Editor’s note: This story is part of a package profiling Muslim sisters Afreen, 33, Arsheen, 31, and Nida, 28, Allam, first-generation Americans with parents from India and Pakistan. Raised in Raleigh, each are forging high-profile careers in politics and tech. The next part of the series will be published shortly. Even though the writer and subjects share the same surname, they are in no way related.
DURHAM – Thinner than paper and 200 times stronger than steel, graphene is often considered the “wonder material” of our time. Its potential applications ranging from energy generation to tissue engineering.
It’s also one of the most expensive materials to produce.
The 31-year-old material science engineer and MBA graduate of Duke University’s Fuqua Business School has developed a low-cost, sustainable alternative extracted from natural substances — and it’s gaining traction.
Its raw graphene is already available for commercial use and is directly sold to customers.
Most recently, she joined Chain Reaction Innovations, the two-year entrepreneurship program at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, as part of the elite program’s fifth cohort, in Chicago, Illinois. She’s the only woman selected and receives a $750,000 investment package.
It’s no small feat considering that female tech founders, let alone those of color, face considerable headwinds raising capital. Venture dollars invested in sole female founders in 2020 represented 2.4% of overall venture funding, down 1% compared to 2019.
“Our aim is to be a premiere eco-friendly, cost-effective graphene and graphene oxide derivative producer,” says Allam, who grew up in Raleigh, a first-generation American of Muslim immigrants. “[We plan] to license our proprietary production process to partner companies to use in their products.”
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In simplest terms, graphene is a single, thin layer of graphite — the soft, flaky material used in pencil lead. It’s an allotrope of the element carbon, meaning it possesses the same atoms, but they’re arranged in a different way, giving it different properties.
Since its discovery in 2004, it’s emerged as a material that could potentially revolutionize entire industries like electricity, conductivity, energy generation, batteries, sensors and more.
Yet the growth of the market, Allam says, has stalled due manufacturing challenges, including high equipment costs and the use of harsh chemicals that present health and environmental risks.
Typically, graphene is produced through two means: mechanical exfoliation (requiring sonication or high-shear-mixing); or chemical exfoliation (using sulfuric/nitric acid on a carbon-dense material, usually coal).
Historically, both processes, says Allam, have yielded little usable graphene and are difficult to scale.
In contrast, GoLeafe’s proprietary process involves extracting graphene from natural substances like grass, hay, tree barks and coconut shells.
In addition to raw graphene, the startup is developing several graphene-based derivatives centered around clean water and clean energy. “We have a few already in the pipeline, both in the prototype and pilot stages,” says Allam.
They include supercapacitors, potentially a clean alternative to energy storage devices like lithium-ion and lead-acid batteries; and reduced graphene oxide, a promising candidate to replace silicon in the solar energy industry.
It’s also working on a graphene membrane for use in water desalination.
The goal is to automate and scale up their proprietary process to launch a handful of their products to market “in the next five years,” says Allam.
Defying Muslim stereotypes
Born in Canada, Allam moved to Cary with her family at age 8 when her father got a job with IBM. Her mother is from Pakistan, and her father is from India.
(Her sister, Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam, 28, is the first Muslim American to be elected to office in North Carolina. She’s currently running for Congress in the state’s newly redrawn 6th Congressional District. Her other sister, Afreen Allam, 33, is the founder and CEO of her own biotech startup, SiNON Nano Sciences.)
Allam says she developed an interest in graphene while working at CNanoz, a company she co-founded in 2008 that focused on developing water purification systems based on nanotechnologies. At the time, she was enrolled as an undergrad at NC State, studying material science and engineering.
“I was one of two girls in the entire program,” recalls Allam, who, from a young age, developed an interest in cleantech after spending her summer breaks visiting her parents’ homelands. “One of the things that stood out to me was the lack of access to basic human resources, such as clean water and reliable energy.”
Barely out of her teens, she decided to come up with a solution. She enlisted her family who was visiting from Bangladesh one summer, and got them to bring raw water samples from across the Rohingya refugee camps and tested them for contaminants. She designed a low-cost, no-power household filtration unit that could filter “shockingly high” contaminant levels, particularly bacteria and fluoride.
She subsequently ran a crowdfunding campaign for the initial pilot of 100 units. They exceeded the goal and delivered the solution to provide clean drinking water to 500 refugees, according to the company’s website.
Still, as a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, it hasn’t been easy navigating the male-dominated clean tech industry. Most often, she’s the only woman, let alone a person of color in a headscarf, in the room at tech conferences.
“We have to work a lot harder to prove ourselves, despite our credentials and accomplishments, because we are working against pre-conceived notions many investors have of us based solely on the way we look.”
It’s changing, which is exciting, she says, but it’s still slow coming. Despite these challenges, she remains steadfast on scaling her company and bettering the world with her innovations.
“That’s my dream.”