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Lauren Otto '12: electrical engineer, tech innovator, fellowship winner

Lauren Otto '12: electrical engineer, tech innovator, fellowship winner

Lauren Otto ’12, founder and CEO of tech firm Laminera

Lauren Otto '12 is a pioneer, developing materials that could enable the devices and technologies of tomorrow. And in November she made Forbes' list of 30 Under 30 in Energy, individuals described as “fueling a more sustainable future.”

Her niche interests were sparked by a realization she had very early in her career. While working as an intern at HGST (formerly Hitachi Global Storage Technologies and now part of Western Digital Corporation), Otto learned about materials challenges with metals in emerging hard drive technologies. She realized there could be solutions to these challenges in conductive ceramics, but that traditional methods for creating these materials were not compatible with the tight manufacturing requirements of the hard drive industry.

So Otto launched a company, Laminera, whose goal is to create conductive ceramics through atomic layer deposition (ALD), a process that can coat a surface of arbitrary shape and substance equally, one atomic layer at a time. Otto and her team at Laminera have been awarded a prestigious place among Cohort Three of Cyclotron Road: an elite group of hard science innovators whose projects are supported by Activation Energy and the Department of Energy-funded Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Being named to Cyclotron Road is a highly competitive feat, with just nine entrepreneurial projects funded this year. As a member of Cohort Three, Otto is granted access to tools and funds to explore the possibilities of the technique she’s been developing with scientists at Berkeley.

Though ALD of some conductive ceramics already exists in research-scale environments, Otto believes Laminera’s technique will be better suited for higher-quality materials and the industrial-scale manufacturing of hard disk drives or other upcoming technologies. She’s excited about the possibilities of this technique and for the future of Laminera: “There’s a lot to explore, lots of potential,” she says. “If I can make the surface of something conductive, then I can use this not only in the hard disk drive industry where I got started, but also potentially elsewhere in semiconductor fabrication, like in integrated circuits or solid state data storage, with batteries or solar technology, or high surface area electrodes for supercapacitors and water desalination devices.”

None of this innovation would have happened, though, if Otto had given up two years earlier. Otto was working on her Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota and was grappling with a lack of advisory support. Without it, Otto faced the possibility of having to start over with her research, as her own access to materials and resources were limited. “I decided that I wasn’t going to let that stop me from pursuing what I’m passionate about. I found another way,” she said. “My colleague from HGST told me about Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry and suggested I submit a proposal. This could solve my access-to-resources issue. He introduced me to his connections there, and over the course of a few weeks, a collaboration came together both in Berkeley and at the U of M.” She submitted her proposal and was quickly accepted to do research at the Molecular Foundry. Additionally, Otto was awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, worth $46,000 per year for three years.  

All of these factors, along with the support of key mentors, came together for Otto to complete her Ph.D. "I also credit God's faithfulness and provision as I walked through this unusual route to completing my degree and journeying on to what was next," she says.

As a follower of Jesus and a scientist, Otto is grateful for the educational opportunities and the “faith home” she found at Bethel. “Bethel kick-started the journey to where I’m at in my faith right now. Dr. Beecken’s ‘Great Controversies in Science and Technology’ class was one of the first things that really got me thinking about faith’s relationship to science.” In the course, Department Chair and Professor of Physics Brian Beecken demonstrates how Christianity and science are not in conflict with one another.

“I tell students on the first day that my real, hidden goal is to get them to think and not just believe what they hear,” Beecken says. “I want them to understand there are two sides to every issue or controversy and that they should never decide one way without first checking out the other side.”

Otto graduated from Bethel as a first-generation college student, double majoring in physics and mathematics. “Getting to this point has been very difficult, and I’ve often struggled with what’s referred to as ‘impostor syndrome,’ or just a lack of confidence,” admits Otto. “But I’m much stronger now for the challenges I’ve faced. I’ve had to learn that humility isn’t discounting who you are, it’s more about knowing who you are.”

Find out more about Bethel’s award-winning physics and engineering department, including its new B.S. in Electrical Engineering program.