You might be excused for thinking that the success of Tesla Motors is entirely due to the brilliance of its leader, Elon Musk. OK, perhaps with a wee bit of help from his friend, JB Straubel?
Well, that media delusion was dispelled last week when Tesla threw open the doors of its Palo Alto Headquarters and showed off a panel of top female engineers and leaders. The occasion was the 44th in a series of Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners, a popular women in tech group founded by Angie Chang and managed by the energetic Sukrutha Raman Bhadouria.
The group of 100 female techies was treated to Tesla Model S rides, product demos, networking with key members of the Tesla team; and a rare view of the Tesla patent wall (see photos below).
But the highlight of the evening was a lively panel of Tesla engineers and executives, including Katie Noble (Systems Integration Engineering Manager), Lauren Fullerton (Electronic Design Engineer), Miriam Vu (Product Manager), and Troy Nergaard (Senior Hardware Development Engineering Manager). Tesla’s Susan Repo (VP, Global Tax) did a solid job moderating the event and exploring:
1. The challenges of working at Tesla
2. Being a woman at Tesla
3. The importance of soft skills at Tesla
4. The legal action that Tesla faces from car dealers in some U.S. states.
“You work with aggressive people occasionally, both male and female… Passions are high at Tesla and things can get heated…If someone blows up, you try not to internalize things…(and) appreciate the passion they have for a particular problem.” Katie Noble
“At Tesla, you don’t have time to take the wrong path. As a leader you need to know when to step in.” Troy Nergaard
On Time Pressures at Tesla
“With Tesla moving so quickly, we may not have all the answers right up front before we start moving… We are a very small team in a company that’s trying to do a lot of things, so time is of the essence.” Miriam Vu
On The Types Who Work at Tesla
“There are “car geeks” and there are “green geeks.” Troy Nergaard
The Bay Area Girl Geeks Dinners boasts a membership of over 8,000 and demand for the events – hosted at top Silicon Valley companies like Google, Yahooo and Facebook etc are typically over-subscribed. This Tesla event had 2000 signups for 100 tickets. As a result Chang and Raman Bhadouria have created a lottery sytesm for tickets.
Let’s face it, President Obama is struggling to get anything through Congress right now, never mind a national energy policy, but here’s a big idea from Berkeley’s Jennifer Granholm to create more clean energy and clean jobs… from the bottom up.
You may remember Jennifer Granholm as the Governor of Michigan (2003-2011), the TV host of “The War Room” or the passionate speechmaker at the DNC 2012; but perhaps her most lasting contribution to the world will be this big idea: a Clean Energy Race to the Top.
Leveraging her experience in Michigan, where she attempted to transform the state’s “rustbelt” image to “greenbelt” by investing heavily in clean energy and green jobs, she’s seen the strategy’s economic impact and is eager to keep the momentum going. This time, on a national basis.
Modeled after the Education Race to the Top (RTT), her clean energy idea is to offer a pot of money to incentivize all 50 states to compete and raise their clean energy standards to 80% by 2030. Just think: The Amazing Race for Clean Energy.
Her budget? A cool $4.5 Billion. By her calculations, that’s less than one tenth of 1% of Federal funding (and close to the RTT budget for education), nevertheless in today’s economy, funding prospects look grim.
Granholm’s Clean Energy Race to the Top sounds like a smart idea, but in these times of brutal belt tightening and sequestration, securing that funding looks like mission impossible. It will be fascinating to watch the debate unfold here and at her TED talk; and see if she gets any traction for it during this congress.
It might not be perfect time for a Clean Energy Race to the Top, but don’t expect the idea to wither and die. Granholm may be keeping a relatively low profile as a law professor at UC Berkeley these days, but if there’s another Clinton (or Obama) in the White House in 2016 or beyond (I’m talking Hillary or Michelle), we may see Granholm taking a cabinet role. She’s earning her stripes for a position as Energy Secretary, and that could one day make her big idea a reality.
This Fresh Dialogues interview took place at the Claremont Hotel, Berkeley on February 21, 2013
The panel shared insights about the green economy, as well as tips for finding and securing green investments and green jobs. Here are highlights of our conversation (edited for space and clarity).
What are hot sectors in the green economy?
Josh Green, Mohr Davidow Ventures: “In the current environment, we’re looking for less capital intensive deals (energy efficiency, LED lighting and building management systems), so that means we’re on the side of energy demand much more than energy production. People call this cleantech IT – Information Technology. I’m an investor in Xicato, an LED module company. The LED convergence will happen…the payback is less than two years and (it’s) equivalent to halogen light. You don’t have to replace them for ten years or more and especially in a commercial settings, you end up lowering your maintenance costs.”
On cleantech growth sectors in Silicon Valley
Nanci Klein, Office of Economic Development, City of San Jose: “People say manufacturing has left the US…but manufacturing is very exciting here. When you talk about innovation and commercialization, Silicon Valley is a hub around new product introduction. Contract manufacturers will take a low volume, high mix of products. …the ten largest in the world – Tier One contract manufacturers – are all here in Silicon Valley, six of them in San Jose. They’re like a secret weapon resource. We try to link baby investors to these companies. You take someone with a hot idea and you put them with all of the accelerated services…if the product is good you can have a rocket in terms of acceleration.”
Josh Green, Mohr Davidow Ventures: “The loan guarantee program is operating well within the loan loss reserves. Certain loans are going to fail…The Solyndra mess became a big political football…the good news is that we’ve passed the half life…Congress officially stopped all its hearings. There will be continued efforts to end the loan guarantee program…but Solyndra itself: it’s over in terms of an issue. As investors, it never was an issue, it was a company that was not successful…I’ve got a portfolio with lots of companies that are not successful. Out of 100 investments, if you have 10 that meet your investment objectives (10x your money or better) then you’re ‘wildly’ successful, that makes you a top venture capitalists. That means you have a 90% – under your expectations success – rate.”
Tips on getting a green job
Linda Keala, Director of HR, SolarCity:
1. “A background in cleantech is not a prerequisite.”
2. “Differentiate yourself – what about the job (post) got you inspired? What resonated about the company?”
3. “I love getting handwritten letters. A personalized message tells me this is who I am, this is what I can bring to the company. Sometimes I get them in little pink envelopes…”
4. “Touch a spot in our hearts and we’ll take a close look at that resume.”
Josh Green, Mohr Davidow Ventures: “Have passion to change the world.”
How to get a job in Google’s Green Team (there are currently seven openings in the sustainability/green team areas)
Parag Chokshi, Clean Energy Public Affairs Manager at Google:
Here are the qualities Google looks for:
1. “Be a self starter, work independently and drive forward a project.”
2. “Think about creative solutions. We value innovation and creativity.”
3. “Show passion and new ways of thinking about things…that is very valuable.”
How is the City of San Jose helping entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and beyond?
Josh Green, Mohr Davidow Ventures: “Storage is the most important development that could happen for our grid at the utility scale storage level as well as the emerging EV market to encourage the widespread adoption of EVs. ON the grid side, there is NO storage…the second you produce an electron it has to be consumed…this results in the creation of “Peaker Plants” used for 5-15 hours a year (especially in August). Storage has the greatest potential to unlock value.
In the transportation sector, lithium ion batteries are the lightest batteries and they still weigh about 1400 lbs in the new Tesla Model S. To the extent that you can get these to be a smaller battery pack you can unlock incredible advantages.
For the next 10 years, lithuim ion technologies are going to be where batteires and storage are focused. There are about 50-60 venture backed companies in the Bay Area, working on advanced battery technology. Mohr Davidow has invested in extracting lithium from geothermal brine at goethermal plants in Southern California. Its the lowest cost producer in the world with the best environmental footprint. We believe that lithium will help fuel the storage revolution.“
Tesla Motors released its first batch of all electric Model S sedans today. The cars are actually built – not just assembled – at the Tesla Factory in high priced Silicon Valley. The company’s CEO, Elon Musk, says he’s creating “the greatest car company of the 21st Century,” yet despite the hoopla, Tesla is one of the most shorted stocks on the Nasdaq. Will this ambitious entrepreneur – who led the successful SpaceX mission to the international space station last month – prove detractors wrong again?
I visited the factory on June 14 and Gilbert Passin, VP of Manufacturing at Tesla gave me a fascinating two hour tour. He explained the process of making a Model S, from the stamping shop, where huge hydraulic press machines stamp sheets of aluminum into 3-dimensional fenders, hood panels, doors, and roofs; to the quality testing where the paint work is meticulously checked and recycled water is used to test each model’s watertightness.
At the stamping shop, Passin says, “These parts are extremely critical because it’s like the foundation of what makes a good car…See the robot is actually picking up the part in slow motion to make sure that everything works well…you don’t want anything to break.”
Shiny red robots and red T-shirt clad employees work hard at the factory: stamping, assembling, welding, painting and testing. The release of the first ten Model S Sedans is a big milestone for this innovative company. We talk to Charles James Lambert, who is a team leader working on the stylish and unique door handles Tesla manufactures at the factory. “I’m building a door handle that’s going on something fabulous to me: the model S…so sexy to me, the car, right?” he says. “That we have a door handle that responds. It’s pure elegance to me.”
Steve Jurvetson, a Tesla board member, snagged the very first prelaunch Model S (Elon Musk had to wait for number 2) and raves about it with the wide-eyed glee of a teenager describing his first set of wheels. “It’s kind of like driving in a hyper space portal to the future…” says Jurvetson.
Yet this futuristic car, that accelerates 0-60 in 4.4 seconds, does so in a whisper, not a roar. Jurvetson argues that silent is better. “It’s like saying I sleep better when there’s industrial noise going on outside my house, really?” he says and suggests that for drivers who miss the roar of an internal combustion engine, downloadable sounds might be the answer… “People can make it sound like whatever you want. You know, Harley Davidson: “huff pwuffpwuff pwuff.” Fine…just dial it up…blast your ears out…who cares?” he says.
Jurvetson, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, sincerely believes that all vehicles will be electric one day and Tesla will lead the way. “I love what it represents: emblem of the future and a symbolic step towards a oil-free economy.”
The Model S is phase two of Elon Musk’s masterplan to disrupt the car industry and create efficient sustainable transportation. In 2008, Tesla released the Roadster, a high-end electric sports car priced at over$100,000. With the Model S, Tesla has made a more affordable car, and a year or two after its Model X comes out in 2013, aims to produce a 3rd generation model for $30,000. An electric car “for the masses.” Tesla has already catalyzed an industry shift. Today most major car companies are releasing electric or hybrid models. “Even some of the biggest competitors – the gas burning giants of the past – have admitted that they kicked off their electric vehicle program because they saw what Tesla did,” says Jurvetson. “Management said: this little company in CA is doing it, why can’t we?”
Tesla may be a trailblazer, but it faces a bumpy road ahead. Those shorting the stock (betting that the stock will fall in value on the Nasdaq) have a bearish reaction to Tesla’s high debt levels, tough competition and uncertain prospects for mass-market adoption. But it’s more than just the scrappy startup -the Millennium Falcon (Star Wars)- against the Empire (GM, Ford et al). Damon Lavrinc, Transportation Editor for Wired Magazine explains, “The established players don’t like to be challenged on their own home surf.”
He argues that to succeed, Tesla must address both range anxiety and charging time challenges. Price is also an issue. The 150-mile range car may have a base price of $50,000 after federal rebates. But for the fully loaded 300-mile range model, you’ll pay closer to $100,000. California buyers also get a state rebate ($2500) plus those precious carpool stickers. “Once we can get that price of entry lower, once we can get that battery capacity larger, that’s when it’s really going to take off,” says Damon Lavrinc. So far, Tesla has 10,000 reservations for the Model S and will deliver about half this year, ramping up to 20,000 in 2013, if the orders continue to come.
Experts compare it to the BMW 5 Series, but Tesla’s VP of Manufacturing explains its edge. “We’ll change the world by bringing a product that’s extremely efficient, very clean for theplanet, extremely fast, extremely comfortable…extremely beautiful,” says Passin. But Tesla has to get it right the first time, there’s no room for error.
Back in the Tesla Factory, at the end of our tour, Passin explains, “The car has to be finished, has to be perfect, the people working here know this is the end of the line, so it has to be good.” Although these challenges seem formidable, Elon Musk is attacking them like a true tech superhero, channeling the wild ambition of Steve Jobs and his obsessive search for perfection. Musk reportedly works 80-90 hours a week, splitting his time between Tesla and his space exploration company, SpaceX. Elon Musk was reportedly the inspiration for the Iron Man movies. “He may have superpowers, I don’t know,” says Passin, chuckling.
Last month, Musk proved naysayers wrong with his historic SpaceX Mission to the international space station. Can he do the same for the Electric Vehicle market? So much depends upon the successful launch of the Model S sedan. Damon Lavrinc of Wired Magazine sums up what’s at stake: “It’s not just so much a make or break it for Tesla, it is very much a make or break it for the entire electric vehicle industry.”
And he’s got an historic precedent to back his case – from Medieval France no less.
“It’s a very powerful idea that could become something of great importance to California,” he said. “New ideas are never received as well as old ideas, but I think California is the one place where high speed rail can get its start for the United States.”
But with California’s budget in the red and more spending cuts on the table, can California afford to spend a penny on high speed rail?
The 74 year-old governor took a page from history and replied with a question: “How did the peasants of medieval France afford to build the cathedral of Chartres?”
He then enlightened Fresh Dialogues with this answer, “They did it slowly… they did it with community investment and a great belief in the future.”
This echoes Brown’s 2012 State of the State Speech in which he said, “”Those who believe that California is in decline will naturally shrink back from such a strenuous undertaking…I understand that feeling, but I don’t share it because I know this state and the spirit of the people who choose to live here.”
Governor Brown is thinking very long term. In fact, the high gothic Chartres Cathedral, famous for its flying buttresses, took almost 60 years to build.
But it’s an unfortunate analogy. In the 13th Century, the cathedral’s “free trade zone” was also the cause of bloody riots between bishops and civic authorities over tax revenues. An ominous sign indeed for the Governor of California. Plus ca change…
Given Jerry Brown’s recent announcement that $120 M from a settlement with NRG Energy Inc. would be used to fund the provision of 200 public fast-charging stations for EVs in the Golden State (including some 5000 Nissan Leafs he confirmed have been sold to date), Fresh Dialogues also asked the governor if he drives an electric car. “Not yet,” he replied.
In earlier comments today, he referenced the new Tesla Model S, which will roll off production lines at Tesla’s Fremont Factory this summer. So is he considering a Tesla? He demurred. “I’m looking, looking, looking at it.”
Read transcripts, see photos and check out our Energy ARCHIVES featuring exclusive interviews with more green experts and visionaries…
SolarCity’s CEO Lyndon Rive sat down with Fresh Dialogues last week to share details of the solar company’s business model, rapid growth, and ultimate goal of being the world’s largest energy provider. Yes indeed: this 35 year-old entrepreneur from South Africa anticipates no less than world domination.
Although Rive was tight lipped about the impending IPO expected in Q3 this year, he referred to the $280M investment from Google last year and said, “Our expectation is that companies like Google and other Fortune companies start making similar investments.”
“In order to monetize the full benefits of the solar system you need a large tax paying company. .. might as well use that tax bill to motivate the growth of the renewable industry…” he added. “We are approaching hundreds of Fortune 100 and 1000 companies…and will continually be raising funds, potentially in perpetuity.”
SolarCity is targeting companies that can benefit handsomely from the 30% Federal Business Tax Credit for solar investments. Although Rive wouldn’t name names, Apple Inc. springs to mind immediately. Record profits and enormous tax base? Check. Recently inclined to alternative energy investments? Check. In case you missed it, Apple recently invested in a massive 4.8 megawatt fuel cell development using Bloom Energy technology. Watch this space. We’ll keep you updated.
SolarCity’s innovative model offers a range of solar options. Customers can buy systems outright or pay zero down and lease or purchase the power the system produces. Large investments from partners like Google allow the company to make solar affordable and continue growing rapidly. Rive described the company’s business model thus: “(We) install solar systems for free, so we need capital to pay for that, and take a long term revenue stream on the electricity that we sell. So, as fast as we grow, that’s the business model that we’re in.”