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Driving Change

Inside Elon Musk’s Tesla startup ecosystem

Over a dozen former Tesla execs have gone on to establish EV and energy-related startups of their own.

Tesla Super Charging station near the Interstate-5 in Kettleman City, Calif.

Tesla Super Charging station near the Interstate-5 in Kettleman City, Calif. Photo by Sheila Fitzgerald.

The U.S. might be falling behind Europe and China when it comes to the adoption of electric vehicles, but there's one thing that the U.S. — well, specifically California — has been been able to do uniquely well: Over nearly two decades, California has seeded and grown the world's first EV innovation ecosystem.

Say what? Here's how it worked for the web: After the first major internet companies such as Google made it big, a wave of employees went on to create the next-generation of web startups using funds from Silicon Valley and their personal earnings from the success of the company. Sometimes Google would even end up acquiring the startups it indirectly had helped create.

Now, in the emerging electric vehicle industry, over a dozen former Tesla executives have gone on to establish EV and energy-related startups focused on new types of batteries, energy management software and AI for connected vehicles, among other things.

Tesla originally was born out of funding from Silicon Valley, sourced talent from local universities such as Stanford as well as Valley engineers, and sold early cars to California's environmental-leaning tech elite. While Silicon Valley eventually ended up losing a lot in the "cleantech 1.0" era, it spawned Tesla.

Now, after employing up to 40,000 of the Bay Area's brightest and most passionate engineers and tech developers, the EV leader has started to create its own innovation ecosystem.

California also has been aggressively implementing policies that are driving adoption of EVs, from the Advanced Clean Truck Rule, to the clean transit mandate, to state incentives for buying a passenger EV.

I organized this "Tesla founders club" list for a short talk that I gave last week to the United Kingdom's Local Authority Pension Fund Forum, which represents 82 British funds with a collective $389 billion in assets. I was trying to think of something that California could uniquely provide for the global EV market, given that England is aggressively moving toward zero-emission vehicles and London has one of the world's most successful congestion pricing zones. And thank you to my ingenious Twitter feed for suggesting a bunch of these: 

  1. Redwood Materials: Former Tesla Chief Technology Officer JB Straubel recently launched a startup focused on using EV battery scrap to make new batteries and thus reduce the costs of battery production.  
  2. Sila Nanotechnologies: Tesla's seventh employee, Gene Berdichevsky, a Stanford grad, founded this startup to make a silicon-based battery. Using silicon for part of the battery can boost the energy density and lower costs. Last year, Sila Nanotechnologies hired former Tesla vet Kurt Kelty.
  3. Form Energy: Tesla's former vice president in charge of its energy division, Mateo Jaramillo, co-founded a startup looking to build long-duration stationary energy storage.
  4. Wrightspeed: One of Tesla's original co-founders (yes, before Elon), Ian Wright, has been developing a range-extended power train for commercial vehicles. 
  5. Lucid Motors: Formerly named Atieva, and founded by former Tesla VP Bernard Tse, Lucid has evolved into a luxury EV maker with its newly launched Lucid Air. Former Tesla chief engineer Peter Rawlinson leads the company. 
  6. Sibros: A former Tesla engineer, Hemant Sikaria, co-founded Sibros to build connected car systems based on over-the-air software, vehicle networks and data sensor systems. 
  7. Wallbox: Smart-charging startup Wallbox was created by Spanish entrepreneur Enric Asuncion, who previously worked on the Tesla charging network in Europe. 
  8. Northvolt: Swedish battery startup Northvolt was co-founded by former Tesla gigafactory exec Peter Carlsson. The company is building a big battery factory, and has a supply deal with BMW and an investment from Volkswagen. 
  9. InEVit & Tiveni: Tesla co-founder Martin Eberhard (also before Elon) went on to create multiple startups that worked on EV battery pack tech. You might notice that InEVit is Tiveni spelled backward. So there's that! 
  10. Micropower: Former Tesla VP Marco Krapels founded a stationary battery company in Brazil to help wean the country off oil-powered generators during blackouts.  
  11. Span: Startup Span makes a smart energy panel for residential use and was founded by Tesla's former product chief of energy, Arch Rao.
  12. Peloton Technology: One of Peloton's co-founders, Dave Lyons, was Tesla's employee No. 12, where he led development of the Tesla Roadster powertrain. Peloton Technology uses autonomous vehicle tech to help commercial trucks platoon, lowering fuel use and boosting safety. 

This "Tesla founder's club list" is by no means exhaustive and doesn't include the thousands of former Tesla employees that went on to contribute meaningfully to previously founded companies, from Rivian to Apple and Proterra.  

Tesla isn't the only reason that California is home to an emerging EV innovation ecosystem. California also has been aggressively implementing policies that are driving adoption of EVs, from the Advanced Clean Truck Rule to the clean transit mandate to state incentives for buying a passenger EV. Even Lyft and Uber are turning their distributed fleets electric to align with California policy. Thanks, Mary Nichols and team!

This article is adapted from GreenBiz's weekly newsletter, Transport Weekly, running Tuesdays. Subscribe here.

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