Staff Sheehan’s Personal Story of Discovery

These days, Dr. Staff Sheehan spends more time on the road than in the lab. But his innovations in solar energy as president of Catalytic Innovations, and chief technology officer of The Air Company, just might help save the planet.


Sheehan tried his hand at several different fields before discovering a path that worked for him. He started a software company as a teenager but soon realized he preferred more physical, hands-on work. While in school, he worked as an emergency medical technician, which led him to consider a career in medicine, before he fell in love with lab work during a chemistry class.

“I switched to pre-med and started taking pre-med classes on top of that and then I eventually stumbled my way into chemistry. And stumbled is the best verb to use for that.”

Yet academic work was never a passion for Sheehan, who always preferred to learn by doing. He began thinking that it would be interesting to use his chemistry knowledge in a small business context. He thought back to his first small business, and what he’d learned about the enormous energy needs of computer server farms. Here was an exciting, persistent problem that would require new innovations to solve. Energy was a perfect challenge for someone with Sheehan’s preference for hands-on science focused on solving practical problems.

His company, Catalytic Innovations, developed a way to turn water and CO2 into alcohols such as methanols, propanols, ethanols using solar energy. If he’s successful, he won’t just have a successful business; he’ll have created a sustainable business model for renewable energy that could help the entire planet. “The goal of my company is to make a solar fuels reactor that is economically viable,” he said. “And as a part of that, we’ve taken these component technologies and we’ve put them into all sorts of different industries.”

Now he’s traveling the world, making connections and deals that will help his company grow. It’s hard work, but Sheehan said that sense of ownership is exactly why he started a company in the first place. “If I were to work for someone else to do that, then they would have to tell me when I couldn’t commercialize a product and when I could. So I’d prefer to be able to have the control over what I’m doing that a start-up gives me,” he said.

“A lot of chemical companies are trying to be sustainable, but I think they’re not necessarily taking the right approaches and I think that there’s a better way to do things. And so that’s one of the reasons that I have a start-up is because I want to be able to do things in a way where I’m not controlled by a large organization or board of directors that has their own agenda.”

Read Selected Research from Dr. Staff Sheehan:

Selective Electrochemical Oxidation of Lactic Acid Using Iridium-Based Catalysts
Ind. Eng. Chem. Res., 2017, 56 (13), pp 3560–3567
DOI: 10.1021/acs.iecr.6b05073

Performance Enhancement for Electrolytic Systems through the Application of a Cobalt-based Heterogeneous Water Oxidation Catalyst
ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng., 2015, 3 (6), pp 1234–1240
DOI: 10.1021/acssuschemeng.5b00229

Electrochemical Activation of Cp* Iridium Complexes for Electrode-Driven Water-Oxidation Catalysis
J. Am. Chem. Soc., 2014, 136 (39), pp 13826–13834
DOI: 10.1021/ja5068299

Plasmonic Enhancement of Dye-Sensitized Solar Cells Using Core–Shell–Shell Nanostructures
J. Phys. Chem. C, 2013, 117 (2), pp 927–934
DOI: 10.1021/jp311881k

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