Robert Piconi has been involved in some of the biggest transatlantic M&A deals. He’s now working with Bill Gross on a renewable energy startup that has already attracted significant capital from Softbank. His venture, Energy Vault has also acquired $117M in funding from investors like Softbank Vision Fund, Helena Special Investments, Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures, Cemex Ventures, and Neotribe Ventures.
In this episode, you will learn:
- Energy Vault and tackling climate change
- His top advice when starting a company
- Tips for working with your board members
- Top book recommendations for entrepreneurs
- Working with Bill Gross
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About Robert Piconi:
Robert Piconi is CEO at Energy Vault SA. His experience includes prior Executive leadership roles in Fortune 100 public companies across various industries including Diversified Energy (Amoco/British Petroleum), Telecommunications Infrastructure (Bell Labs Lucent Technologies, Alcatel), and Security/Network Management (DanaherCorporation). Undergraduate studies at the University of Notre Dame and his graduate MBA studies at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
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Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro: Hello everyone. This week is definitely a big one. As some of you may know, it’s the big launch of this book that I have. It’s called Selling Your Startup. It’s been four years in the making, and essentially, it’s a guide on what are the immediate steps that you need to take from Point A to Point C so that you have a full outcome. There are 20 founders there backing it up that have sold their companies for over $500 million each, and I think that you’re all going to very much enjoy it. The main reason why I came out with that book is because I couldn’t find anything when I was in the process of the acquisition on my last company, so I said, “Let’s put an end to the madness.” And that is the result, selling your startup. It is now out, available at Amazon and anywhere else, so go out and get your copy.
So, without further ado, I’d like to talk about our interview today. Our guest is amazing. His story is really remarkable. I think that we’re going to be learning a lot from his journey. He’s done it multiple times, and I think what he’s up to now is very meaningful, especially with everything that’s going on in the world. So, without further ado, I’d like to welcome our guest today. Robert Piconi, welcome to the show.
Robert Piconi: Hey, Alejandro. Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Alejandro: You were born in San Diego. How was life growing up in Southern California?
Robert Piconi: It was a beautiful place. It still is one of the best places to live. I had a busy upbringing. I grew up spending a lot of my free time working in a family business, but that served me well later on, so really good.
Alejandro: That’s amazing. Then, maybe that led you to really loving the business side of it, the finance side of it, and that led you to packing the bags and going to Notre Dame.
Robert Piconi: Yeah. You know, when you grow up in Southern California, a lot of people never leave there because it’s such a beautiful place. I wanted to get out of the state, and I chose Notre Dame because it was a smaller school and Catholic School, so I had a good foundation in faith that I appreciated, as well. I think it was a really good decision.
Alejandro: Why Diversified Energy? What led you into that direction after your undergrad?
Robert Piconi: I was lucky enough to do an internship my junior year with Mobile Oil in the UK. I had done a year of foreign study my sophomore year, and then I had done an internship in the summer with Mobile Oil out of London. I really enjoyed that sector. That was for the oil and refining side, and I enjoyed the global opportunities and working across multiple lines of business in a single company—a lot of learning and global, so that’s what led me to Amoco.
Alejandro: There, you were exposed to global projects. You shifted from the finance side to the manufacturing side, but one thing led to the next, and eventually, you landed doing your MBA program. At what point did you think doing an MBA was the right choice for you?
Robert Piconi: Well, I thought I was going to do it even earlier. This was back in the mid to late ‘90s. I was in my mid to late 20s, and I was interested in tech, and I thought taking a break from the big corporate company would be an interesting thing to do and evaluate through a Top Five MBA program and intersect with a lot of different people from different sectors and step back and decide, “Do I want to jump into tech?” That was a major factor for me that led me to do that. I was getting such a great career experience. I didn’t do it until I was 29 years old, and the reason was because I was getting great experiences all over the world to go and manage global projects’ work in different countries in Europe, for example, after being in manufacturing. So the experience I was getting was so great in global and managing people and advancing my career. That outweighed going back to NBA school. Then I found the right opportunity in the later ‘90s in 1999.
Alejandro: Shifting industries is not something that people would typically do after coming out of business school. They would either go back to what they were doing or starting their own business. But, in this case, you actually went into telecommunications, so why did you make that shift?
Robert Piconi: Yeah, a few reasons. One is, I was fascinated in the late ‘90s in getting in newer calls for the height of telecom back then. It’s still called the Bubble. I think some of us that are old enough remember that. I was fascinated by the disruption that new technology was creating. It was disintermediating business models and companies. It really taught me about speed and how important the business models and financing are. That was a time when VCs were financing these companies at huge valuations. Also, living through that, you understand also that the downside of a lot of euphoria in the market that leads to valuations, and when things change, boom! So I came out of MBA school in 2000. In June, I graduated, and that was right at the beginning when the market started to shape. I was really interested in being a part of that transformation in technology and how that was changing, how we do business, and how the world operates.
Alejandro: Talking about how the world operates, you had the opportunity. You were recruited to run an entire company there, so what was that like because, obviously, this is like a different responsibility, different leadership skill sets to a certain degree. I’m sure that was like an incredible, I would say, wealth of knowledge that you were able to acquire.
Robert Piconi: Yeah. It was interesting that the move into Bell Labs and Lucents, it was there where I grew the career into moving from and managing some of the large engineering groups to getting into running my own division. I actually became, for the first time, the head, and VP, and general manager of one of the large businesses in the broadband area of networking. That opened up a lot of things in both my career development and growth that resulted, at the time, in the largest telecom merger between Alcatel and Lucent. That was a big one, so a transatlantic one, my second one after my career—the first one being Amoco and BP. That’s what led to my first company experience at Spirent, where I was recruited to actually run and be the president of a standalone public entity. It was an amazing seven to eight years, for sure.
Alejandro: During those seven to eight years, you also got to experience being a father of young children. A fun factor for the people that are watching and listening, eight children, and you were one of the first ones to probably have quadruplets in your region. That’s mind-blowing! People say that kids are, to a certain degree, like startups, but there’s no exit, and you only break even when you get to sleep at night, but man! Wow! What a journey for you!
Robert Piconi: Yeah, this is a great story, and I’ll never forget. When you find out you’re expecting one child, and you’re told by the doctor that you not only have a multiple but four. But I was actually 27 years old, expecting a second child and applying to graduate schools at the time to go to MBA school. I was living in Europe and on one of the international oil projects. I’ll never forget. When you’re told and when my wife and I found out about that, going from one to five children, it was a really big deal. Then going into MBA school and graduate school, which was always on my radar to do. But one thing I’ll share with you was an amazing experience. I must say I don’t remember the first year so much. It’s a little foggy after the quads were born.
But I will tell you. I wouldn’t change a thing because it’s interesting. You have children, as well. It tends to focus you and bring other priorities to the table and motivate you and around your purpose in life beyond what may be through your personal career goals, thinking more holistically about those goals in the context of a responsibility to be a father and parents to children. Yes, you can rightfully say eight children. I think some of the people listening to this might say, “Wait. And then you had more. Then you had three more after the five.” Yeah, we continued and had kids over the next five to seven years. It’s been a fantastic experience, and I would say part and parcel are right along the way with growing companies and businesses. Supporting and being the leader of a family and building and supporting the children to be the best they can be.
Alejandro: That’s amazing. God, bless! Going back to where you were, here you did another shift. You went from telecommunications into healthcare. At this point, you were recruited by a private equity firm, and you were involved in putting together this transaction. Tell us about that deal.
Robert Piconi: Yeah. That was my first role with private equity, and it was one of those where it wasn’t a part of an initial purchase, so this was one with an asset they owned. This frequently happens with private equity. Sometimes, things change, and the business needs to be revamped for growth that eventually leads to a sale of the business. I came in, and I would say one that had been run for a little over three years, and they were looking to change the trajectory and do some restructuring and get the company back on a growth trajectory. I found that I loved that type of work. I did that in some of the businesses for some of the large public companies well, but I liked the opportunity to have that be on my shoulders in leading a team to go get that done and rolling your sleeves up. As you know, in the private equity world, it is an EBITDA-focused profitability within a certain timeframe toward an outcome. So, I would say it’s a higher-pressure environment. I had some of that from running Spirent Communications because I was hired before that by a hedge fund to come in and restructure that company. This one, I really enjoyed and was something that after two-and-a-half years, we got things in a space that led to a very successful double-digit EBITDA-multiple outcomes for venture partners. It was a private equity firm to a strategic, in this case, Aramark Healthcare in the healthcare sector.
Alejandro: In your case, what an incredible shift of gears and segments. You go from diversified energy to telecommunications to healthcare. Have you experienced, to a certain degree, being able to apply what people call institutional knowledge transfer, which is where you’re grabbing whatever you learn from one industry and applying it to a new and different one where it gives you an edge over everyone else? Have you experienced that?
Robert Piconi: Absolutely, and I think it’s been, Alejandro, fundamental to my success in moving in different industries and within different transactions. There are a lot of things about industries that are common, and some things are unique and dependent on the domain or the business model or the competitor dynamics. I think moving from Diversified Energy and then into telecom, which is very fast-paced, technology-driven, where you either move, innovate, or be disintermediated. Then, getting into a sector in healthcare that having those skill sets and dealing with different situations was important. But there were some common threads. For example, leadership of people and being able to lead and build teams, and create an effective environment for people to be successful, and those general manager skill sets, which I think are the toughest tools to have around understanding market, being able to translate technology into real business opportunity, leading and building teams. These are the things, and through some mistakes along the way, of course, you learn. And you put things into practice to where you can start running and building your own companies and leading those on your own.
Alejandro: Obviously, you have an extensive career, and you were talking about leading and building teams. What would you say have been your three biggest lessons around that?
Robert Piconi: One thing is, don’t make assumptions before spending the time to roll your sleeves up and get into the details. One is, you’re entering new situations, and it’s important to take the requisite time to listen and not speak. There’s also a sequence as you do that in terms of—I like to start on the customer side and understand the market because, in the end, that should be driving and working backward into any technology or company. I’ve learned from some of the companies I was asked to go into, in particular, in some of the technology areas were companies that felt very good about their technology, but that was their sole focus as opposed to understanding it might be great technology, but can you sell it at a price to make a profit and be competitive? Those things and assumptions are important. I also think that in terms of learning, there’s a timeframe that you have to take action. One of the things I’ve learned the hard way is as I built teams or as I took over teams, I saw some things, and my gut told me, “It’s not going to work with this individual.” Or, it may have been with someone who had been with the company a long time. Some of my biggest mistakes were the ones where I didn’t take action early enough, where I should have acted much earlier, but I was trying to give someone or an individual a second chance or trying to think only about the good because that was my nature thinking about only the good. I think moving more quickly when you have to does a service to both the individual and to the company. That’s a second thing. The third thing, my father taught me this, and this gets to companies and fundraising. He always told me. “They asked a wealthy man how he got so wealthy, and he said, ‘I always sold too soon.’” It’s interesting because that applies to whether you’re fundraising and thinking about dilution, and I don’t want to take that dilution, but this gets into things around when someone is offering money, and you can’t see the future, you should take it. Having that money in the bank gives you the flexibility to live to fight another day versus risking and trying to wait for the perfect deal or less dilution. Take the money, build it, and that dilution, in the end, should be a small impact in what you can achieve by keeping the company going.
Alejandro: That’s amazing. So, obviously, one thing led to the next, and you ended up starting your latest baby, your company now that you’re running, Energy Vault, Inc. I want to ask you. You were involved with Idealab, with Bill Gross for quite some time, and things ended up working out now for you guys to get together and do this company. How did you meet Bill?
Robert Piconi: I met Bill because I was recruited by Korn Ferry that Idealab had hired to recruit for a CEO role of one of his renewable energy companies. I met him, and we spent a good deal of time together, and unfortunately, the timing didn’t work out because I had other things going on with other companies, and he needed to move quickly. So the timing didn’t work out, but what was great was that Bill stayed in touch. We really hit it off, and he appreciated the things that I thought about in running a company versus where he focuses on ideation and incubation of new ideas versus taking something along to actually decide if this should become a company, and we should go try to build it. Bill, uniquely, has been very successful. Idealab, about one-third of the 150 companies that he’s created have either been sold to a strategic or gone public. As you know in the startup world very well, Alejandro, that’s a great record where one-third of your companies have that outcome. I really appreciated staying in touch with him over the years. He bounced ideas off of me. When it came to energy storage—I’ll never forget it. Bill called me and said, “Hi, Rob. How are you? I don’t know where you’re located right now, but I have a new idea for energy storage, and I want you to be the CEO. It went from there, and there were so many coincidences. I was in Switzerland. His technologist with whom he was collaborating and the engineering team happened to be in the same part of Switzerland. So that was a coincidence. I was like, “You know? This has to be the one.” Of course, energy storage being something that I knew from spending some time in energy and renewables and what was happening in the world with climate change was going to be something very important.
Alejandro: What was that process? How did you guys think about bringing this to life and putting it into works?
Robert Piconi: What was fantastic about when Bill called me was, it was still in the concept stage, so he was still ideating if I can use that term, the concept. So it was a great time to get involved. He had a technologist, another co-founder of ours. It was Bill, what today is our CTO, and I that came together at the stage with it was important to get the concept right and ensure that also you had enough on the market input and the economics that we could solve a problem that hadn’t been solved by the way of energy storage and do something that didn’t hurt the environment and also be economical. We felt we were onto something with getting this concept to a final architecture that we said, “You know? This now should be a company because we want to raise some more seed funding, invest, and start to take it to the explore stage in more detail.”
Alejandro: Tell us about the business model of Energy Vault. How do you guys make money?
Robert Piconi: In solving the problem, what did we do? There were a few things that were important to us. One is speed. We saw the problem as coming. Now, we saw the data. The world wasn’t sold on it yet that climate change was happening. This is back in ’17, ’18, so speed was important. Secondly, it was really important that we solve this economic equation. For us, that meant having something that when you combine it with renewables that are intermittent, so wind and solar, if you want to replace baseload power from fossil, you need to be able to have baseload predictable power. Since wind and solar are intermittent, you need storage. When you combine the cost of wind and solar, which today is super cheap, much lower than fossil, storage costs a multiple of four or five of that. You need something. When you add that equation of renewable plus the ability to store it and, therefore, deliver it on demand, that has to be competitive with fossil fuel. There was nothing even close. For us, the second thing was economics, and the third was the environmental and sustainability. We didn’t want to create anything in creating energy storage that was going to hurt the environment at the same time like we see with some others like chemical battery technologies today. That’s how we focused. We were able to balance and use our innovation to get something ultra-low cost. For example, not using concrete. We levered something that’s proven: 90% of all energy storage today is these large hydroelectric dams, so gravity, so come hydro—take that, but make it better where you could scale and build it anywhere without dependency on landscape or hurting the environment like it did, or the use of concrete. So that was off-limits to us. We used material science to innovate and use alternate materials that didn’t hurt the environment, and we used software and the computing power in AI to use automation to combine with this conventional physics to create this breakthrough. That’s what we focused on. We did it at a one-quarter scale first and proved some of the fundamentals. That step was important, Alejandra, to get to a scale that you knew could be a reliable predictor of what a commercial scale could look like. When we did that and announced the company, we got on the radar on some of the largest funds like SoftBank, so the largest VC fund in the world. Then we used those funds to go right to commercial scale, which is what we just completed last year.
Alejandro: What is that fundraising process? How much capital have you guys raised to date?
Robert Piconi: We announced that Series B at $110 million. That followed a Series A of about $7 million. Then there was some minor seed funding, and that’s what we’ve announced. We did announce Saudi Aramco as both a strategic partner and an investor. We did not announce the amount, as agreed with them. Essentially, those were the public announcements. As you might understand, energy is such a massive market in this problem of getting renewables that you can store and replace baseload given all these events we’re seeing. We saw Texas last year, and people lost their lives and the rolling blackouts in California. But even in Germany this past week, all the flooding and the lives lost—so these extreme events and the urgencies there. I think the funding and getting enough capital to really scale and get renewables and get fossil fuels more in a balanced part of the grid is fundamental.
Alejandro: As they say, being at the right time in history is essential when you’re building and scaling a company. It seems that with everything that is going on with the environment, it sounds like wind may be blowing behind you guys’ backs. Is that right?
Robert Piconi: Yeah. Look, Alejandro, I’ve never seen this conundrum coming together, and I’ve been in four industries now between diversified energy, healthcare, telecom, and then going back to now renewables, in a sense, back to energy. I’ve never seen this confluence of the right product, the right market, the world getting religion around solving this problem. We even have China putting a stake in the ground and making commitments publicly. Everybody seems to be pulling those commitments to get to net-carbon-neutral. So, absolutely, this dynamic of just the last eight months. I think some of that has come from what we all have been living through with the pandemic meaning, the fact that we didn’t think; I don’t think—at least, I didn’t think. I don’t want to speak for other people, but I honestly don’t think people predicted that a virus like this could actually shut the world down and force us to change how we live our daily lives, and how we do business, and even our ability to socially interact. I think people have been impacted by that. Then when they think about this concept of climate change and the fact that you talk about a global phenomenon where you have to unite. Just like in COVID, we had to unite as a world, and it’s difficult to do. Think about climate change, where there are no borders of it, meaning that countries that do the most polluting, that polluting goes out to the world. So there’s this interesting corollary between that happening and then, all of a sudden, the company is coming forward. The largest ones in the world that are putting stakes in the ground and saying, “I’m only going to buy renewable power. It’s got to be green. The supply chain has to be sustainable.” I’ve never seen anything like all of this come together. Of course, having a product focused on solving utility-scale storage in a sustainable way, of course, we feel great about that.
Alejandro: Robert, imagine that you go to sleep tonight, and you wake up in a world five years later—a tremendous snooze, like maybe you had to catch up on sleep from all the sleepless nights from your babies. But you wake up in a world where the vision of Energy Vault is fully realized. What does that world look like?
Robert Piconi: I think this ties to our mission, which is the decarbonization of the planet. While I knew in five years to stick with your question, we won’t be fully carbonized. I do believe that we will have made a lot of progress. In an ideal world, if we’re successful, we will be accelerating the deployment of renewables toward our vision of being the preeminent storage company, of course, but really core to our mission of the decarbonization and making that progress where, between our technology, by the way, and others like carbon capture or looking at leveraging the sun for making fuel, and things like green hydrogen. I really think this equation that we’re going to be solving for around decarbonization, to me, would mean success to make meaningful progress to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
Alejandro: Imagine that you get into a time machine, Robert, and I’m able to transport you back in time, perhaps to that moment where you were being recruited for the first time to lead companies all on your own, obviously, with leading your team. Imagine that you go back in time and have a chat with your younger self, and in that chat, you have the opportunity of giving yourself one piece of advice, given all the wealth of knowledge that you’ve been able to acquire over the years, especially now with Energy Vault, and you’re able to give yourself one piece of advice before launching a company, what would that be and why given what you know now?
Robert Piconi: That’s a great question. I’m thinking about back to when I started running my first company, so the first time when I was recruited, where it was me reporting to the board. That was a very important time, and through making some mistakes, and you learn, of course, but the advice I would give myself to go back and say, “Listen. It’s fundamental for you to overcommunicate with the board and ensure that all the stakeholders are aligned with everything you’re doing to manage and progress the company. I say that before I moved very quickly in the corporate world because I was blessed with being a good leader, a good communicator with people, building and growing, and being able to differentiate and position technology, decide what was going to make it connect with the economics in the market with what technology we should deploy. All of that I was very good at, but I was never forced to think about the other stakeholders that need to be kept well-informed and in a certain loop, and even going back to them when there are issues that you see to partner versus just solving it on my own. That’s the one thing I think I would go back and coach myself to be very sensitive in engaging and over communicate in any times where you’re making big decisions in the company to take it in what may be the right direction, but something where having that good transparency communication is fundamental.
Alejandro: What would you say is one book that you wish you would have read sooner?
Robert Piconi: That’s a very good question because there are so many good ones out there. I really like one of the early books I read in the early 2000s of Good to Great.
Alejandro: Oh, nice. Great book.
Robert Piconi: I think having that earlier and really thinking about what can be acceptable performance versus really setting different expectations in a company in that book. I looked at that, and as I worked at a company that you may know called Danaher, which I think is one of the best operational companies in the world and the cadence they have in not only their process for how they acquire companies, which is how they build it and think about growth and building businesses with a rigor on the operational side. When I think about that in setting expectations and continuous improvement, I think there’s a really neat equation there. I wish I would have had those insights a lot earlier in my career.
Alejandro: Amazing. Robert, for the people that are listening, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?
Robert Piconi: I’m on LinkedIn, so I think the best way is to send me an invite, and we can connect. I typically will interact initially through there, and I’m happy to go from there, and meet people, and be helpful.
Alejandro: Amazing. Well, Robert, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.
Robert Piconi: Great, Alejandro! Thank you for having me, and it’s a pleasure to also meet you. And I look forward to your book, by the way, because I think there are going to be some insights there as well. So I look forward to a good evening and a glass of wine to read through that.
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