Rick Luebbe is a great inspiration for those that have been thinking of launching their own startup but haven’t just taken off and flown into the midst of it yet. His latest venture, Group14 Technologies, has raised funding from top-tier investors like Amperex Technology Limited (ATL), Showa Denko, Cabot Corporation, and BASF.
In this episode, you will learn:
- Pivots and spin-offs
- Strategic fundraising in competitive industries
- The future of electric vehicles
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About Rick Luebbe:
Rick Luebbe is the CEO and co-founder of Group14 Technologies, a battery materials company based in Woodinville, WA, bringing unmatched performance capabilities to the era of the lithium-silicon battery to power the electrification-of-everything era. Rick co-founded and led EnerG2, a Seattle-based carbon materials company, until its acquisition by German chemicals company BASF. He also co-founded and led Hubspan, one of the most successful integrators of web-based B2B transactions, raising the company’s first two rounds of funding and securing several partnerships. Rick served as a management consultant with Booz Allen, specializing in operations, manufacturing efficiency, and developing and implementing lean manufacturing.
Rick Luebbe is a former Army aviation officer, leading an aero scout platoon in Desert Storm. He was awarded the Bronze Star and two Air Medals in recognition for his performance in combat operations against the Iraqi Republican Guard. Rick also flew Apaches as commander of an Attack Helicopter Company.
Rick Luebbe holds a B.A. in Biology from Cornell University and an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
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Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro Cremades: Hello everyone and welcome to the dealmakerr show. So super excited about the guests that we have today. We’re going to be talking about going from combat to being an entrepreneur and really you know all the lessons learned you know along the way and and he’s done multiple companies. You know some with more success than others. But. Definitely the one that he’s on right now is a rocket ship so without further ado. Let’s welcome our guest today Rick and let’s see if I pronounce it well lube.
Rick Luebbe: Um, Lubi That’s right, Thanks alanro. Ah, ah, glad to be here appreciate it.
Alejandro Cremades: So ah, give us a little of a walk through memory lane rick so how was life growing up and being born in Ohio.
Rick Luebbe: Yeah, so born and raised in Southern Ohio and Cincinnati I’d say it was a very typical midwestern lifestyle you know group in suburbia. Great foundation though. I think maybe the most inspirational part of that experience relative what I’m doing now is my father was a small businessman was an entrepreneur and growing up and seeing the way he had independence and and the ability to take initiative on ideas that he had and the way he worked with his his employees and his team members was was. Was very interesting to me and and very inspiring and so it kind of planted those seeds early on for ah for my desire to do what I’m doing doing today.
Alejandro Cremades: Ah, and what? what?? what? What did you learn there because obviously you know they the father figure is is definitely an inspiring one especially you see him being out there and and making it happen. What? what. What was that for you like I mean seeing him going through the apps and the downs of of controlling his own destiny.
Rick Luebbe: Yeah, you know it was it was it was Interesting. You don’t know any different I think when you’re a kid but you know watching him go that experience. You know he had good years and he had bad years and and the family participated those ups and those downs you know some years. Ah you know were tight and some years weren’t tight. And and that was okay and you just kind of you learn to accept that bit of a roller coaster. That’s just part our life and and and and we’re able to stay you know, stable and happy through all those ups and downs and and maybe that is part of of a development of kind of the risk tolerance. Kind of need as an entrepreneur kind of seeing that experience and realizing that it’s It’s all going to be okay whether it’s an up or or down.
Alejandro Cremades: Um, and and in your case, why biology out of all things.
Rick Luebbe: Yeah, you know I think I’ve always been really interested in understanding systems and and things around me and and obviously biological systems are pretty important to to us as as humans and so I think that was the initial attraction. Ah, yeah, my none plan going into college was to be a veterinarian and so you spent a lot of time volunteering at at vet hospitals and and that was really my focus even went on and applied and got accepted to. Ah, to vet school but at the same time. Add an opportunity to to go to flight school in the army and so tough decision but realized I can always go back. Potentially go back to vet school but I I wouldn’t have another opportunity to go to flight school so that’s the one I picked and it sort of set me on the path and I’m and I’m on today.
Alejandro Cremades: So how did that opportunity come knocking you know going into flight school and and ending up in combat.
Rick Luebbe: Yeah, so I was r otc in college you know to help pay for school and and also really because I was was really interested in the leadership experience that the military can provide for for a young officer and the adventure you know, frankly, just just ah, just kind of getting. You know out of the country seeing the world and and doing things that nobody else can do at that early of a point in and a career and then as part of that process was selected for flight school and that put a whole different angle on on getting really excited about jumping into that experience. So um, you know came out of flight school initially as a scalut pilot and and we used to joke you know the mission of the scal pilot is to Mark enemy positions with burning helicopter wreckage. Ah you know it’s an un our unarmed aircraft we’d fly ahead of the attack helicopters and and look for the bad guys and. Typically we we would spot them once they started shooting at us. So then we we could you know try to evade and and then call on the attack helicopters or ouriller. Whatever the right system was so kind of an interesting experience early on really fun, but you None cool thing about being a scalut pilot is independence. You’re out there. Ah, doing whatever you need to do to complete the mission and and that also sort of I think plays well into the desire of an entrepreneur.
Alejandro Cremades: And also the um, the just being with uncertainty you know because I mean as you were saying you know, just just getting shut at you know and you’re like flying that thing I mean you you don’t know if you’re going to be able to make it back. So I mean.
Rick Luebbe: Um, da.
Alejandro Cremades: There’s that’s like the biggest uncertainty that a human being can deal with.
Rick Luebbe: Absolutely and and you and you you don’t think about it at the time you know things are so I got a couple aspects one. You’re so well trained or at least I was so well trained. You’re not really processing. You know fear or concern or or any of those those those feelings just you’re just executing the mission. You’re just doing what you’ve been trained to do and maybe afterwards you start to to process what you’ve just been through but None interesting result of that is. Really puts fear of failure like in a business context and a very different perspective when when you’re dealing with you know fear of failure in combat or fear fear of failure. You know as ah as a pilot flying mission. So I think that that experience was formative in terms of just giving a level of confidence. And comfort and risk tolerance that is really helping as an entrepreneur.
Alejandro Cremades: But um, ah most likely most likely now after this experience you went to business school. So I mean one one thing that is very interesting about your journey is that you’re not afraid of swinging into completely different paths. So why? So how do you land into the business school path.
Rick Luebbe: Yeah, so you know coming out of the army about 7 years active duty at that point in a typical army officer’s career you so you tend to go more into staff jobs for quite a while before you get back into a line unit and I really loved being an align unit. You know, working directly with. Soldiers and and and and and actually being you know all the way into the mission and executing the mission directly and looking at you know, maybe the next eight years or so in staff jobs I thought you know I could keep doing this in the army or why don’t I just maybe think about doing something similar in in the business world. So recognizing I didn’t have a lot of business experience. Business school seemed like a good transition. Ah I guess mechanism for me and so applied to business school and and literally signed out of the army on Friday showed up to business school on tuesday. And I went through a little bit of culture shock you know, ah trying to figure out what investment banking was and what what a Bc was and how to use excel and all those tools that are seem pretty common now. But but a great experience and really the you know the the folks I met there and and the networks that I I developed there also sort of. Set a different bar for what’s possible and and really have allowed me to to push my companies pretty aggressively in in real exciting directions.
Alejandro Cremades: But you you you knew you wanted to be an entrepreneur you know since the early days in seeing your father and here you are in business school. You know in Stanford you know one of the biggest incuators of entrepreneurs the the best entrepreneurs that we have seen in in I don’t know how many years but definitely the ones that have shaped the world that we’re living in and and and you decide to go into the consulting route. You know that’s quite a random.
Rick Luebbe: Yeah, you know it’s It’s looking back on it I don’t know if it was the best decision frankly but at the time I wanted more business experience before I Really tried to tackle being an entrepreneur and I thought consulting be a great way to get that experience and it really was I mean I got exposure to a lot of. A lot of businesses a large corporate perspective which helped was interesting but but doing a startup is is really quite different and and you know the the the tools you need and the energy you need aren’t necessarily improved by doing kind of a corporate experience None And so I wouldn’t say it set me back. But but in retrospect I’ve had so much fun being an entrepreneur I Yeah, almost kind of wish I did it a little bit earlier.
Alejandro Cremades: But consulting you know, definitely gives you a great perspective and as you said you know it gives you access and exposure to to different companies and and problems that they are you know looking to resolve So so for you as a consultant you know what? what perspective did it give you when it came to problem solving.
Rick Luebbe: You know my specialty consulting was was manufacturing operations and really focused on things like lean manufacturing and I’d say I would summarize lean manufacturing philosophy with just common sense like if it’s Dumb. Don’t do it that way find a smarter way to do it that. Is a good philosophy to to apply to any kind of business process and so that’s really helped me Yeah, keep things simple. Keep things relatively easy. Keep things always moving forward focus on on value ad and and try to avoid nonviotic when you can. I Think that experience is is something I still I still use every day.
Alejandro Cremades: So so at what point Rick do you realize that the time has come to launch your own company.
Rick Luebbe: Yeah, a couple years into consulting I was just starting to to kind of chafe I just wanted to go do something independent and really set my own destininy and um, really make my own decisions find my own partners and. You know, no knock on consulting I I work with great people consulting and I’m still good friends with a lot of them but really had this this this this urge that entrepreneurial itch was just too strong and so ah, you know another consulting colleague and I both decided to kind of jump ship at the same time. And start a first startup we kind of stumbled into an opportunity. You know we talked to some vcs about an idea we had and and the Vc basically said you know we still don’t think your idea is very good but we think you guys as a team might be a good team for another idea that we’re working on would you like to join this. This this fledgland company. Its co-founders and and the management team and we said that sure why not it to be great experience so we jumped into the first company which was which called hubspan and hubspan way back in the day was doing. It was an xml translation hub. So basically it services something I knew absolutely nothing about. But from a business opportunity was a really interesting opportunity and kind of the fundamental business problems were the same as as any real startup ah but did that for a couple years and it was hard. You know any startup is challenging and you know lots of of ups and downs and and and frankly. Doing a startup as you know, requires a lot of life energy and they don’t they don’t all succeed most fail and so a couple years into that experience. You know I realized that if it failed I probably look back and say boy I wish I hadn’t done this this particular idea because it’s not something I was terrib but passionate about. So so left and said I need to do some soul searching here and figure out what what? this is? What’s really going to make me successful and happy long term and decided I needed to do something entrepreneurial that when lose or draw I’d feel good about the process feel good about the experience and so. A lot of thinking and for me I decided that was going to be renewable energy something in renewable energy and I felt like in that space this was twenty years ago in that space. You know, pushing the ball forward even if it didn’t work out was the right thing to do and I could feel good about even even a company would go sideways or or backwards. Ah, just because you know attacking the right problems for kind of for the greater good if you will and so teamed up with a couple of guys with a summer philosophy and we founded a company called energy None and energy two was really focused.
Rick Luebbe: Really on all kinds of things you know we started as a hydrogen storage business you know twenty years ago when the hydrogen economy was was just a few years away that that didn’t come to fruition very quickly so we pivoted and became a gas storage business looking store natural gas. But that was problematic because the None primary customers were utilities and the automotive industry both at the time were kind of startup gillers. So we pivoted again and got into battery electric materials fairly quickly and recognized our technology platform was really good for a device called an ultra capacitor so we started an ultrapas electric materials. Eventually gotten a lead acid battery additives and some other battery technologies and along that way extended the technology platform into into something really cool. You’re doing a silicon carbon composite that had applications in lithium-based batteries and that became the foundational technology. That we spun out of energy 2 in 2015 and that became group None which is what we’re working on today and then shortly after that after that spin out of of the group None platform. We sold energy to to be a sf in in June of 2016 and.
Alejandro Cremades: And and at what point there Rick does it become evident that it makes sense to do a spin a spinoff instead of developing this under the energy to umbrella.
Rick Luebbe: Yeah, so in that time. Yeah, a lot of economic uncertainty. You know at that time particularly for what we were doing in the bat industry. So clean. Tech was really hot for a while and and then it was really cold for a while and in that really cold period. It was difficult to get funding. And so we had an opportunity to exit with bf and they were really excited about the technology particularly for light acidset batteries at the time. Um, it was really enabling start stop hybrids you know on off startst stop on off technology which was important for for the industry. It still is and so um, you know, frankly at the time. We weren’t really sure what we had from a lithium ah battery perspective but we knew something we wanted to explore a little bit more and so we were able to spin it out and and kind of keep the entrepreneurial experience going while at the same time got a bit of an exit with that that that. Yeah, acquisition by bsf so the timing was was was was good for bsf to come in and and make that offer made sense to us at the time and really at the end of the day we didn’t really anticipate perhaps what the lithium ion battery market was going to do. You know, None or 6 or None years later but here we are now just really at the tiger by the tail trying to just keep up with the tremendous growth we’re seeing in the industry.
Alejandro Cremades: So group group None technologies I mean obviously see here. You are you know, like the the different sequence of events. You know that needed to happen. You know with a spin of an everything. So I guess for the for the people that are listening to get it. What is the business model of group None technologies. How do you guys make money.
Rick Luebbe: We are selling electrode material to battery manufacturers. But it’s ah it’s a very cool technology. This allows a battery man manufacturer to transition from a traditional lithiumyon battery to a silicon base battery. With tremendous performance enhancements. So you know, maybe 50% more energy density or in an ev context you know going from two hundred miles range to three hundred mile range without changing anything else in the battery for all sense of purposes. Um, it enables what we call extreme fast charging. So the capability to potentially charge a battery pack in less than 10 minutes maybe as quickly as 5 minutes which is which is absolutely transformational for the electrification of transportation and finally it’s a good value and so if we can really increase energy and see of these battery systems on a dollars per Kilowatt hour basis which is a way. You know ev manufacturers think about pack cost. We can lower the cost of those packs in in deliver some more performance so it kind of clicks all the value propositions. The consumer wants at least from an ev context and then from a battery manufacturer perspective. Our direct customers. This is a drop in technology. No capex required literally they’re switching out an anode technology from traditional graphite and getting just transformational performance enhancement and so we really see this as triggering a a a complete shift to transformation from. Traditional ety amount silicon based powder systems. So total. We’ve raised about four hundred and forty million
Alejandro Cremades: And and how much capital have you guys raised to late Rick.
Alejandro Cremades: I mean that’s a lot of 0 say there Rick so why? why? why? I mean or not not why I guess how has been the I guess the the transition from going from 1 financing cycle to the next for a company like this one.
Rick Luebbe: Yeah, so you know it’s been a very different path for us than I think most startups we recognized at energy 2 that it is fundamentally difficult difficult to get financial investors to commit to investing in battery technology. And that’s for a couple reasons one is there are hundreds of battery technology companies just in the United States alone doing all kinds of different approaches to trying to prove battery performance and it’s very difficult for financial investors. To really identify which technologies are advantaged over others and so it’s ah it’s a very high risk proposition to make a bet on a battery company. Not really being a ph d chemist or electrochemist and being able to differentiate between kind of the potential performance long-term of these different platforms. And so recognizing that that was really a ah hard road to ho so to speak we focused on strategics and so really focused on battery companies and battery materials. Companies. So chemical companies who fundamentally understand battery technology. The best position to recognize the the advantages we had from our technology platform and so you know from the spinout we had b asf already as a bit of ah of a seed investor and then for our series. A we brought in Atl which is you know the world’s largest battery manufacturer for through electronics. Ah, yeah, we brought in shoaddenko which is one of the world’s largest producer of traditional andno materials of course bf is a cathode electrolyte and binder manufacturer. So a lot of battery expertise there already and then we added Cabot who makes conductive additives for battery materials. So for that series a virtually all the new investors were strategics and most important they were all strategic with with specific expertise in batteries and so they really could come and validate the technology not just the performance. But also the strength of the ip portfolio and and I think perhaps most important to them recognizing we had a fundamental scalable technology and they could recognize that having been you know, scaled better materials companies themselves. And then for series b we followed the same script. You know we added sk group the big korean conglomerate. You know, not as familiar to most of us as algae and Samsung because they don’t make televisions and refrigerators but of equal size in an an equal kind of industrial global presence.
Rick Luebbe: Ah, sk has a division makes batteries a division to make current collectors and other battery components again. Tremendous deep experience in battery technologies. They also recognize the value here that we’re creating the potential and so they let our series be and participation from those other strategics and so again. No new investors were were anything other than experts in battery space. Truly battery tools companies and so those kinds of deals are more complicated than financial investment for a lot of different reasons you know principally those investors want more than financial return they want. A partner. They want a legitimate partnership will I get value out of the partnership and so it’s been interesting having so many potentially competing battery technology companies invest in simultaneously. But I think we’ve done an excellent job managing all those partnerships delivering value to all those partners. The things that they were looking for from that strategic investment. As we might as we move to series c we recognize that now we really were in a position where we needed to to raise a significant amount of capital to dramatically expand our our current commercial production infrastructure enough to be able to handle ev volumes and so. At at this point we were ready to go for fight bring financial investors into the mix. But again we recognize that financial investors still aren’t positioned that well to judge the merits of our technology relative everything else out there. So we went down a specific strategy of looking for an automotive oem automotive manufacturer to be the lead for our seriesc for a couple reasons one is at the end of the day that’s that’s our our biggest long-term market is the ev space and 2 we recognize that validation in the automotive space. Would make it much easier for large financial investors to to understand the validation of the technology and participate in the around and so we looked at a number of Auto Oems as potential leads and probably about none or so in different conversations. We ended up picking Porsche. With Pickorsia the brand is fantastic. Obviously they’re recognized as None of the technological leaders in the automotive space. But also we recognize that the porsche had a vision that was was very consistent with way we view the future Portia recognizes. That the sole of the vehicle has been the engine the transmission particularly at Portia and they recognize that’s not the future of automotive and so they identified that the future of automotive is probably going to be the battery the battery itself and so they want to invest in.
Rick Luebbe: The the very best potential battery technologies and and they conclude that was group None so it’s been ah, been a fantastic process working with porsche they really, they really get the future of of the automotive industry and they’re aggressively going into the db space. And recognize that our technology is transformational in that regard.
Alejandro Cremades: That’s amazing I Love how? Um how you guys have really been able to execute masterfully the um, the strategic side because typically you know it’s interesting how you say that because for other segments when you bring in these strategics then they tend to complicate things you know way too quickly. Ah, too soon? Ah, but it sounds like you know how how it varies you know when you go into a completely different segment like for example, this one that is a little bit. You know outside of that traditional Hypergrowth Techie platform you know type of play. So um, so really Interesting. So now. Let me ask you this for the people are listening to to get it. You know a little on the scope and size of the operation anything that you can share around. You know, maybe number of employees or anything else that you feel comfortable sharing.
Rick Luebbe: Sure so we are in commercial production today. We have a commercial production facility outside Seattle we are looking to dramatically expand that infrastructure and that’s what we’ll do with series c and so. Our seriesc will be ramping up to to build literally none of none of production capacity over the next eighteen months and that’s going to bring you know, right? Now we’re you know, approaching about None employees total but probably eighteen months from now will be triple that. Um, supporting that that significant increase in manufacturing infrastructure. So we view ourselves not as a technology company at this point but we are a manufacturing company and so our focus is on scaling as quickly and as effectively as we can. Just to keep up with the the incredible demand from the automotive from electronics segments. Of course we’re looking at other applications in the future as well. You know this is enabling technology for electrification aviation. For example, when you think about being able to. Maybe have a regional aircraft that 50% increase in range is is is really the tipping point between whether the business models work or don’t work and the ability to rapid charging. You know you think about in the aviation industry turning aircraft assets quickly when they’re the ground. They don’t make money on the ground eat them in the air. And so if you can take an electric aircraft and turn in 20 minutes you make a lot more money and have a much better value proposition than if you need to charge it. You know all night or or or most of the day to get it to get that aircraft back in the air. So really excited about. But we’re doing an evs and consumer electronics. But but but looking at the next generation of of applications as well.
Alejandro Cremades: And when it comes to ah to people like you were alluding to and and culture you know I know that you found definitely brought you know that past experience from you know, piloting you know Helicopters and doing crazy stuff when it comes to the culture I know that you always think about.
Rick Luebbe: Not too far down the road.
Alejandro Cremades: Completing the mission the mission and taking care of the people. So So tell us a little bit more about how you have gone about applying some of the lessons you know in that regard from from being you know a pilot and being in war and in combat to. To now you know, really the people that you’re surrounding yourself to to execute.
Rick Luebbe: Yeah, so a little little background on that on that anecdote when I first showed up for my none unit after flight school my battalion commander brought me to his office. He was a young lieutenant man. He said lieutenant you only have to do 2 things in this unit to be successful. You need to complete the mission. You have to take care of your people and that has stuck with me since that that morning and it makes a ton of sense when you think about it. It really can simplify business execution down to those None fundamental tenants and so that’s been again foundational for the way I think about managing the startups that I’ve been in. Obviously you have to you have to execute execution is key in the end of the day your your people are what allow you to execute both today and and tomorrow and so taking care of the people is the most important resource you really’re taking care of your your most critical resource. And and and fundamentally if it’s not fun. Don’t do it and and working with the team and and seeing them grow and prosper and and enjoy their their work experience is fun for me and so you know for those reasons it is it is that simple. Just execute and take care of the people and it’s going to work out.
Alejandro Cremades: I love it now. Imagine if you were to go to sleep tonight and you wake up in a world Rick where the vision of group 14 technologies is fully realized what does that world look like.
Rick Luebbe: Are.
Rick Luebbe: So in that world. Ah everything electric is powered by Silicon batteries and you know we’re not the only we’re not, We’re not looking for a global domination strategy here. There’s going to be a lot of players that have great success in Silicon Battery space. But. Um, going to look back and say hey we were Transformational. We triggered this this revolution in energy storage technology and it’s going to change the way we think about Evs. It’s going to change the way we think about Aviation. It’s going to change the way we we bring renewables onto the grid. It’s going to change the way we use medical devices. It’s It’s really about the electrification of everything and Silicon battery technology is going to be the primary driver in that transformation.
Alejandro Cremades: Now imagine if I put you into a time machine Rick and I bring you back in time maybe to that moment where you were you know? yeah at your consulting gig thinking hey you know maybe I want to do something I want to start something on my own and imagine you had the opportunity of going right? there. And sitting that younger Rick and giving that None younger Rick one piece of advice before launching a business. What would that be and why give me what you know now.
Rick Luebbe: I’d say go for It. Don’t hesitate. Don’t wait if you if you think it’s something you need to do as an entrepreneur Just do it. You know, get the tools. You think you need for sure. But as soon as you’re Ready. Don’t have a second thought just attack the opportunity and and just let it play out.
Alejandro Cremades: I love that Rick so pull for the people that are listening that want to reach out and say hi. What is the best way for them to do so.
Rick Luebbe: So reach me ah it ah it my email is great. So our lubi at group 14 dot technology. So RLUE b b at group 14 dot technology.
Alejandro Cremades: Amazing! Well hey Rick thank you so much for being on the dealmakerr show. It has been on on earth to have you with us today.
Rick Luebbe: Awesome! Thanks! Very much all andro I enjoyed it.
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