FEATURE — Spring 2007
   

 
Michael Lefenfeld
Creative Chemist

In 2005, BusinessWeek named alumnus Michael Lefenfeld one of its best entrepreneurs under 25. A lifetime passion for scientific exploration has led to his founding an already successful early-stage company, SiGNa Chemistry.

by Stephen Schenkenberg

When faced with that daunting rite of educational passage—the science fair—some young students may steer toward elementary experiments, such as determining the optimum light source for growing a ficus indoors or which athletic ball bounces highest at the lowest temperature. Michael Lefenfeld, B.S.Ch.E. ’02, however,
had a much headier goal for his first research experiment: He duplicated the landmark Miller-Urey experiment about the origins of life.

“I’ve always been taking science to a higher level than what was typical for my age,” Lefenfeld admits. Now, at just 26, he has pioneered the first advancement in alkali metal chemistry in 100 years; founded his own company, SiGNa Chemistry; and landed clients such as Pfizer, Shell, and ExxonMobil.

As a student at Washington University, Lefenfeld spent his first semester as a premed student—he thought he might work toward a cure for diabetes, which he has—before settling into engineering. In the engineering school, he established an important relationship with Curt Thies, professor emeritus of chemical engineering, who remains a mentor to this day. Lefenfeld worked in Thies’ lab on microencapsulation research and, later, for the retired professor’s own firm.

While a student, Lefenfeld wasn’t content with the classes/graduation/job route that most of his peers were traveling. Entrepreneurial by nature, he tinkered on side projects whenever the time presented itself. For one such “extra credit project,” as he calls it, he commercialized a medical sensor and then sold the technology behind it.

Another side venture was a little closer to home—specifically, the hallway bathroom. Lefenfeld’s grandfather suggested they work on developing a portable bathroom air freshener, something a person could carry and drop into a toilet when the circumstances might welcome it. “He was old-world, in the sense of wanting to be very discreet,” Lefenfeld says. The project, in fact, served as the platform for what ultimately led to SiGNa. “We were looking for a way to volatize a fragrance off the surface of water,” Lefenfeld says. “But if you were to do that, you need gas to transport it and you need heat.” One possible solution was the use of alkali metals, which had long been considered potentially useful in this area. A not-incidental problem, though, is that such metals, when they do meet water, burst into flames. There must be a way, Lefenfeld thought, to “tame” these alkali metals, so he began research on the subject.

“Through our research,” Michael Lefenfeld says, “we actually turned the metal into a very tame, safe material, but we retained and even accelerated the amount of reactivity. …”

Meanwhile, having seen success in the lab and with several commercialized products, Lefenfeld knew that cutting-edge research was where he wanted to be. After graduation, he started work in the condensed matter physics/nanotechnology department of Bell Laboratories, before moving on to a six-month consulting position at DuPont. While there, he invented an organic semiconductor deposition method that led to significantly increased mobilities for transistors.

During July 2003, Lefenfeld founded SiGNa and committed himself full time to solving the problem that looked up at him from the bowl: how to stabilize reactive metals. He formed a consulting relationship with James Dye, a 79-year-old National Academy of Sciences member whose research Lefenfeld had come across. “He is one of the most brilliant scientists I’ve worked with,” Lefenfeld says. “And he has a tremendous background in reactive metals.”

Although Lefenfeld was based in New York City and Dye at his Michigan State University lab, in East Lansing, the two moved their research forward and, in time, discovered a way to successfully encase sodium and other explosive, flammable alkali metals in a powdered form of silica gel. The two had thought the metals would be tamed by the process, but worried that they would lose at least some of their reactivity. “Through our research,” Lefenfeld says, “we actually turned the metal into a very tame, safe material, but we retained and even accelerated the amount of reactivity. We made it more reactive than it was, but not as dangerous, which was hard to envision.”

To understand the market potential for this discovery, consider a pharmaceutical manufacturer that depends on alkali metals for drug production. Previously, the manufacturer would “design around” the alkali metal step, adding multiple steps to the process and costs for safety and transportation. Now, however, a patented SiGNa material could be applied, allowing the pharmaceutical company to use the same alkali metal in a single, less dangerous, less costly step.

“It was surprising,” Lefenfeld admits. “When people first hear about it, they say, ‘There’s no way the material could do what you say it does.’ We perform a demo and show people what the material does, and the way it does it. They are always amazed.”

SiGNa’s current products include an alkali metal—porous oxide (M-SG), a free-flowing powder used for reduction chemistry. The company also has patented sodium silicide (NaSi) and sodium silica gel (Na-SG) products, air-stable powders that are high-yielding, convenient sources of clean hydrogen gas. (SiGNa is named for the symbols for silicon and sodium, with a ‘g’ for gel.) These materials produce greater than 9 wt.% hydrogen gas, which already exceeds the U.S. Department of Energy’s goals for 2015. All SiGNa products fall under the category of “green chemistry,” Lefenfeld says. “Everything we do is environmentally safe and friendly.”

Lefenfeld is clearly not a stranger to success—SiGNa was named a 2005 Company to Watch by the Forbes/Wolfe Nanotech Report, and Lefenfeld himself has been named one of the best entrepreneurs under 25 by BusinessWeek and a top researcher by Red Herring, where he landed on the cover. Still, he faces challenges.

“The chemical industry is a mature space,” Lefenfeld says. “When you’re a 26-year-old trying to push product into it, you get looked at with a little bit of skepticism.” He is quick to add a qualifier, though. “Product is product. People will get over the age-thing eventually, if the product provides them the benefit and savings they need.”

Lefenfeld’s company has grown to 18 employees, and the coming years promise growth for the client roster as well. (Lefenfeld will be balancing this growth with a doctoral fellowship at Columbia University, focusing on molecular electronics.) While SiGNa has plans to commercialize new products in 2007, it will remain targeted on the specific markets it knows well, including pharmaceuticals, petroleum refining, and hydrogen generation.

As for the possibility—or, more likely, the probability—that Lefenfeld and company will again create something the world hadn’t previously known, the young man stands ready. “It wasn’t a first and I hope it won’t be the last,” he says of the discovery that launched SiGNa. “It’s always a fantastically rewarding experience.”

Stephen Schenkenberg is a free-lance writer based in Madison, Wisconsin.