Exclusive: New funds for an in-demand Silicon Valley scientist
Charles Koch — the C.E.O. of Koch Industries, the sprawling energy and commodities conglomerate — has funded conservative groups that raise doubts about climate change, part of the considerable political influence that his family fortune wields. Over the past few years, Koch has also been a big investor in batteries — a key technology in the global effort to cut carbon emissions.
An arm of Koch Industries has been betting that the fast-growing electric vehicle industry will generate vast demand for better batteries. Its list of investments includes Aspen Aerogels, Eos Energy Enterprises, Standard Lithium and, now, Blue Current, a start-up helmed by one of Silicon Valley’s favorite scientists, Joseph DeSimone. Koch Strategic Platforms is investing $30 million in Blue Current, which it will use to build a pilot and take it to production, DealBook is first to report.
“We are going to need a lot of batteries,” Elon Musk said last year at a Tesla event. Wood Mackenzie estimates that 18 percent of new cars sold will be electric by 2030, far outstripping current battery output. Battery manufacturing is dominated by companies like Tesla, Panasonic and LG Chem, but new players are emerging. Venture investors in the U.S. put $1.8 billion into the industry in 2021, far above any previous year, according to PitchBook.
DeSimone has helped Blue Current attract buzz. He is named in more than 200 patents, and left a long academic career in the sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University to co-found Carbon, a 3-D manufacturing company, in 2013. (The company raised $680 million in private funding.) DeSimone stepped down as C.E.O. in 2019, becoming chairman of its board, and joined the Stanford faculty the next year. Since then, Silicon Valley has been wondering: What’s next?
Blue Current has worked in stealth mode since 2016, when DeSimone founded it with Nitash Balsara, a professor at U.C. Berkeley. The company is betting on solid-state silicon as a superior technology to batteries that rely on lithium and liquid electrolytes, which are highly flammable. Battery fires are a real problem for electric vehicles: Last year, General Motors had to replace the lithium-ion battery modules in 141,000 cars after some caught on fire. Solid-state batteries using either lithium or silicon are the next big thing for investors, but Blue Current says its silicon-based batteries are safer and have a particularly high energy density, meaning more charge in a smaller space.
Neither battery type is “ready for prime time yet,” said Venkat Srinivasan, the director of the Argonne National Laboratory’s Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science, who has not directly evaluated Blue Current’s technology. A big question is whether the companies in this fast-growing industry can ramp up production enough to become commercially viable. Blue Current now has new funds from a high-profile investor to prove itself.
HERE’S WHAT’S HAPPENING
Oil executives face a grilling over high gas prices. At a congressional hearing today, leaders of Exxon, Chevron and other energy companies are likely to be asked whether they are exploiting the Ukraine invasion to make more money. They are expected to respond by saying that the markets determine the price of gas.
Deutsche Bank makes a big recession call. Analysts at the bank said that the Fed’s fight against inflation would push the U.S. economy into recession next year, becoming the first big bank to make that its base-case forecast. “We no longer see the Fed achieving a soft landing,” the analysts wrote in a report making waves on Wall Street.
JetBlue makes a play for Spirit Airlines. JetBlue’s $3.6 billion offer threatens the budget airline’s merger plan with Frontier, which was agreed to in February. The bid from JetBlue is worth more than Frontier’s, but analysts said the merger with Frontier could be a better fit. Either combination would be sure to face antitrust scrutiny.
President Biden pauses federal student loan payments until September. It will be the sixth such extension since the pandemic began. The delay comes less than a month before payments were scheduled to restart.
Executives leave WarnerMedia ahead of its merger with Discovery. Jason Kilar, head of WarnerMedia, and Ann Sarnoff, chief executive of the WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group, are stepping down. Kilar focused on getting the streaming service HBO Max onto steady ground, while Sarnoff helped break down the walls between the company’s many divisions.
Elon Musk joins Twitter (in the boardroom)
Twitter announced yesterday that it would add Elon Musk, the billionaire leader of Tesla and SpaceX, to its board of directors. The appointment came after weeks of talks initiated by Musk about the future of the company, and a day after Musk disclosed that he had bought a 9.2 percent stake in Twitter, making him the company’s largest shareholder.
As part of an agreement Musk cannot buy more than 14.9 percent of Twitter’s shares, cutting off talk that he might mount an acquisition bid. But he will still have plenty of influence over Twitter’s strategy, and investors seem excited: Twitter’s stock is up about 30 percent over the past two days.
For Twitter, Musk’s appointment may lead to a shift in the way its service operates. Twitter, along with rivals like Facebook and TikTok, has grown by using algorithms to decide what users see. Musk’s vision is to hand control to users, giving them the tools to tailor their feeds as they see fit. Jack Dorsey, who stepped down as Twitter’s C.E.O. in November, has also argued for “decentralizing” the social network.
This could be risky. A decentralized Twitter would most likely be a freer platform, with implications for content moderation, misinformation and other issues that social networks wrestle with. Musk’s freewheeling tweets could also have repercussions when he becomes a Twitter insider. “Given Musk’s tendency to say or tweet newsworthy things, he could well land himself or Twitter in trouble,” James Angel, a finance professor at Georgetown’s business school, told DealBook. “The Elon Musk division at the S.E.C. will have fun with this.”
In 2018, Musk settled with the S.E.C. and paid a fine over his market-moving tweet about a Tesla buyout that wasn’t as probable as he had suggested. Ever since, his tweets about the company must be vetted by lawyers. He is now trying to terminate that agreement in court.
And doesn’t Musk already have several jobs? Some research shows that C.E.O.s and their companies benefit when their leaders serve on outside boards (but not too many boards). The Twitter position would be Musk’s only outside board appointment, but he has lots of executive posts (Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink and the Boring Company). Last month, when it was announced that Musk would resign from Endeavor’s board, a spokesperson for the talent agency noted his full plate: “We know he has a lot of demands and little time, and we appreciate the support he provided us.”
“It is of paramount importance to get inflation down.”
— Lael Brainard, a Fed governor and President Biden’s nominee for vice chair of the central bank, in a speech yesterday. Investors took her remarks, along with similar statements from other Fed officials, as a sign of aggressive rate increases to come.
Miami is bullish on crypto
The annual Bitcoin conference in Miami begins today, bringing about 30,000 cryptocurrency devotees to a city whose mayor pitches it as a global crypto hub. Miami’s mayor, Francis Suarez, has been competing with Mayor Eric Adams of New York City to attract crypto companies, with both recently converting their paychecks to digital currency to show support for the industry.
This morning, Suarez is upping the ante, DealBook is first to report, presiding over the unveiling of an 11-foot, 3,000-pound statue of a charging bull, reminiscent of the iconic Wall Street piece but updated with the “laser eyes” that crypto enthusiasts sometimes favor on social media. “The future of finance is in Miami,” Suarez told DealBook in a statement. “The Miami Bull is a physical representation of our city’s commitment to propelling our position in the world’s financial market, notably in the advancement and adoption of cryptocurrencies.”
Miami’s crypto ambitions are grand, and so far Suarez’s plan seems to be working, thanks in part to Florida’s low taxes, good weather and relaxed restrictions during the pandemic. Venture capital investment in Miami-area crypto companies rose to $745 million in 2021 from $6 million in 2020, according to PitchBook. But that’s still far below San Francisco and New York City, where last year crypto companies raised $7.4 billion and $4.7 billion, respectively.
About that bull … The Miami Bull was commissioned by TradeStation, a South Florida company that makes trading platforms, and was created by ad and branding agencies working with an artist and studio. It is constructed of mixed resin, a “unique futuristic material, which is symbolic of the progression of the future of finance,” according to its creators. The statue will live on a campus of Miami Dade College.
THE SPEED READ
Russia said that foreign banks refused to process a $649 million bond payment, so it sent rubles via local banks instead. New restrictions on the Russian government’s access to dollars for bond payments are pushing it closer to default. (Bloomberg, NYT)
“Why Tracking Putin’s Wealth Is So Difficult” (NYT)
Chanel will stop selling its products to people who intend to use them in Russia; Intel suspended its operations in Russia; and Twitter is limiting the reach of Russian state-run accounts. (BBC, Reuters, NYT)
Amazon is buying dozens of rocket launches to deploy its high-speed satellite internet service. (Bloomberg)
HSBC upped its stake in its Chinese securities joint venture, taking almost full control of the mainland operation. (WSJ)
The crypto exchange FTX bought a “significant” stake in IEX, the stock exchange made famous by the book “Flash Boys.” (Bloomberg)
A businessman who took out newspaper ads promoting a fake $13.8 billion bid for the defense company Textron was hit with criminal and civil charges. (Reuters)
Ruling against Amazon, the S.E.C. said that the tech giant’s shareholders could put a resolution calling for the company to provide greater tax disclosures to a vote. (FT)
How billionaires make their money talk in Washington. (NYT Magazine)
The S.E.C. said some employees in its enforcement division improperly gained access to documents prepared for cases being heard by the agency’s in-house court. (WSJ)
Best of the rest
Goldman Sachs had a record number of internship applications, and its acceptance rate is just over 1 percent. (CNBC)
The White House is still waiting for new Air Force One planes after production mishaps at Boeing. (WSJ)
Howard Schultz pledged to take Starbucks into the NFT business before the end of the year. (Insider)
“You’re Still Being Tracked on the Internet, Just in a Different Way” (NYT)
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