How Battery Startup Advano Went from Pitching Silicon Bayou to Crushing Silicon Valley: a Chat with CEO Alex Girau
The startup journey certainly is a woeful one and that story has been no different for Advano than it has been for any other long-storied startup. Especially when it comes to hardware.
Advano is 10-man startup out of Silicon Valley that does batteries. More specifically, Advano does lithium-ion batteries with new applied technology using surface functionalized silicon nanoparticles. Which, to me, and likely you, is one of those things I hear, have no idea what it means, but it sounds intense. More on this later.
This fall, Advano just finished up being one of the main features in the summer cohort for Silicon Valley-based accelerator, Y Combinator, and are now batting away investors like flies on honey. Soon, Advano will be closing its first venture round.
At first, this sounds like a pretty standard timeline for a startup. Get some seed, get into an accelerator, get intuitional investors scale a bit and then sail away to Aruba. Except, for Advano, this is that moment that has been on the horizon for three years since their birth in 2014.
That’s where the real story begins.
Up until February 2017, Advano was a one-man team, founder Alex Girau, with no investments and a whole slew of part-time contractors and university undergrads. The only thing harder than the first customer is the first employee and/or co-founder. These were the woes of several years.
However, just like a slow-moving train cresting a hill, Advano hit a point of high momentum. In February, Girau brought on Dr. Shiva Adireddy, a research professor of Physics at Tulane.
As a co-founder, then in March the team scored a $500,000 seed investment led by Fifty Years VC and Social Impact Capital. In April he was accepted to Y Combinator, and then now, in September, is closing a second round of capital including institutional investors.
Talking with Girau, he reflected on the moment, “We pretty much went from two guys sitting in a lab writing grants and doing a lot of experiments to — with that 500k, in a matter of two months — having our own 1500 square foot lab at four employees. Now, we’re at ten employees and probably even more.”
While Advano has a long way to go, they have great momentum. However, if Girau hadn’t been plugging away, making crazy bets and honing the Advano message for the last four years, the team would have laid an egg at Y Combinator.
Instead, the team displayed themselves as experts and were shining brightly on demo day.
What most impresses me about Advano is that the team has to pitch and explain to people what lithium-ion batteries with silicon nanoparticles are, just as fast as other startups share their rather banal pitches on “faster grocery delivery” or “UBER for smelly socks.”
This is why I caught up with the founder and CEO Alex Girau. He’s a wizard with his words.
The notable tale of Advano is not one of their recent successes but the one of their journey and slog from 2013 to today. It’s easy to see it paid off, but it takes some tenacity to show up for four years and have, on paper, relatively nothing to show for it.
Hopping on the phone with Girau, he filled me in on the origins of Advano and how it became a thing:
“I was actually enrolled at Tulane for my Ph.D. in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the technology for Advano actually combines new technologies that were formed from two groups of people, one in the Chemical Engineering Department and one in the Chemistry Department.
Basically, our big breakthrough with Advano is that we make silicon nanoparticles with unique surface chemistry which make batteries way better. One of the biggest problems, though, is that silicon nanoparticles are hard to make at commercial scale. However, this Chemical Engineering team had found a way to manufacture these nanoparticles at scale at a low price. Secondly, the team from the Chemistry Department was specializing in how to apply and use silicon chemistry is unique ways. This combination of both is what created the fundamental technology that Advano is bringing to market.
I knew this was big but honestly, at the time, but I didn’t know for how or for what.”
As Girau continued on, he shared that nanoparticles are 1000 times smaller than the diameter of human hair. Which I think is cool. But more importantly, he noted this new technology was actually intended to be used for gene therapy as targeted drug delivery vehicles. As he described it, “silicon nanoparticles would be like the Trojan horse delivering a drug payload.”
Regardless of this technology, Girau shared that he had already caught the startup bug. In his second year of his Ph.D. program, he worked to create a water bottle that was able to disinfect water using solar energy. He had teamed up with a medical student and begun applying and winning business plan competitions.
Later in 2013, after his third year in the Ph.D. program, he actually dropped out, licensed the nanoparticle technology from Tulane and went to start Advano. As he shared:
“For the first year, I consulted Fortune 10 Companies to save some money to really start the company properly. Then I started writing the business plan for Advano. I was looking for the hot industry to apply this technology to because I knew that this gene delivery method was going to take forty years to get through the FDA. And I didn’t want to have gray hair by the time this thing takes off. I literally spent another year trying to find the right market. Doing industry analyses.”
Eventually, as you can infer, Girau hit on batteries. In his words:
“Right now we don’t have a problem generating energy. We have more solar than we know what to do with. But the problem is how do we store it cheaply and efficiently and how do we leverage it in times where energy is not being generated? That’s batteries and it’s one of the few things that I see that is truly bottlenecking society.”
Saving the details, which are actually massively interesting, Girau explained to me in literally five minutes how applying silicon nanoparticles to batteries changes everything (essentially making them store way more energy in less space) and is truly a game changer for the industry.
And I got it. I was legitimately sold and I know nothing about batteries. Reviewing the transcript of our call, I literally said, “Wow. If I’m an investor, I’m pulling up money.”
This is exactly what makes Advano such a neat story to tell. Pitching “The UBER for Dog Biscuits” is easy and also probably not a real problem. Advano solves a real problem and Girau was able to communicate the fundamentals of chemistry, nanotechnology and the market opportunity, in five minutes, to me, a guy who does none of that.
Because of this, I predict mega growth for Advano down the road.
Obviously, though, once Girau picked batteries, it wasn’t all roses. Going from business plan to smooth five-minute pitch took a while. About two and a half years actually.
He shared that when you launch a company, “entrepreneurs just pass you off as the new guy and investors don’t even give you a look off the bat because you don’t even know how to take investment or what protocols to follow.”
To compound noobie status, Girau discussed the pains of finding partners where he struggled to find another co-founder, people telling him he was too young to be CEO and many other faltering part-time co-workers.
Girau spoke it most well when he was reflecting on his journey in 2013 when he began the consulting:
“in the first year, you quit your job and you get all high and mighty with a large ego. And then, in the second year, what happens is reality smacks you in the face and you get humbled so quickly because you really have no idea what you’re doing. And then, in the third year, things start to change.
You’ve been around the block long enough. Entrepreneurs, they respect grittiness, and if they keep seeing you around they say, ‘Alright, well this guy, maybe he’ll stick around. He’s grinding it out, okay, that’s respectable.’ You’ve been told ‘No.’ by so many investors that you learn how to play the game and become investable.”
Girau, I think, really summarizes the startup experience. While Advano launched in 2014, Girau began the journey in 2013, which, sometimes we forget, was a really long time ago. 2013 was the year of the Boston Bombings, Obama was just beginning his second term and Google Glass was still a thing.
Between then and now, Girau has quietly chipped away at lithium-ion batteries.
Closing up our discussion, I asked Girau what philosophies he lives by and what advice he might have to share, this is what he said:
“The first philosophy I live by is to enjoy the process. I love what I do because I love every single day of the process. I fundamentally love every single thing I’m doing. Normal jobs, your highs are just high and your lows are just low.
Not very big. But when you do a startup, things are magnified. Your highs are really high and your lows are really low. You need to have the amnesia. It’s like in sports. The last play doesn’t matter. You need to have amnesia. It really is enjoying the process because it’s going to be a long one.”
“Additionally, a piece of advice I have is that I spent way too much time asking people for their opinions on a pitch deck. What happens is, it turns out there are too many cooks in the kitchen.
An Angel Investor has a different angle than a Venture Capitalist. Those are two different points of view that you really should not be trying to conjoin into one seamless presentation.”
And that’s all there is to it.
To keep up with Advano, be sure to check out their website. If you want to catch up with Alex Girau, you can reach him on Twitter here. I highly recommend asking about how silicon nanotechnology works with batteries.
It’ll take five minutes and it’ll blow your mind.
Until next time.