Uphill, But Worth It: My Cyclotron Road Story
It’s a good question, the one that Bob Dylan once asked, about how many roads a person must walk down. Conventional wisdom tells you the paths are many, but sometimes it’s just about finding the right one. This crystallized for me with my recent stint as an executive-in-residence with Cyclotron Road.
I started in the energy storage industry in 2004 (such as it existed then) and in 2009 joined Tesla to run its powertrain business development, and to also jumpstart the effort to put Tesla’s batteries on the electric grid. By the time that effort formally launched as Tesla Energy in 2015, I had seen my share of change in the industry.
But, after years of rocket-like growth, culminating in the acquisition of SolarCity in 2016, Tesla was a pretty different place from when I started, with a bigger headcount by two orders of magnitude and a new class of problems to be solved. Also, the grid storage industry was much more mature, and new opportunities for entrepreneurship were opening as never before. I knew at some point I’d like to get back to the earlier stage of an enterprise that I enjoy so much but nevertheless, when I left Tesla in December of that year, it was without any particular idea for what might come next. I certainly didn’t think I’d start an energy storage company myself.
But having spent all that time thinking about energy storage, I found that, even as I explored ancillary markets like agriculture or water — well, I just kept thinking about energy storage all the time. And with a bit of time and a chance to think about things without the daily pressures of ramping sales or delivering product (not to mention being able to do soul-nourishing things like chaperoning my kids’ field trips), I considered what might come next for storage. Lithium ion batteries were getting cheap and plentiful — driven in no small part by my former employer. But beyond that, based on the state-of-the-art at the time, it was clear that no viable options existed to be able to cost-effectively store electricity for months or seasons, and that seemed to be the ultimate problem we’d need to solve in order to have a fully renewable grid. But big questions loomed: How could those technical hurdles be cleared? And what near term value would this kind of solution have in the market?
I had my own very preliminary answers, but to really get to the bottom of things, I also needed deep scientific expertise that I don’t possess. I’m very fortunate to be tapped into the considerable brain trust within the Bay Area, and one of the first calls I made was to Ilan Gur. A battery expert himself, Ilan founded Cyclotron Road, a really unique program that, through two-year entrepreneurial research fellowships, supports scientists and engineers who want to advance new technology concepts into products. The program is run in partnership with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Ilan and I sat down and the dialogue started rolling. Pretty soon, he pulled in his colleagues and we were all having a quite interesting conversation about whether what I had proposed might be possible. Through a lucky bit of kismet, the California Energy Commission had, as part of its goal of fostering innovation in the clean energy sector, recently granted Cyclotron Road funding to launch an executive-in-residence (EIR) program. And much to my own surprise, Ilan strongly encouraged me to not just start a company to formally pursue the energy storage idea I came up with, but to consider doing so while helping them pilot the Cyclotron Road EIR program.
The EIR role was launched in order to pair seasoned industry folks with Cyclotron Road fellows, providing them with an additional sounding board for their ideas and market strategies — basically a way to amplify the program team’s well-honed process for separating good technical ideas from bad. Cyclotron Road wanted to fill the inaugural EIR role with an executive who was also considering doing a new entrepreneurial project themselves, with the idea that they themselves might draw inspiration and value from the Cyclotron Road community and process. Though I had been a part of very early enterprises, and had done my own intrapreneur thing with Tesla, leading the creation of a company from zero to one (or even half of one) was new.
The six-month experience was more than I possibly could have hoped for. The talent of the Cyclotron Road fellows was off-the-charts inspiring, and the environment — collaborative and passionate — felt exactly right from the outset. (I remain in good touch with more than a few of the fellows.) And the view from the Lawrence Berkeley Lab! Literally the best in the Bay Area. I knew I’d be able to help the cohort teams accelerate their efforts. What surprised me was how valuable Cyclotron Road’s community and library of resources could be for me personally.
Through my interactions with the program, I connected with my IP counsel, an early investor, and an unbeatable set of technical resources that helped scrutinize and improve the idea. And in the end, although I couldn’t say for sure that my startup idea would work just yet, I became more confident knowing some of the world’s very smartest people couldn’t say for sure it wouldn’t work! And that, along with validation of the enormous potential impact we could have, was enough to keep me moving forward. My time at Cyclotron Road had given me the kick to go do it.
Before serving as EIR, I had always wondered why they chose to name the organization Cyclotron Road. It used to seem a bit clunky in my mind. But now, with the perspective of being a year or so down my own entrepreneurial path in a hard tech company, I see the wisdom of the name. The actual road connects the UC Berkeley campus with the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. It’s a steep uphill, so you really have to want to get there. It’s a windy road, so you can’t see what’s coming around a corner, and even if you do get to the top, given that it’s a National Lab, there’s literally a guard gate preventing you from going any further. But if you reach the top, well, again, the view! In short, I came to understand that the name is a perfect analogy for what it means to be a technical entrepreneur, and the eponymous organization is doing perhaps the most important bit of all: giving some of the most talented scientists, engineers and executives the momentum they need to get on the road and go change the world.
Mateo Jaramillo is currently co-founder and executive chairman of Form Energy, a company working on developing ultra-low cost, long duration storage. Prior to serving as the inaugural executive in residence at Cyclotron Road, he founded Tesla Energy and spent eight years bringing new energy storage products to market.
We at Cyclotron Road were incredibly fortunate to have Mateo serve as our inaugural executive-in-residence and are really thankful that he has shared his experience for us in this post.