Activate: Cohort 2016 Fellow Richard Wang Sells Cuberg to Swedish Battery Manufacturer Northvolt
This article orignally appeared in Activate.
When Fellow Richard Wang joined the Activate Fellowship, he was on a mission to turn his graduate research into a new type of battery that would advance electromobility as a path to addressing climate change. Today marks a key milestone toward that goal and a watershed moment for Activate, where Wang launched his transition from scientist to founder.
Northvolt, a Swedish battery manufacturer, has acquired battery startup Cuberg, Inc., which Wang co-founded in 2015, as reported today in the Wall Street Journal.
With Northvolt’s support, Cuberg will remain in Emeryville, California, and rapidly grow its team to accelerate its battery technology development and commercial deployment for electric aviation and automotive customers. In addition, Cuberg will serve as Northvolt’s Advanced Technology Center for North America, identifying and evaluating compelling technologies to integrate into Northvolt’s automotive battery roadmap. Founded by a former Tesla executive, Northvolt has raised more than $2 billion in funding and is focused on the electric vehicle market. Early partners include Volkswagen and BMW. It is building major manufacturing facilities in Sweden and Germany.
“Given Richard’s goals when he entered the fellowship, it’s hard to imagine a better outcome for Cuberg than to serve as the innovation engine for a multinational electromobility company,” says Ilan Gur, Activate’s CEO. “Richard moved his research from lab to market with incredible speed, a testament to his technical leadership and entrepreneurial drive. We’re privileged to have served as a catalyst for that success and see it as a strong validation of Activate’s mission and fellowship model.”
Cuberg has pioneered the development of lightweight, energy-dense, and safe lithium metal batteries, setting records in performance and demonstrating a generational improvement in energy density compared to the best lithium-ion batteries. The technology, based on a groundbreaking liquid electrolyte combined with a lithium metal anode, can be rapidly scaled up to serve a wide range of zero-emissions electromobility applications because of its compatibility with the existing lithium-ion manufacturing ecosystem.
“My vision has always been to develop the foundation of a valuable technology that has a lot of potential—which is what we’re good at doing, as scientists—and then attract the interests of a large battery company with manufacturing prowess and access to capital that can scale up and commercialize the tech quickly,” says Wang. “That is what we’ve found with Northvolt—it’s a happy marriage.”
Wang co-founded Cuberg and started the Activate Fellowship in 2016 after earning his Ph.D. in materials science at Stanford and working under materials science and engineering professor Yi Cui. Prior to that, Wang interned at Tesla Motors and received his BS in mechanical engineering from Caltech.
The fellowship provided time and financial support at a key, very early stage in the startup’s development and offered Wang a smooth transition out of academia. Still, launching Cuberg just as the battery industry was in the aftermath of a deflated hype bubble, and at a time when several battery startups were faltering, was a huge risk, Wang admits. “I think I may not have taken the leap if not for that early support of the fellowship,” he says. “We had two years to experiment and explore, do our best, and see where it went without jeopardizing your own future careers. That is something I really valued.”
During his two-year fellowship, funded by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, Wang relied on vital technical resources and support from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory as he led Cuberg’s technology development. The startup scaled from a laboratory-scale coin cell demonstration to a cylindrical cell prototype assembled on a lithium-ion manufacturing line in only 12 months.
Through the fellowship, Cuberg also built some key relationships. “It gave us early credibility with investors, customers, and strategic partners,” he says. Before the acquisition, Cuberg had raised $10 million in funding from Boeing HorizonX Ventures, the U.S. Army, the National Science Foundation, and a number of Activate partners, including the California Energy Commission, the U.S. Department of Energy, and CalSEED.
Wang says the mentorship he received during his fellowship was key in shaping him as an entrepreneur focused on climate change, and that tapping into the Activate network was hugely valuable—especially when doing so led to bridge funding for Cuberg at a critical time and positioned the startup for the Northvolt acquisition.
In 2019, Cuberg reached a key performance milestone: In a face-off test, a drone powered by the Cuberg lithium-metal battery showed a 70 percent longer flight time compared to one powered by a lithium-ion battery. In 2020, its cells demonstrated industry-leading performance based on independent testing conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy.
In serving as Northvolt’s Advanced Technology Center for North America, Cuberg will accelerate lithium metal cell development, optimizing the technology for automotive applications, as well as driving materials research and development for best-in-class lithium-ion anode and electrolyte technologies. “Richard and the Cuberg team have shown exceptional ability to develop world-class technology, proven results, and an outstanding customer base in a lean and efficient organization. Combining these strengths with the capabilities and technology of Northvolt allows us to make significant improvements in both performance and safety while driving down cost even further for the next generation of battery cells,” said Peter Carlsson, CEO and co-founder, Northvolt.
Wang is energized by what Northvolt’s acquisition will mean for his personal vision to advance clean energy. “We now have resources to really accelerate our development and commercialization,” he says. ”Ultimately, that is the main thing that I care about--how to get this valuable technology into the market as quickly as possible.”
Since 2015, Activate has supported 83 Activate Fellows who have launched 58 new companies. These companies have raised more than $224M in follow-on funding and created more than 200 U.S.-based high-tech jobs. Activate remains committed to finding and supporting promising science innovators like Wang, whose research has the potential to transform our world and who are driven to bring that research to market for the benefit of society.