Wired In: Anthony Griffin

Wired In: Anthony Griffin

Each week, staff writer Paul Wood chats with a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet ANTHONY GRIFFIN, a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellow and Ph.D. candidate in the autonomic material systems group in materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois. He mentors young entrepreneurs through EntreCORPS, a student-run consulting group on campus that focuses on start-ups. In the Cozad competition, he did work on a project involving lithium-ion battery fires.

How did you become an entrepreneur?

Like most entrepreneurs, I kind of stumbled into it. I started off grad school looking for groups to help me develop my leadership and business experience. I ended up joining EntreCORPS I really had a knack for it, and for helping entrepreneurs with the problems they were facing. I knew how hard each start-up was working, but just fell in love with the idea of starting a company, where just a few people determined everything about the business. It was so different than these massive corporations that most people were getting jobs in.

The idea of preventing lithium-ion battery fires is very relevant right now; where did the technology come from?

The technology was developed by Professor Scott White, Professor Nancy Sottos, and Professor Jeff Moore in the Autonomic Material Systems group. This technology has actually been developed over the past six years or so, but only recently have we seen an obvious need for it.

How has the UI entrepreneurial ecosystem affected you? What have been some of your experiences within it?

Without the guidance and experiences gained through UI programs, such as EntreCORPS and TEC (Technology Entrepreneur Center) I would not be an entrepreneur or even consider working with a startup. I would be remiss if I did not mention Dr. Paul Magelli. Paul was really the main faculty member behind EntreCORPS, and he spent a lot of his time mentoring me, not just as a leader, but as a person. I can never fully express my gratitude for all the time, guidance and most of all belief Paul put into me.

What have you learned from other entrepreneurs?

One experience I really loved within the organized UIUC entrepreneurial ecosystem was the TEC Silicon Valley Trip. Spending a week out in the Bay Area, getting to meet and talk with some of the world's most successful entrepreneurs really put everything into perspective. It not only became OK to dream big, it was a necessity. I also found that each entrepreneur had a very different philosophy of how to achieve success. That really told me that I needed to get as much advice, mentorship and guidance as I could, but in the end I would be the only one walking the path I am on.

Tell me a bit about your experience with EntreCORPS. How did it help you develop your skills as an entrepreneur?

EntreCORPS taught me most of what I know about leadership and growing an organization. I was thrown into a leadership role upon joining, and after a semester I was deciding how to structure an organization that was doubling in size almost every six months. Having the freedom to make rapid decisions in an environment of uncertainty was a great opportunity, and a skill that really transfers to start-ups. I also was able to see and help fix all the problems that different startups were facing, now I can avoid or address those problems in my own work right away.

What's your best advice for someone who's starting up?

Don't be afraid to fail, and always think big.

Have you ever made any mistakes you've been able to learn from?

Absolutely. More than once I have gotten really excited about something and immediately went to action, when I should have sat down and thought about a plan first. Actually, this year was not my first time competing in Cozad either. Two years ago I entered the competition with a totally different idea and team, and we only made it past the second round. I don't think I would have seen the success that I did this year without having gone through the competition once and failing.

Why did you choose to compete in the Cozad New Venture Competition?

Back in August 2016, my adviser, Professor Scott White, asked me if I wanted to be involved with a new company he was considering starting. Having worked in Professor White's group for about six years now, I was really excited about the possibility of combining my entrepreneurial experiences with technology that was close to my own research. I immediately said "yes" and ran with it. At the beginning of this year, I felt the technology and business idea of Autonomic Energy Systems was really promising, and thought we should enter in CNVC. After making that decision, everything else just followed. I will say that it really helped us develop a sound business plan which complemented the technology, and forced us to think about the real challenges of taking tech from a lab and making it viable in high quantity commercial products.

Has your higher education been valuable?

Absolutely. I am not getting a Ph.D. for a job, better salary, or so people will call me "doctor." It is the experience that is the true value, and something no one can ever take from me. My grandfather used to say "they can take your car, your house, your money, but no one can ever take your education away from you." My grandmother went back to school in her mid-80s to get her GED; she had to stop going to school during World War II.

TECH TIDBITS ... from ANTHONY GRIFFIN

What social media do you like? I have personal Facebook under Tony Griffin, but not Twitter.

Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? Physical books are the way to go, I think the smell of older books is really appealing to me. I am currently reading a fantasy series called Abhorsen. I enjoy sci-fi and fantasy series because they always spark new ideas. It's fiction now, but can we make that a reality in 10, 20 years?

Do you have any wearable electronics? I, surprisingly, do not!

Do you have an entrepreneurial hero? I really see Elon Musk as my hero, mainly because I feel strongly about the issue of having all of humanity isolated on Earth. It's kind of like putting all our eggs in one basket. Overcoming that issue is possibly the largest issue our species has ever faced, but one that he is not afraid to approach.