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Back from White House, innovator weighs in on diversity, Michigan ecosystem

Aug 6, 2015

The Next Idea

Ann Marie Sastry is a former University of Michigan professor, a material science researcher, and the founder of Sakti3 -- one of 30 companies invited to showcase its work at the first-ever White House Demo Day.

She's developing the next generation of low-cost batteries, a solid state solution that has generated results and hype.  A Fortune magazine article titled "Will this battery change everything?" offers a detailed look into what stands to happen if the company can achieve the "holy grail of power storage."

Hosted by President Obama, the Demo Day event aimed to highlight the role entrepreneurs play in the American economy while showcasing innovators from all walks of life.
Credit Courtesy of Sakti3

But Sastry's company is already a case study in how to cultivate innovation and retain brain power in Michigan. She notes that the state's many assets make it a great place to grow a technology business, among them are the University of Michigan, Next EnergyInforum, the MEDC, and the most engineers per capita in the country.

When key investors in California made relocation a possibility, a $3 million MEDC grant played a role in keeping the company rooted in Michigan.

"I think it had become relatively common for tech startups to either leave for Boston or leave for San Francisco. In our case, we were able to recruit great people here and we have all of the resources in the state," she tells Cynthia Canty on Stateside

The first-ever White House Demo Day placed a special focus on diversity in entrepreneurship, a subject that Sastry says she has considered deeply, through both a business and academic lens:  

“At the university level, making sure that we can accommodate people who come from all economic backgrounds is very, very important. Universities have made great strides in pre-college programs and making sure that technology remains a viable option to an incoming freshman regardless of the school district. And on the business side, which I’ve been doing for 7 years, being mindful of how we recruit is very important. It’s easy to say, ‘Well the pool is small for women engineers or minority engineers,’ and that’s true. That doesn’t absolve us of having a mindset of really searching the field and finding qualified people and questioning ourselves if we’re only turning up one demographic every time.”

Sakti3's origins can be traced back to the public funding and support Sastry received during her 17 years as a University of Michigan professor.

"We're in many ways a classic example of how R & D gets out into the commercial space. The originating tech for Sakti came from my own lab when I was a professor, and it was funded by the National Science Foundation. And that was really critical," she says.

Looking to the future, Sastry says that a project timeline does exist for when their potentially revolutionary battery will be ready, though for now she’s keeping it in her head.

“The reality is it takes a tremendous amount of patience and focus to see something through, and we’re willing to put the time in," she says. "This is an important problem.” 

Video of President Obama and Anne Marie Sastry at the White House: