Daimler-backed battery startup raises funds, hires Tesla veteran

Dana Hull

Sila Nanotechnologies, a San Francisco Bay-area battery startup, is getting an additional $45 million in funding and has hired two new executives, including a former Tesla Inc. manager who helped build the electric-car company’s relationship with battery-cell makers.

Bill Mulligan, a former vice president at solar-panel maker SunPower Corp., joins Sila as its first chief operating office, the Alameda, California-based company said in a statement. Kurt Kelty, a former Panasonic Corp. and Tesla executive who then joined vertical-farming startup Plenty Inc., was named vice president of automotive.

Bill Mulligan, a former vice president at solar-panel maker SunPower Corp., joins Sila Nanotechnologies as its first CEO.

The $45 million investment from Canada Pension Plan Investment Board brings the company’s total funding to $340 million, including an earlier contribution from Daimler AG. Daimler and BMW are automotive partners.

Sila is working to improve the performance of lithium-ion batteries, the key component of electric cars. Measured as kilowatt hours per kilogram or liter, energy density determines range: The more watt hours you have, the more miles the car can travel on a single charge. Low-cost, high-energy-density batteries are the holy grail.

The basic guts of a battery include a negatively charged anode, a positively charged cathode and the electrolyte. As a battery discharges, ions flow from the anode to the cathode, flowing through the electric circuit to releasing energy.

Sila is creating a silicon-based battery anode that’s fundamentally different chemistry than the graphite used in the most commercially popular anode material. Sila says its breakthrough can boost battery performance by 20%, which would be a big draw to original-equipment manufacturers in the auto industry.

“This will allow OEMs to build fundamentally different cars: smaller cars with longer range,” Chief Executive Officer Gene Berdichevsky said in an interview. Autos isn’t the only market he’s tackling: “We’ll be in wearables and phones before cars.”

Berdichevsky was employee No. 7 at Tesla, where he worked on the company’s first electric car, the Roadster, and was an entrepreneur in residence at Sutter Hill Ventures after he finished his graduate degree at Stanford University. He co-founded Sila Nano with the mission of commercializing a generational shift in battery chemistry.

When Kelty joined SoftBank-backed Plenty, he figured revolutionizing agriculture would be his next act, and he remains a believer in the company. But batteries have always been his passion, and he’s been on Sila’s advisory board for the past two years. Kelty worked with battery-cell makers on each Tesla vehicle from the Roadster to the Model 3.

“Batteries are all about trade-offs. With Sila, you get improved energy density without all the trade-offs,” said Kelty in an interview. “Let’s say a Tesla car gets 200 miles per charge and 1,000 cycles. If you can get 5,000 cycles with the same range, you are talking about a million-mile car. I’ve spent 25 years working toward this. It’s a natural fit for me.”