Lucy Moore working at her desk at the Center for Materials Processing.

Sparking Future Success

Spark Scholars Program Benefits Students, Start-Ups

By Rhiannon Potkey. Photography by Shawn Poynter.

Lucy Moore (BS/CBE, ’23) wanted a chance to apply what she was learning in the classroom to what she would be asked to do in a business setting. Moore was eager to gain experience in the field to complement her educational foundation.

She didn’t have to search far to accomplish her goal. Through the Spark Scholars program, Moore was selected for an internship with SkyNano Technologies, a science-based technology company focused on commercializing a free-market solution to carbon pollution.

“I hadn’t had such a hands-on internship experience before,” Moore said. “I absolutely loved it and decided that is what I wanted to continue for a full-time job.”

SkyNano offered Moore a full-time position before she began her senior year at UT in the fall of 2022. She graduated in May 2023 with a degree in chemical engineering and began work at SkyNano the following August.

“It took away a lot of stress from not knowing where I would be working,” Moore said. “Starting a new job can be stressful, so it was nice to already be familiar with everyone and make a really smooth transition.”
Lucy Moore working at the Center for Materials Processing

About the Program

UT’s Spark Scholars program is a student internship and training program pioneered by the Center for Materials Processing, which was under the direction of Professors Claudia Rawn and Chad Duty when the program launched, and the Spark Innovation Center, under the direction of Tom Rogers. The program brings together UT undergraduate engineering students and early-stage tech companies located at UT Research Park at Cherokee Farm for jointly sponsored internships related to materials and materials processing–related research and development.

The pilot program began in the summer of 2022 with two undergraduates, including Moore, placed with a Spark company. It grew to eight students and five companies in the summer of 2023. The most recent group included students majoring in chemical engineering, electrical engineering, aerospace engineering, and material science.

The interns have worked as research and development assistants on technologies that involve batteries, carbon capture, nanomaterial synthesis, micromobility solutions, and other innovations. The internships are co-sponsored by CMP and the host company, which enables cost-effective intern positions for early-stage startups.

“It offers a lot of advantages to some of these young companies—not just in internships but with access to facilities on campus to investigate materials and conduct material processing research,” said Associate Professor and James Conklin Faculty Fellow Andy Sarles of the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering, associate director of industrial relations for CMP.

“Many Spark companies have initiated facility membership agreements, which enables them to do more testing or use of instruments or have some quick analysis of material samples done at a university setting at a cost-effective rate.”
Claudia Rawn and students at the Spark Innovations Center.

Flourishing Partnerships

Philip Stuckey is the founder of FC Renew, a fuel cell manufacturing company that restores degraded hydrogen fuel cells at a lower cost. The work done by the company is performed in the flex lab space in the Zeanah Engineering Complex or at the Institute for Advanced Materials and Manufacturing, where it utilizes electron microscopy and small-angle X-ray scattering.

“Those types of tools and equipment are cost prohibitive and often access prohibitive for people to developing commercialized technologies like we are doing,” Stuckey said. “Spark gives us a place to incubate and grow by having access to the facilities and the space we lease from the university.”

Nicole Liu, a sophomore majoring in chemical engineering with a minor in materials science and engineering, started her internship with FC Renew in June of 2023 and continued in a part time role during the school year.

“I have definitely learned a lot from it, and I think it furthered my interest in the sustainable energy sector and how it affects the economy,” Liu said. “I saw a little bit more of the business side than I was expecting, which was honestly a lot more interesting than I thought it would be. I got a deeper look at how startup companies function and the trials and errors they go through.

Anfinn Chilsen, a senior mechanical engineering major, has been serving an internship with Holocene Climate Corporation, which builds machines that pull carbon dioxide directly from the air. Chilsen works with the controls engineer to develop the hardware and software architecture for a demonstration model.

“I have gotten experience coding, which doesn’t pertain to what I want to do, but it’s definitely great knowledge to have in my back pocket,” he said. “It’s been very beneficial because I am sure I will use it in the future. I am really happy I learned it and advanced my skills.”

SkyNano co-founder and CEO Anna Douglas was an immediate proponent of the Spark Scholars program when she was first approached about the idea. Through the co-sponsorship with CMP, SkyNano has been able to hire four interns and has started looking for more for the upcoming summer.

SkyNano Co-Founder and CEO Anna Douglas

“For startup companies, access to talent is one of the main drivers of our success—and that applies across the board, from technical talent, nontechnical, full time, part time,” Douglas said. “For SkyNano, in particular, we have really benefited from being able to bring students in during summers and for us to really understand how they work and what their skill set is.”

UT senior electrical engineering major Kile Dickey became a Spark Scholars intern with SkyNano in May 2023. Like Moore, he has accepted a full-time position at the company once he graduates. Dickey has continued working 20 to 30 hours a week at the company’s new spacious office while still in school. He recently designed an electrical box for a system that lifts electrodes out of molten salt baths with a joystick control.

For startup companies, access to talent is one of the main drivers of our success—and that applies across the board, from technical talent, nontechnical, full time, part time”

Anna Douglas

“I learned quite a bit through my internship, and not even just about electrical engineering but about mechanical engineering and chemistry,” Dickey said. “I really look forward to continuing to help with more projects as the company expands. There is going to be a lot of electrical work needed to help us increase production, and I am excited to be a part of the team to help.”

Electrical engineering major Kile Dickey works at the Sparks Innovation Center.

During her internship with SkyNano, Moore built a system that purifies carbon nanotubes when they come out of the growth process to rid them of contamination. She has continued to work on the system since being hired full time.

Moore is grateful for all the opportunities she received at UT and encourages other students to take advantage of the resources the university offers to help build the path to a career. CMP has been thrilled with the early results of Spark Scholars and hopes more students and companies will take part in the coming year to fuel its continued growth.

“Don’t be afraid to work for startups. Don’t let that intimidate you,” Moore said. “I have learned so much more here since I have been exposed to so many different things. Even if the field doesn’t pertain exactly to your major, you are able to learn so much that will help you broaden your skills.”

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