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Women In Power: Ann Marie Sastry Races To Create Next-Gen Batteries -- Khosla And GM Bet She Can Win

Posted: 06/26/11 01:15 AM ET

A special series profiling trailblazers in energy innovation and champions of the environment. See previous stories here.

"In my family the expectation was that I would contribute," says Ann Marie Sastry. "My dad was a huge inspiration to me. He was my hero. And the expectation was there from a very early age that, 'Of course, I would do mathematics. Of course, I would be interested in science.' That is a huge advantage--that expectation that you will not only be competent at the sciences and technology, but also that your aim is to make a difference."

One can only imagine how proud Sastry's father must be. As President and CEO of Sakti3--a promising next-generation battery startup backed by the likes of Khosla Ventures and G.M. Ventures--and Professor of Mechanical, Biomedical and Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan, she has clearly embraced the lessons of her childhood. "Sakti is Sanskrit for power and three is from the atomic number of lithium and the three founders of the company," Ann Marie explains. "But the name does comprise a bit of an homage to my father, who is from India and a math professor."

Not all girls grow up with such a powerful mentor and Ann Marie seems well aware of this. When asked about the underrepresentation of women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields, she says, "We, as a culture, as an academic community, and as an industrial community need to make the opportunity clear to all groups."

But Sastry sees herself as "more of a glass-half-full kind of a guy." There is "ample evidence of gender bias. That is incontrovertible," she says. But at the same time we see young women being much more successful in both early and secondary, and graduate and post-graduate education than young men. And there are a number of studies that show that women's assessment of their own performance is persistently lower than men's. But the women's assessment in carefully controlled sociological and psychological studies hews closer to the fact."

When asked what she takes away from those findings, Ann Marie replies, "Well, Women are right. My feeling is that realism is very helpful to women and girls as they go through a formalized educational program. Not being armed with over self-esteem is not always a bad thing. One thing I tell everybody that I work with--especially students--is that if you want to have high self-esteem, do something estimable. You can read yourself a mantra in front of the mirror every morning before you go to work, but that's no substitute for going to work."

And if the observations of Sakti3's founding investor are any indication, Sastry lives by her own words. In the fall of 2007, venture capitalist Samir Kaul--who leads one of the world's largest clean technology investment funds at Khosla Ventures--traveled to Michigan. "Because my wife and I both went to [the University of] Michigan, I'm always on the lookout for technology out of Ann Arbor--they have terrific research," he explains. "A number of different people pointed me towards Ann Marie as a shining star in battery technology."

After conducting the requisite due diligence, Samir swiftly placed his bet. "At Khosla, we look for big markets and special people and Ann Marie certainly qualifies in the category of special people," he says. "We probably decided to invest within six weeks. She is very strong academically and has excellent business instincts--which is a rare breed. And she reaches out a lot for advice. She's just as much a student as a teacher."

Kaul is also impressed by Sastry's team-building skills: "She's not afraid to hire really good people around her--Bob Kruse who ran the electric vehicle program at G.M. and [another] very senior manufacturing guy from Dow. She's fiercely loyal and really goes to the mat for her folks."

When reflecting on her career, one of the first things Ann Marie emphasizes is the importance of collaboration. "I have been fortunate to have terrific collaborators over the years and sometimes I'm the math guy and the other person is the applications guy, and sometimes I'm the applications guy and I have to find a chemist or a materials scientist or a physicist to work with," she says. "But what unites the teams that I've been privileged to lead is a shared mission to do with the ultimate aim of the project and that typically is a societal aim."

As for the work ahead, Sastry says the energy density of batteries must double "if we're to have a serious impact on the market with electric vehicles." That translates to twice the range, or "doubling the size of your electric gas tank." She sees battery cells eventually being replaced by other technologies, but not for "decades to come."

But in the face of serious competition from a slew of other startups and more established players like A123 Systems and LG Chem, what gives Sakti3 a leg up? First: The company's solid-state batteries just landed on the annual list of 10 emerging technologies predicted to have the greatest impact by MIT's technology review.

Second: "We started the company based on a series of rather detailed calculations to do with what was achievable in a next-generation battery. We thought battery cells should be designed with proper computational modeling. We're very focused on disruptive technology," Ann Marie explains. "The other thing we did was focus very hard on equipment that was scalable, because the bottom line is these battery cells need to be affordable. We'll be sending prototypes to others this year and hope to bring it to scale within the next few years."

True to form, Ann Marie approaches the realities of entrepreneurship with blunt realism, but she clearly sees a path to success for her nascent company. "We may fail. That means that we're taking appropriate risks. And as far as the competitors are concerned, I certainly hope they're working as hard as we are," she says. "I don't mean that as a throw down. We've got huge numbers of people in the emerging economies that are going to join the middle class and they may adopt the internal combustion engine [instead of electric vehicles] unless the science and technology fields are working hard on energy storage. The markets are enormous and there is room for dozens and dozens of companies to fill the need."

And how will all of those people join the middle class? By having parents that set the same kind of expectations that Sastry's father did. "When you look at the numbers of people going into technology fields globally, they dwarf our own numbers. In prior decades the United States had hegemony in math, science and technology," she says. "It's fading because other nations are becoming very savvy to the fact that people who offer unique capabilities in science and technology are in high demand, and, therefore, can command higher salaries and create a better way of life for their families."

At a Glance
Hometown: Peoria, Illinois
Education: B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, University of Delaware. M.S. and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, Cornell University
Professional Highlights: President and CEO, Sakti3. Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Mechanical, Biomedical and Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan.
Advice for Young Women: "If you want to have high self-esteem, do something estimable. You can read yourself a mantra in front of the mirror every morning before you go to work, but that's no substitute for going to work."

 

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