Innovator Profile: Katy Jinkins

Have you ever wished that your phone could operate faster or that computers could process information quicker? Katy Jinkins, the CEO and co-founder of Sixline Semiconductor, is seeking to deliver on these demands and to ultimately revolutionize the electronics industry.

A former materials science PhD graduate from UW Madison, Jinkins focused her academic work on integrating carbon nanotubes—straws of carbon atoms, ten thousand times thinner than a human hair—into electronics. This groundbreaking research, conducted in Professor Mike Arnold’s lab, tackled the alignment of these carbon nanotubes. While nanotubes offer exceptional properties, their use has been hindered by electronic purity issues and the organizational challenge of aligning them. Developing these solutions laid the foundation for Sixline Semiconductor. Led by Jinkins, the company is now poised to address the challenges the electronics industry faces as current materials near the end of their performance lifespan.

Jinkins’ passion for her work and impact on the future of electronics fuels her determination to transition academic breakthroughs into commercial success. As she navigates the dynamic startup landscape, she emphasizes the importance of failing fast, iterating, and leveraging university resources and networks. We asked Jinkins to speak on these experiences:

Describe briefly what the focus of your work at UW was and how you began on this startup journey?

The focus of my PhD work at UW was overcoming this long-standing challenge integrating these novel nanomaterials, carbon nanotubes, into electronics. One of those major challenges has been aligning them in one direction across an industry relevant surface in an industry compatible and scalable process. I worked on that throughout my PhD at UW–Madison with Professor Mike Arnold in his lab in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. This work led to multiple papers and patents that cover the alignment techniques and the integration of those carbon nanotubes into electronics, which is the basis of the company.

What are the problems your company has faced along the way?

Personal electronics such as cellphones and laptops are becoming increasingly ubiquitous, and because of that and the overall increase in electronic connectedness, the daily power, performance, and communication demands are increasing. However, due to material constraints, the current materials used in these electronics are reaching the end of their lifespan. The industry is focused on looking for new materials and carbon nanotubes are one of those materials. They exhibit exceptional electronic, thermal, and mechanical properties making them attractive for electronic devices. Importantly, they allow you to get more performance per area from one of your processor chips—the “brains”—of your cellphones and laptops. This promise of carbon nanotubes has been talked about since they were discovered in the early 1990s. They haven’t been able to deliver that performance because of challenges preventing the exploitation of those properties. Think of carbon nanotubes like a pile of cooked spaghetti. How can we detangle them and then organize them into highly-aligned arrays? That’s been the major question our technology answers.

How are you focusing your energy and resources as you move out of the university and into start-up land?

As CEO, most of my time involves thinking about the company’s long-term direction, both technically and from a business perspective. I’m focused on obtaining funding for the company by writing grants as well as meeting with potential funds for investments. I also try to talk to as many people as possible through customer discovery. SixLine is a small startup, so I am also in the lab a lot of the time working on research. Fortunately, we have a great team with extensive experience and a diverse range of skillsets, so there are multiple people who can step into a bunch of different roles throughout the company as needed.

How has D2P helped you?

Through D2P, I participated in the I2M class with Amar as my mentor. That was kind of our first introduction to customer discovery, which has shown us the importance of learning as much as possible about our industry and our role in integrating into the value chain.

What other entrepreneurial programs have helped you move forward?

Our team is currently completing an NSF STTR Phase I grant. As a graduate student at UW–Madison I also participated in the Wisconsin Entrepreneurial Boot Camp and am currently an Activate fellow awarded in 2023. We were also able to participate in the Governor’s Wisconsin Business Plan competition and won the grand prize for 2023. Our team also had the opportunity to complete the national NSF I-Corps program, which helped build on the customer discovery and education we gained through the I2M course at UW-Madison.

What are your hopes for moving forward with the company?

With startups, it’s a dynamic environment with changing research goals. In the long term, we want to integrate carbon nanotubes into industry-used devices. That means we will be working on optimizing our processes, scaling, and ensuring device uniformity and reproducibility and then partnering with major semiconductor companies to develop integration strategies for our materials.

What drives you personally?

I’ve always been passionate about my PhD work and the impact we could have on revolutionizing electronics by integrating carbon nanotubes into commercialized devices. I got involved in entrepreneurship and co-founded a company because I wanted to be the person to take these breakthroughs and discoveries from an academic setting, and, expand, develop, and finally commercialize them.

At what point did you realize that entrepreneurship is something you’re interested in?

Jinkins (right) discussing Sixline’s technology with her D2P mentor, Amar Anumakonda (right)

I initially didn’t think I could be an entrepreneur, because in general, it can be unclear what it means to be one. The Wisconsin Entrepreneurial Boot Camp opened my eyes to what being an entrepreneur really means and I learned that it wasn’t something out of the ordinary, it’s just a different set of tasks and skill sets than what I was used to. Once I understood what was required to be a CEO, I started identifying as that.

What advice would you give to other campus innovators?

Take advantage of the university’s resources, like D2P, as much as possible. Utilize the network of people at the UW as well. There are so many people on campus who have such a depth and breadth of information and experience that you can learn from. If you have a question, you’ll be able to find someone or someone who will know someone else who can help you and provide that guidance. Additionally, I’d also say, just try. Many people get so caught up in the overwhelming big picture and long term goals, which tends to slow people down and stop them from trying. I think you have to get past that and take that first step toward being an entrepreneur. If you fail, then you can learn from that and reiterate. One thing I’ve always really enjoyed about working in Mike’s lab as a PhD student was his emphasis on failing fast. If you’re going to fail, fail fast, and then continue to fail until you succeed. That was my general approach to research throughout my PhD and we continue to embrace that approach at SixLine.

How do you balance work and life?

I’m very passionate about my work and potential impact we can have, so work can be all-consuming. I get energized and excited about the work, so I want to continue moving forward and making progress. Balance to me means taking time to recharge and refresh so I can be ready and excited to tackle the next day’s challenges at SixLine. Work and life are both marathons, not sprints, so it’s important to understand what you need to be successful long term.

Read more innovator profiles from D2P