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From graduate student to company president

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Joe Barforoush and his mentor Dr. LeonardMost students start at the bottom rung of the career ladder after graduation.  Not Joe Barforoush.  He’s leaving KU as President and Chief Technology Officer of his own company!

Earlier this year Barforoush (left) and his faculty mentor, Assistant Professor Kevin Leonard, launched a startup called Avium, LLC.  The company seeks to commercialize a new hydrogen-generating technology that Barforoush discovered as part of his doctoral research project at KU's Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis. 

Barforoush, Avium’s founding President, won’t have to go far to get to his new job—it’s just steps away from Leonard’s lab in an adjacent building, where Avium leases lab space from the Bioscience & Technology Business Center at KU.

Two federal  grants are boosting research and development of Barforoush’s technology, including one from the Department of Defense Innovation Corps program and another from the National Science Foundation Small Business Technology Transfer program.

These grant programs don’t just fund R&D. They give award winners entrepreneurial training, mentoring, networking, and various tasks to better understand the market for their technologies. One of these tasks is to interview 130 potential customers. Barforoush traveled to California this summer to complete this task, spending hours hanging out at gas stations. 

That’s right.  Gas stations. Not just any gas stations, though. He targetted gas stations equipped with hydrogen fueling areas where he could meet drivers of hydrogen-powered cars.  Only two cities in the U.S., Los Angeles and San Francisco, have the infrastructure to support these cars. These drivers could one day become consumers of Avium’s technology if it is commercialized. 

The quest to interview potential customers wasn’t easy but it paid off. Barforoush returned to Kansas with more than enough interviews. The valuable feedback he gained from these interviews will help shape Avium’s commercialization strategy going forward.

Barforoush defended his dissertation this month. With his doctoral degree in chemical engineering accomplished, he is set to begin working at Avium full time this fall. Many adventures are likely to cross his path along the bumpy road of entrepreneurship. 

--Story by Claudia Bode



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