An interview with Aoi Senju ‘16, Advanced Development Engineer at 24M Technologies and one of the co-founders of PUEA. For career advice from Aoi, feel free to reach out to him on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/asenju/
JPM: What did you study at Princeton? What did you do outside of class? What was your senior thesis about?
AS: I majored in Chemical and Biological Engineering, with certificates in Finance and Environmental Studies. Outside of class, I was one of the co-founders of PUEA, as well as the President of Advertise This Marketing and Advertising Club. In addition, I was a Dormitory Assistant, a staff writer for the Daily Princetonian, on the Executive Board of Asian American Students Association, and a member of the Cap and Gown Club. For my senior thesis, I performed research on zinc-bromine batteries in the lab of Dan Steingart. I was fortunate enough to publish the results from my senior thesis research in the journal Energy and Environmental Science (JPM: You can find Aoi’s journal article here (in html format) and here (in pdf format)).
JPM: What do you do today?
AS: I’m an Advanced Development Engineer at 24M Technologies, which is a Series B/C next-generation battery startup. At 24M, we have simplified the manufacturing process of batteries, allowing us to make batteries for a third of the cost of current batteries. I cannot emphasize enough how pivotal this is to our energy landscape - at $175/kWh, storage beats gas plants for peak power. At $150/kWh, battery-powered cars become competitive with ICE (internal combustion engine) cars (assuming gasoline at $2/gallon). When you consider that batteries today cost $200/kWh, our value proposition is a game changer.
JPM: Tell us about the day-to-day for your job.
AS: I'm the lead engineer of a $3.5M ARPA-E government grant that is being used to develop a super high energy density battery. A large part of my day-to-day involves literature review to see what other groups are doing on the subject, experimental work in the lab, and project management to communicate with the other stakeholders on the project.
I also have a couple of side projects apart from my full time job that I devote time to - I work as an Investment Fellow for Element 8 Angels (a cleantech angel investment firm), and as an advisor to the Union of Concerned Scientists (a science-based environmental nonprofit).
JPM: What has your overall career path been like? Why did you make specific pivots/switches along the way?
AS: When I started at Princeton as a chemical engineer, I had an idea that I wanted to work in the energy sector. I started off really interested in natural gas - I went on a breakout trip during my freshman year to Pittsburgh where we learned about fracking, and heard from lobbyists, corporations, academics, etc. who all held different views of natural gas. It was a transitional energy source that would wean the US off of foreign oil, but it sometimes had disastrous implications on the health of people located close to the source. I wanted to find something cleaner for my life mission.
Going into the summer, I learned that a cleaner way to use natural gas was with fuel cells - so I took an internship with Bloom Energy, the first and only unicorn valuation clean energy fuel cell startup. But I was disappointed by the reality of the technology - fuel cells that run on natural gas couldn't actually be considered "clean."
So next, I thought I'd try my hand in the solar industry. I got a job as a contract engineer at SunPower, a solar energy giant. There I saw an industry that develops incrementally, with small improvements in efficiency over the course of decades. The contributions to the clean energy sector were clear, but I didn't have the patience to wait for decades. Solar energy had already been around for a while, and I wasn't convinced that I really had much to contribute to the field. I wanted to look for a more nascent industry.
Then, I finally settled on batteries.
Working in the lab of Dan Steingart during my junior and senior years at Princeton really changed my career trajectory. I actually only accidentally ended up doing my research on batteries, because Dan was the only professor that responded to my emails back when I was trying to do junior research. After working with Dan, I was convinced to go into batteries after graduation. Everything just clicked into place - it was back in 2014 so Tesla’s momentum was just picking up, and I saw the potential that batteries could have on the entire renewable energy industry. Forget about incrementally better technologies - batteries could change the world. I built my foundational knowledge of electrochemistry with Dan, published my first paper, and went on to work in the battery industry after graduation.
JPM: Talk about your blogging! How did you get into it, what do you blog about, how do you keep up with what you blog about, and do you have any blogging tips?
AS: I actually first started writing a private blog in college that I would show to potential employers - I had about a dozen posts on what different startups were doing, and what I thought was the future of the sector, and that helped me land me a few jobs. Many of the blogs that I've published publicly since then are adaptations of the same topics that I wrote 4 years ago.
I started writing public blogs last year after I had a conversation with a friend who was still a senior at Princeton. He was debating what to do after graduation, and I was trying to convince him that sustainability "was the most important problem of our generation." When he asked me where he could read more about it, I couldn't think of any place where he could find everything. So that night, I wrote my first post, “The greatest challenge of our generation" and shared it with him (check it out! It's my first Medium post! Also, here is my Medium profile: https://medium.com/@aoisenju).
Afterwards, I began to realize that there were inadequate resources to learn anything about cleantech. Most resources assumed that you were an industry professional, and thus didn't provide sufficient background information. So I also started writing pieces to simplify the absolutely chaotic maze of cleantech, with all the different players and stakeholders. I found myself with a breadth of knowledge of the cleantech sector, having had such varied experiences throughout college (as elaborated in the previous question). My hope was to convince even one person who was debating what to do after graduation to work in cleantech.
As for blogging tips, honestly, just write about whatever interests you at that particular moment! For me, it's actually pretty easy to write my pieces - I spend at least an hour a day on average following the cleantech and energy sector, and whenever I find something that I think is particularly interesting, I write it down under a topic label (ie "stuff about wind energy"), and come back to it later when I've gathered enough information to write a piece on the topic. It helps to actually be interested in the topic, so that you're excited to publish the piece and hear what people think about it.
JPM: Is there anything in energy that currently excites you?
AS: Energy blockchain and data management.
JPM: Do you have a recommendation/tidbit of advice for current students, especially those who want to get involved in energy?
AS: If you're a Princeton student today, and you want to make an early mark in this industry, you need to first make up for your lack of experience. You do that by specialization. I think it's critical that you focus early on in your career on something that you can point to and say, “that’s important,” and then go deep into that sector. For me, I focused on batteries. After I locked onto that, I did research for 2 years on batteries. And after publishing a paper, I was able to get a job as a research engineer at a battery startup after graduation.
But in doing that, you need to think 5 years in advance. What is energy going to look like in 5 years? What's most important in that future? The energy sector in 5 years will be radically different than what we have today. Carve out a specialization for yourself.