September 12, 2012

Michael Lefenfeld's Favor to his Grandpa Explodes in Success

Even though it is the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, I thought I’d look ahead instead of looking behind.  I would rather tell you about a really interesting young man, a man who was born and raised in New York City.

Michael Lefenfeld invented a critical medical diagnostic device when he was only 19!   He invented a sensor that became a model for most pulse oximeters.  It’s the  clip that is placed on the finger to detect oxygenation levels in the blood.  Each time you are evaluated in the doctor’s office or the hospital, it is clipped on your finger and a light shoots through your fingertip as it measures pulse and oxygen levels. 
Now, he didn’t just wake up one morning with the prototype in his mind.  After high school, Michael attended Washington University in St. Louis with a medical research scholarship.  Unfortunately, he hated doing research.  A friend was a chemical engineering major and Michael liked what his friend was doing.  He changed his major and changed direction.  Armed with what he had already learned with his medical research and applying his new classes, he came up with the prototype for the pulse oximeter and a few other products.  

When he finished at Washington University, he worked for a couple of chemical companies before going back to school to get his Master’s degree in Chemistry at Columbia University.  It was probably about this time that a conversation with his grandpa sparked another innovative product that may change the world! 

His grandpa wanted an air freshener that one could drop in the toilet to mask unpleasant bathroom smells.  Michael thought long and hard about what might work well there.  He wanted something that would carry a fragrant oil and react with the water to generate heat and gas to disperse the fragrance into the room.  From his freshman chemistry classes, Michael remembered that sodium (Na) is highly reactive with water, resulting in a violent burst of flames.  If he could somehow control the sodium and add fragrance, he’d have another useful product and help his grandpa out.

The trick was to create a sodium formulation with just enough sodium to react with the water and not cause flames, but disperse the fragrant oil.  He called an expert for help—a chemist named James L. Dye.  James knew how to melt sodium and mix it with a silica gel.  That produced a sand-like powder that did exactly what Michael’s grandpa wanted.  Michael admitted, “it made the bathroom smell really really nice.”  

James and Michael realized that they had tamed the reactivity of sodium!  Not only in water, but also in the air (which contains water vapor.)  This technology could be applied to other reactive metals and opens up a world of uses for these metals.   Michael and James immediately formed a company they named ‘SiGNa.’  The name is based on the chemical symbols of silicon (Si) and sodium (Na), with the G from ‘gel.’  They now create products that do essentially the same thing as their air freshener tablets, but with much more important uses.  They push the last drops of oil from oil wells, they destroy hazardous organic pollutants, and they catalyze reactions to make pharmaceutical drugs.  

Michael sees a bigger use that they are still perfecting:  energy cells.  Silicon and water give off hydrogen gas, which can be used as a power source.  Many fuel cells or batteries use hydrogen gas to generate electricity.  Michael and James made another powder of silicon and a gel that reacts with water or any liquid.  They think it will be able to power small things like mobile phones or big things like lawn mowers.  They have started marketing ‘Power Pukks’ as cell phone chargers in Sweden.  

Like sodium in water, Michael’s success has been explosive.  At age 25 when he formed SiGNa, he had 6 employees; today he is only 31 and has 65 employees.  First his idea for the pulse oximeter got Michael started.  Then he tried to help his grandfather deal with odors.  His solution to such a ‘little problem’ became a huge solution to many problems!    

We don’t have to be old and gray to make a difference in the world.  Sometimes doing a little thing can make a big difference, at least to the person you helped.  

Boudway, Ira.  “Innovator Michael Lefenfeld’s Offbeat Power Play.”  Bloomberg Businessweek  3 March 2011:n. pag. web.
“Michael Lefenfeld, SiGNa Chemistry.”  30 Under 30:  America’s Coolest Young Entrepeneurs  2008:n. pg. web.
Ritter, Steve.  “Entrepeneurs:  Michael Lefenfeld.”  Chemical and Engineering News  20 Aug 2012:43. Print.

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