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Battery pioneer JB Straubel encourages innovators to ‘reinvent everything’

The Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability hosted the Stanford alum and electric vehicle entrepreneur for a Big Ideas series discussion about how entrepreneurship can change the world.

JB Straubel and Dean Arun Majumdar speak on stage in front of a large audience
JB Straubel and Dean Arun Majumdar discuss clean energy and entrepreneurship onstage at the David and Joan Traitel Building. (Photo credit: Steve Castillo)

Lithium-ion battery innovator, electric vehicle champion, and Stanford alumnus JB Straubel challenged the university community on Feb. 20 to think bigger than ever before about sustainability.

“I think we’re absolutely at a moment in history when we have to reinvent everything,” said Straubel (BS ’98, MS ’00), founder and CEO of battery supply chain pioneer Redwood Materials and former CTO of Tesla.

Straubel’s fireside chat with Dean Arun Majumdar was the latest lecture in the Big Ideas series hosted by the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, which aims to bring global thought leaders to campus to engage the entire Stanford community in sustainability discussions.

“[Sustainability] cannot be achieved by extrapolating the past or making small incremental changes. We need some big ideas in innovation, which is why this Big Ideas lecture series was created in the first place,” Majumdar said when introducing Straubel.

Majumdar then emphasized the need for significant transformation, praising Straubel for his commitment and his thought leadership.

“He’s so passionate about sustainability,” Majumdar said. “And, most importantly, he’s a Stanford alum.”

To Tesla and beyond

The freedom to explore at Stanford was essential in the journey to founding Redwood Materials, Straubel said. 

As an undergraduate in the mid-1990s, he discovered his passion for energy and sustainability in project-based classes taught by Gil Masters, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. 

Straubel designed his own major in energy systems engineering, joined the solar car team, and spent his free time rebuilding an old Porsche into an electric car. In that era, lead-acid batteries were still the best technology for electric vehicles, he noted – a limitation that Tesla and now Redwood have challenged.

After graduation, Straubel co-founded Volacom, an electric aircraft company, which led him to cross paths with Elon Musk in 2003.

Straubel pitched electric airplanes to Musk, who had “absolutely no interest in that,” Straubel said, drawing a laugh from the audience. But when their conversation pivoted to Straubel’s interest in long-range EVs, Musk wrote a check to support the project. Straubel would join Tesla in 2004 as employee number 5.

Tesla’s early days required audacious thinking, Straubel said. Lithium-ion batteries were expensive and plagued by recalls, and “cleantech” wasn’t a term yet, he said, and investors were skeptical. But Tesla leaders still wanted to show the world that electric cars were feasible and desirable.

Lessons in scale

Figuring out how to scale up car and battery production after Tesla introduced Roadster and Model S taught Straubel critical lessons. For the Model 3, Tesla wanted to make more EVs than had ever been sold before – which would double the world’s demand for lithium-ion batteries. Straubel took the lead on the Gigafactory project, where Tesla’s vertical integration approach allowed them to drive down costs faster.

He encouraged Stanford to teach students to understand the supply chain, the manufacturing environment, and automation, and encouraged students to visit factories and see what scale looks like in different industries.

“When we’re talking about these global problems, the scale is gargantuan,” Straubel said. “In order to sort of move the needle on sustainability and energy at the global level, you have to build millions or billions of [a product].”

The potential of thinking big

The possibility of creating a closed-loop supply chain for EV batteries led Straubel to found Redwood Materials. He stepped away from Tesla, but is now on the board. 

“Every atom of that useful, critical material just sits inside the car for its entire life, riding along wherever you go. And all of it is still there at the end of life,” he explained. “So there’s a possibility, technically, to recover and reprocess and re-manufacture nearly 100% … of those materials and keep them in a closed ecosystem, building back into a new generation of batteries and cars, fueling that, powering that, with renewable energy.”

Several audience questions addressed the challenges of global battery recycling. Straubel emphasized the importance of partnering with nonprofits, auto dealerships, junkyards, and more to create opportunities for getting batteries back. He said it could be easier to encourage recycling in emerging markets around the world, where it’s economically valuable for people to recover the raw materials in used batteries. Other markets, such as China, may need policy solutions to make recycling feasible.

The battery recycling vision is part of Straubel’s larger quest to transition completely away from fossil fuels. There is no easy way to break out of the status quo, he said, but entrepreneurship and startups are an incredible tool for making change that isn’t possible within large companies.

Entrepreneurs have to think bigger, Straubel said.

“If you have an idea on how to attack sustainability, challenge yourself, ‘Why can’t it be 100 times bigger?’” he said. “This is the kind of process I think we have to do on every single idea.”

When an audience member asked for Straubel’s advice on how undergraduates can make a genuine impact, he encouraged them to focus on things they’re passionate about – as he did as a student – and consider where they can be most effective.

“When I look back, that’s what I’m most proud of, what was most rewarding for me,” Straubel recalled. “It’s not what made the most money. It’s what made the biggest impact.”

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