I spent a majority of my time tweaking and refining my handiwork. Electropolishing can be a very finicky, touchy procedure, and I was constantly discovering new obstacles and refining my experimental parameters. This was exciting because it required at least a surface understanding of the chemistry and physics behind electropolishing, and I was thrilled to be able to apply knowledge I had gained from reading papers to a real-world situation. My boss was potentially even happier than I was, since he was getting much smoother copper without having to hand-hold or guide me through the process. You would be surprised at how rough a piece of mechanically polished copper is; the microscope pictures below give an idea of how helpful electropolishing is to smooth a surface.