Rick Costantino of Group14 Technologies: “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration”

“Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” This quote by the great Thomas Edison, one of my most notable scientific heroes, drives how I approach the world in the lab or in my relationships with family and friends. If I throw out 100 ideas, even if 99 of them are ridiculous, the last […]

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“Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” This quote by the great Thomas Edison, one of my most notable scientific heroes, drives how I approach the world in the lab or in my relationships with family and friends. If I throw out 100 ideas, even if 99 of them are ridiculous, the last one is going to be one that is great. This mentality taught me to seek out new approaches to problems, even if others say it will not work.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rick Costantino.

Rick Costantino is the co-founder and CTO of Group14 Technologies, a Washington-based startup commercializing an innovative lithium-silicon battery technology designed to increase energy density by 50 percent to meet global demand for energy storage. Rick holds more than 50 U.S. patents and has over 30 years of experience developing stable, high-performance products at the molecular level with a career spanning the chemical, biopharmaceutical and energy storage industries. Rick holds a B.S. and M.S. in Chemical Engineering from Johns Hopkins University and a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from MIT.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My mother will tell you that even as a child, I felt like I needed to collect anything and everything and to study it to figure out how all of the pieces worked together. It didn’t surprise her that I went on to study science, and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to kick-off my career as a lab technician working on molecular cloning while I was studying chemical engineering at Johns Hopkins. From there, I went on to work in several labs, including one where I studied an ancient organism that was newly discovered in hydrothermal vents in the ocean. It was really grueling work, but I loved it.

All of the scientific training I had at Johns Hopkins and later at MIT gave me a deep appreciation of how to study, refine, and solve problems — first in the biopharmaceutical space and then unexpectedly in energy storage. A few years back, I co-edited a book on the Lyophilization of Biopharmaceuticals (I know, it’s a mouthful). My co-editor and I used to joke that we’d make enough in one year to share a dinner, but that venture paid off in an unexpected way. That’s how I came to meet Rick Luebbe, who I later teamed with to launch Group14 in 2015. At that time, Rick was running EnerG2, a startup working on nano-engineered carbons for energy storage applications such as ultracapacitors and lead acid batteries. He found my book in a simple Google search and reached out to chat about my expertise in freeze drying; turns out, my expertise in freeze drying was exactly what he and EnerG2 needed to solve their technical issues at that time to help commercialize those carbon materials. From there, we spun out the idea for Group14 and began applying what we had developed to tackle one of the biggest challenges in energy storage. We imagined how we could improve lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, consumer devices, aerospace and beyond.

I’d had a lengthy career in the pharmaceutical industry working with giants and mid-sized startups, but working with Rick Luebbe and the team to found Group14 was a new experience. The biggest unexpected benefit for me was that I was coming into a field without a preconceived notion about what was possible. Not being a trained electrochemist helped me look at this long standing problem with lithium-ion batteries and really think about how we could push the limits of energy storage.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

The thing about lithium-ion batteries — the ones in your phone or laptop or TV — is that it is powered by almost the same technology since the 1980s. As a result, we have seen small incremental improvements in energy density over the last decade or so. As we head towards the future, conventional lithium-ion powered batteries will not be enough to unlock the electrification of everything from electric vehicles to electric aircrafts.

What the team at Group14 set out to do is re-think a portion of the conventional battery starting with the anode, replacing graphite with a silicon-carbon composite to unlock up to 50% or even higher increase in energy density. While silicon has 10 times the capacity of graphite, scientists have shied away from incorporating silicon into lithium-ion batteries because the material has a tendency to expand and contract. After many iterations, we figured out a way to harness the power of silicon within a porous carbon scaffold to dramatically improve its electrochemical performance. Our flagship product SCC55™, a lithium-silicon battery material, is created through a patented two-step process to optimize battery performance across any use case. More importantly, in this “on-demand” era, we can produce SCC55™ efficiently at scale to meet commercial demand. You could take our flagship product and drop it into any current manufacturing infrastructure to produce higher-performing lithium-ion batteries today.

Across all industries, we see the same theme: how batteries can create more powerful devices. I believe SCC55™ will completely reshape how engineers think about energy storage and enable even more innovation in any battery-powered device.

Right now, we are working with battery manufacturers and their customers to improve performance and lower the cost of electric vehicles — from bikes to cars to vans and more. Our goal is to see electric vehicles at cost parity with combustion engines to accelerate the electrification of everything — not tomorrow, but today.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was just starting out as a junior scientist, I was working to develop a new product and to present the results on a call with our development partner funding the project. It was our most important project, our most important partner, and my first time speaking to the executives, but I had prepped and I knew I was ready.

This was back in the day when we would all huddle around one phone in the conference room. Our team was just wrapping up introductions on the call, and I thought of a question I wanted to ask so I turned to my colleague and hit what I thought was the mute button. Turns out, I accidentally pressed the call button and hung up on the executives on the line. This was my first exposure to the executives of both companies, and I was completely mortified. After the longest pause, we dialed back into the conference call and proceeded with our meeting.

I’m glad to say I haven’t had a repeat performance since then, but it goes to show that we all make mistakes, big or small, and that we just have to push through and focus on the bigger picture. Who knows? Maybe an incident that seemed completely mortifying at the time becomes a story you can laugh about years later.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I am privileged to have had several fantastic mentors throughout my career. At the very top of that list are my two advisors from MIT, Professor Alex Klibanov in Chemistry and Professor Robert Langer in Chemical Engineering. Each had very different working styles: Alex was very much hands on, challenging every detail and finding on the basis of first principles, while Bob was the opposite.

One of my strongest memories is working with Alex on my first scientific paper. He asked me to come in on a Saturday, and I remember thinking how excited I was to show him what I had written. As soon as he sat down, he told me that he had read only one sentence and was already irritated. It was not what I was expecting to hear, and I thought he was being too hard on me until I read the sentence back to him. Suffice to say, it was not a great sentence. The revision process was painful to say the least, but it taught me how to zone in on the most critical details and always be concise.

On the other hand, what I learned from Bob happened outside of the lab on the field. We were part of an intramural softball team, and by no means were we good, but I would see Bob diving for the ball every single time and he’d still push us to win every game. It was amazing to see the most prestigious scientist in his field not hesitating a bit to get his jersey dirty. Bob’s tenacity taught me that success is driven by attitude and hard work, and to never give up.

Both had amazing scientific insights, and I developed my own style of solving problems on the basis of both approaches. Now, these are stories that I share with my team at Group14 and what shapes our core values at the company.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

We associate disruptive technologies with lengthy and painful processes to get to the next level of performance. Companies that tout entirely new batteries are at the point of being too disruptive; in needing to completely reimagine the battery, which powers everything nowadays, we are looking at high capital costs and long timelines until we have a product that is ready for everyday use. That is one of the driving principles we kept in mind when we founded Group14.

Rather than reinventing the whole wheel, we looked at how we could disrupt one key component of the battery: the anode. We wanted to develop a drop-in ready technology that works seamlessly with the current infrastructure involved in the production of batteries. Rather than reinventing the materials, production facilities and more, we can just swap out the current anode material with SCC55™ and produce a battery that is ready to go in your electric vehicle, wireless earphones, or even your Pacemaker.

To be successfully disruptive, the technology should be able to seamlessly integrate with other technologies to avoid delays in hitting the market. You know what they say, one small change can ultimately lead to big waves.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

“Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” This quote by the great Thomas Edison, one of my most notable scientific heroes, drives how I approach the world in the lab or in my relationships with family and friends. If I throw out 100 ideas, even if 99 of them are ridiculous, the last one is going to be one that is great. This mentality taught me to seek out new approaches to problems, even if others say it will not work.

“Words mean what they mean!” That quote was from MIT Professor Alex Klibanov upon reviewing my admittedly poor first attempt to write a scientific paper. Data doesn’t lie, and it’s one of the reasons why at Group14 we stress scientific honesty, clarity, and conciseness in all our communications.

“Give it your all and never give up,” that was the motto of Prof Langer. Whether in the intramural softball field or in the lab, Bob had an amazing tenacity that inspired everyone around him.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I don’t think I’ll ever be done. The team at Group14 is fantastic at continuing to push the envelope everyday, and it has really inspired me to stay motivated. One milestone that I just hit recently is that I now hold more patents than my age, so check back in next year to see if I continue to stay ahead of the curve.

My life is always changing, and it’s fun seeing where it takes me, who I get to meet, and the lives I am able to impact with my work. Over the years, I have worked for large and small companies — from thousands, to hundreds, to dozens, to Group14 — which started with just 5 people. After quite a few iterations refining our product, we are now scaling up commercially to meet market demand globally.

I can’t wait for the day when I can buy a new phone or ride an e-bike or drive my family around in my vehicle and know that product is powered by Group14 to be longer lasting and higher performing. I’m really proud to know that our work has the potential to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and mitigate carbon emissions. At the end of the day, everyone at Group14 is eager to go to work each day because of the impact we know our technology will have on the planet.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I am drawn to individuals who aren’t afraid of reinventing things, no matter how tough it may be. In Tesla’s Battery Day podcast, Elon Musk reiterated that non-obvious approaches to tough problems can yield logical breakthroughs in the end: ”…everything is simple in recollection… it’s hard until it’s discovered and then it’s simple.”

That mindset is how we drive ourselves every day at Group14 to keep looking at problems from different angles until we have that “aha” moment.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of the most important life lessons I’ve learned came to me through a different kind of language: music. I joined the Boston Symphony Chorus when I was in school, and had the opportunity to work with one of my favorite conductors, Seiji Ozawa. Our concerts were often held outdoors, where we were competing with the elements and the noises of life. On one particularly windy day, a gust of wind swept Seiji’s sheets of music from his stand. As we all watched the sheets fly away, Seiji remained calm, not missing a single beat. As it turned out, Seiji didn’t need the score in front of him since he had it memorized all along. Of course, the accomplished maestro had everything he needed, and any flipping of music pages was for the audience.

That was a major lesson in always being prepared for the unexpected. Life has a way of testing us, so it’s important to be ready at all times.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

There is a misconception about having to choose one field in your life, but I believe that it’s never too late to make a switch. I have been incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work across a variety of industries from biopharmaceuticals to energy storage. We have to inspire each other to step out of our comfort zones so we can continue to grow in new directions. Every individual has the power to be their own roadmap, to follow their wildest dreams.

Most importantly, every individual has the ability to find value and purpose in their work. I still have that same childhood yearning to understand the world around me. I’m fortunate to be able to go to work every day to develop new technologies that can improve the quality of life for people, new products that can positively impact our planet. I had that satisfaction when I started my career in developing new pharmaceuticals, and I am fortunate to have that same satisfaction commercializing new battery technologies. Nothing is more satisfying than knowing that what I do, what my entire team does, is to help our planet become more sustainable for future generations.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me on LinkedIn.

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