Alumni Profiles Series: Megan O’Connor
Dr. Megan O’Connor is the CEO and one of the co-founders of Nth Cycle, a start-up with a mission to provide a clean, sustainable supply of critical resources needed for the energy transition from electronic waste and efficient mines. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Union College in 2012 with an Environmental Chemistry focus, and received a Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Duke University in 2017. She was named to Forbes 30 under 30 in Energy in 2019 for her novel approach to electric waste recycling.
Why did you decide to pursue a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering at Duke?
During my bachelor’s, I worked in an environmental chemistry lab and became very passionate about environmental work in general. My advisor was a chemistry professor who had also done her Ph.D. in environmental engineering, so her example has drawn me to this field. We were sort of on the same path: we really loved chemistry [because of] its potential, but we wanted to make an impact on a shorter timescale. Because engineering work is adopted faster in general, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering, and Duke was one of the top-ranked programs I explored. I fell in love with not only the school but also the department and the diversity of candidates. Even in my cohort, when I started back in 2012, it was not just engineers—it was chemists and biologists and physicists and engineers coming together under the umbrella of civil and environmental engineering. I also felt that my advisor, Dr. Desirée Plata, had similar ambitions to make an impact on industry, which was a passion of mine. I moved to Yale with her in 2014, so I was a remote Duke student for a couple of years.
What professional plans did you have during your Ph.D. studies?
When I started my Ph.D., I had no idea what I wanted to do. I liked the idea of working in a startup or in a small company, instead of just being a number in a large corporation. I wanted to make a real impact and see the work I was doing affect the company every single day. While I was doing my Ph.D. work, Desirée was great in letting me choose my own projects, and she let me explore a little bit beyond what would be possible at a regular lab.
I became passionate about electronics recycling after reading some literature and attending a summit with a number of industry folks. They discussed the sustainability issues they would face over the next decade, and e-waste recycling in particular kept coming up over and over again. At that time, there was really no solution, no economic way to pull metals out of any kind of recycled goods. The industry also knew they would face supply chain issues with the coming electrification boom, which requires cobalt and nickel, among many other critical minerals. With consumer electronics and electric vehicles depending on cobalt and other metals, the shortage of these critical materials was inevitable, with no alternative supplies in sight. I walked out of that meeting and had an “Ah-ha” moment: How has nobody tried to develop a sustainable way to recycle these materials or use them as a secondary source to create a circular economy? I ended up changing my project in my third year, knowing very well that I might not graduate on time. I spent the next two and a half years working on this technology that is now part of Nth Cycle, to extract critical materials out of anything from battery waste to new mines.
How did you go on to form your own company after graduating?
I feel like all Ph.D. students will tell you after they graduate that you really get all your data in the last six months. I was no different–it took me two years to get the system to function the right way, and then finally started to generate the data. We had some small contracts with different electronics manufacturers during this time and were able to successfully show that I could recycle a rare earth permanent magnet. The technology really worked, and we quickly realized it had applications to many different industries—not just rare earth metals but also metals in batteries and so on.
Again, a small company was the type of environment I wanted to be in, so I said, why not start my own? It was a very ambitious goal—I started the company a day or so after I graduated in the summer of 2017. I first tried to focus on finding the right resources. With help from Desirée, I applied for different grants for small businesses, and she let me stay on as a part-time researcher so that I could have some income while trying to find funding. About a year later, we got a large grant from the Department of Energy and the Innovation Crossroads program to fully start the company research.
Tell us about your daily activities in the role of CEO and founder of Nth cycle.
Nth cycle’s mission is to enable a sustainable clean supply of critical minerals for the energy transition. We work with any metal you can think of, but our first market is battery recycling, recovering the main battery metals: cobalt, nickel, and manganese. To battle supply shortage, we extract these materials from spent batteries, untapped ore across the U.S., and other electronic waste. Using electro-extraction as an alternative to hydrometallurgy and pyrometallurgy, we rely only on electricity without greenhouse gas emitting furnaces or harsh chemicals. My day-to-day activities vary, but in general, my role is to fundraise and tell our story. During graduate school, I was one of the few students who loved giving talks, and my advisor, Desirée, put a lot of emphasis on science communication. Besides fundraising, I focus a lot of my time on business development activities (i.e., finding customers!) and helping my team achieve one milestone after the other.
Outside of research, what influenced your career while you were at Duke?
I used to sit down and think about what I enjoyed doing, taking an activity inventory. I was good at running the experiments, prepping samples, and other analytical, scientific tasks, but they didn't get me excited in the morning. I tried to attend as many Duke events as I could. Duke provided many opportunities to network, brought different speakers to campus, and held career panels and workshops. The Ph.D. Plus program connected me to fascinating folks with careers outside of academia, which really pushed me to think more creatively about what I could do with my degree. That is how I discovered how much I loved science communication, helping people understand the significance of the work we were doing.
Do you have any advice for students who want to go into industry or start-ups?
For master’s students, I would recommend internships, but since those are traditionally not an option for Ph.D. students, I think they could benefit the most from taking or auditing classes beyond their field. For example, if you are interested in policy, then take a policy class to understand what that work environment would be like and whether you would enjoy it. Also, everyone should take advantage of the fact that Duke has an abundance of renowned professors. Try to sit down and talk to people to get their insight on ideas or projects you have, even if they are not your formal advisors. If you have any skills that you are not comfortable with, focus on developing them. While I like science communication, I always had trouble projecting my voice and experienced anxiety from public speaking. To combat that, I was a spin instructor at the gym, which really helped me. I had to command the room, shout over the music, and be comfortable knowing that everyone was listening to me.
Did being a woman in this field impact your journey?
You definitely get some pushback; it is a very male-dominated field. Duke is a unique place given that there are a number of female professors, and I had a female advisor who helped me navigate a lot of the different conversations and things while moving throughout my program. After graduate school, I participated in a program for early entrepreneurs with a tech background called Innovation Crossroads that helped me develop the business development skills I lacked coming straight out of academia. During this program, we attended many conferences and events. During a few of these, I had people come up to me and ask whose wife I was, instead of thinking of me as another entrepreneur. Navigating situations like those was difficult. Luckily, I had great mentors and advisors, so I think it is critically important to find people that you can turn to when you are facing difficult situations.
Do you have a favorite memory from your time at Duke?
I am not a huge sports fan, but in my first semester we did the basketball campout. That is how I bonded with my cohort; we all did the lottery together for the basketball tickets. We slept in a tent for three nights to get a season pass, and going to the games the whole year with with my engineering cohort really helped us become close friends and colleagues.
Ph.D. candidate, Environmental Engineering
Hanna Varga is a Ph.D. candidate in Dr. Mark Wiesner’s lab. She studies the impact of dust on solar panel soiling and works toward building a model to predict soiling losses from environmental parameters. In her free time, she enjoys drawing, learning languages, climbing, and getting lost in the wilderness. Check out her artworks on Instagram @trail.of.breadcrumbs.