We sit down with Karolina Biernacka, WICEF alumna, PhD candidate and Co-Founder of Eleven Store
Karolina Biernacka is a Co-Founder of Eleven Store and a PhD candidate at Deakin University. Her research is focused on the development of solid-state electrolytes for sodium batteries.
She has a genuine interest in and commitment to work within the energy sector and to contribute to the Australian innovation ecosystem - by developing energy storage technologies and commercializing her research. Recently, she has also been selected as one of the finalists for the 2020 Women of the Future Awards.
Since graduating from the Women in Climate and Energy Fellowship in May 2020, Karolina and the ElevenStore team have seen great success, including winning first prize in the Southeast Asia and Oceania ClimateLaunchPad competition.
In March 2020, Karolina participated in EnergyLab's Women in Climate and Energy Fellowship (WICEF). Milly Young, our WICEF Manager, sits down with Karolina to talk about her experience of the fellowship and her battery technology startup, ElevenStore.
Tell us about your WICEF experience. What was most memorable?
I am truly grateful for having the opportunity to participate in EnergyLab's Women in Climate and Energy Fellowship and be part of WICEF network. The fellowship not only equipped me with the skills and knowledge in entrepreneurship but, more importantly, it provided a safe and open-minded environment and allowed me to let go of the fear of failure and judgement. This environment helped to fuel my creativity!
I think the most memorable moment for me was our first meeting during kick-off session which we were lucky to have face to face – just before COVID started. During this session I had a pleasure meeting women from my cohort and participating in icebreakers and team building activities which helped us to open, feel comfortable and get to know each other. It was at this time, I realized that despite differences in age and background we all value the same aspects at work - emphasizing understanding, flexibility, support and communication. Also, we share the same fears... fear of failure and not being ready to create our own start-up company. During this memorable session, we were also encouraged by Milly to reflect on our values and identify goals that we want to achieve by the end of the program which helped us to stay motivated.
Hearing stories and strategies from many speakers such as Different Thinking Founder and CEO, Dr Zivit Inbar, Everty CEO and Founder, Carola Jonas, and Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Amber Electric, Chris Thompson made me realize how challenging but also exciting and rewarding entrepreneurial journey is.
After finishing the fellowship in May 2020, you founded Eleven Store. Tell us a little more about Eleven Store.
ElevenStore aims to accelerate the transition from fuel-powered scooters to electric scooters in Southeast Asia. It focuses on the development of cheaper, safer and cleaner Na-ion batteries, to create affordable and environmentally-friendly transportation. ElevenStore is also embracing the concept of transitioning to a circular economy– with the electrodes to ultimately be sustainably-fabricated from waste biomass and batteries that can no longer serve for scooters being re-used for home battery storage in remote areas where access to electricity is limited.
Current battery storage technology relies on the mining of global reserves of lithium and cobalt, which are not only are becoming incredibly rare and expensive but also, in some cases, unethical in the way that they are mined. In addition, current battery technologies have safety issues, particularly at elevated temperatures.
Sodium-based batteries, on the other hand, offer a combination of attractive properties and can serve as a promising alternative for future energy storage systems. They are based on cheap, abundant, and sustainable sodium available in the earth which is as common as table salt. In addition to low cost and abundance, the safety of sodium-ion batteries vs lithium-ion is a strong advantage.
These properties make sodium-ion technology an excellent candidate for these high-volume mobility applications, such as scooters and electric bikes. They are especially useful in high-density populations (such as Indonesia) where people need to travel shorter distances but particular weather conditions mean a more stable technology than is currently available is required.
Can you talk us through your entrepreneurial journey to date?
Since the start of my PhD I've been pondering how I can apply science to real life. I was always passionate about energy and climate change issues, and I've been studying these fields for a long time, but always felt like I was missing something.
I was first told about the Women in Climate and Energy fellowship by one of my colleagues from Deakin, Rossie Rao, who was an early career researcher at the Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM). Rossie participated in WICEF in 2019 and told me how great of an opportunity it would be for me – not only for learning about entrepreneurship but also about clean energy opportunities. With Rossie's recommendation in mind, I submitted an application and was then fortunately accepted. It was such a great experience to be part of this program - stepping out of the comfort zone that we as researchers in academia are usually in.
WICEF not only taught me about the initial steps for developing a start-up but also connected me with like-minded future female founders. It was a unique experience during which I realized that we all share not only the same passion but also the same fears. My WICEF experience, combined with having an inspiring leader of our research group, Prof. Maria Forstyh, lead me to the point I'm now.
Not long after WICEF finished, Prof. Forsyth encouraged our Deakin research team to apply for ClimateLaunchpad program with our startup idea Eleven Store. ClimateLaunchpad helped us to further develop our idea through a number of business workshops and mentoring sessions. After being selected to represent Australia in SE Asian finals we came first and also gained an automatic spot at the prestigious accelerator.
Today I am very proud to work with two other women from Deakin University - Faezeh Makhlooghiazad and Jenny Sun. We came into this experience not sure whether or not we were smart and resilient enough to create a company but being empowered by our role model Prof. Forsyth we decided to transform ideas from the lab it into reality and develop a business idea that has a positive impact on climate change. Also, like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said : "The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams don't scare you, they aren't big enough." – I believe that I am on my path now!
What's your advice for women who are considering applying for the program?
I definitely encourage them to apply and not be afraid to step out of their comfort zone. Sometimes we try to fit a 'box' and follow the rules we were taught from childhood. What we are often missing is trusting ourselves, our abilities and our intuition.
Connecting with like-minded women, receiving support from WICEF and being guided by my mentor was instrumental in overcoming self-doubts and trusting that I am powerful and creative in my true nature.
We rarely feel 'ready' to go to the next level so just do yourself a favour and apply for this program, I am sure you won't regret it!
What's next for Eleven Store and how can the EnergyLab community help you?
ElevenStore is pursuing a couple of exciting opportunities utilising the sodium ion battery we are developing. We will continue to gather information and talk with our stakeholders with the hope that eventually ElevenStore can spin out from Deakin and scale.
If you have expertise in launching a cleantech business, creating sustainable business in Southeast Asia, or know someone who we should be talking to, we would love to hear from you!