Founder’s Series 10×10: David Snydacker, PhD, Founder of Lilac Solutions, Berkley CA

In this interview with Impala Ventures, Lilac Solutions founder David Snydacker explains how his company is poised to disrupt the captive lithium market.

Batteries, they charge our phones, laptops, iPads, watches, the ever growing fleet of electric vehicles(EV) and now a growing number of smart homes. Historically, these batteries and their devices ability to hold a “charge” was less efficient than the demand we have for those devices. For many decades, lead-acid batteries have made up the vast majority of battery chemistry and even up until 2015 they amounted to over 60%of all revenues in the market.

Although not the most energy efficient or dense chemistry for batteries, lead-acids are reliable and can support high surge currents and from a unit economic perspective are cheapest to source and manufacture , with a unit cost of $120-$150/kWh of energy capacity. But the world is changing and our lives have been transformed not purely through Moore’s law of doubling computing power every 2 years, but in larger magnitudes because of the advances in battery technology that allows consumers and business to operate their data crushing smart devices for longer periods of time. Lithium is the vital base element needed for these high efficiency batteries.

However the two biggest adoption risks have been the unit price delta between traditional  lead acid and lithium and limited global supply. The late 1990’s saw a surge in interest in personal mobile computing devices and lithium made this possible. But at a cost of $3,000/kWh of energy, 10x the cost of lead acid– scientists have had to make the greatest advances narrowing this unit price gap with the demand for electric vehicles.

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By 2008, advances in Lithium ion battery production had lowered the battery costs to an average of $1,000/kWh of energy and Tesla’s emergence as the global leader in battery technology has pushed this price down further to <$200/kWh of energy and with the release of the new Model 3 this will further drop the battery cost making it competitive with $2/ gallon petrol.

Back to my original point about the two leading adoption risks, cost and supply. In order to meet the global demand to shift to an electrification of the transportation market by 2050, the world will need to produce 50x the amount of Lithium. Like other “Rare earth” materials needed for cutting edge technologies, the worlds Lithium supplies are limited in their solid physical state and the largest deposits sit beneath some of the most volatile regions of the world.

Today the cost to extract Lithium from the worlds most plentiful resource: Ocean waters is cost prohibitive at over $12,000/kWh and in order to keep up with the worlds insatiable appetite for devices and energy efficient cars we must find new and innovative Lithium manufacturing and sourcing methods.

Enter Lilac Solutions of Berkley. Founded by post doctoral scientist David Snydacker in his lab at Northwestern, Lilac Solutions has developed a Lithium extraction process from “brine” water solutions. This new technology could revolutionize the Lithium ion market and allow for non invasive mining of Lithium by extracting it from ocean and salt water lake resources the world over.

I recently sat down with David to hear the story of Lilac and how he and his colleagues are poised to disrupt the captive Lithium market:

Tell me the genesis story of your company? What was your initial motivation to leave your previous org to pursue your vision?

The idea for the company began in 2014 during my PhD at Northwestern in materials science and engineering. I had been working to improve lithium-ion batteries for several years, and the Tesla Model S had just hit the market. I started to see that improving lithium-ion batteries was extremely difficult since they were already very good and billion-dollar battery divisions were only managing to eke out small improvements. I wanted to start a company in the battery sector, but I didn’t want to start another battery company. Therefore, I began to think more about the battery supply chain.

I am a huge electric vehicle nerd and post frequently on social media about new EV announcements. At one point, a couple of friends asked me about lithium supply… Are we going to run out of lithium? Are we trading OPEC for a new lithium cartel? I realized as a battery expert, that this was a huge blindspot for me, and I started to dig in. Before long, I found that the lithium supply chain was not ready for the boom in electric vehicles.

At that point, I launched a new project at Northwestern focused on ion exchange materials for lithium extraction. As I was finishing my PhD, I launched Lilac Solutions and recruited Alex Grant as Director of Engineering. While Alex was finishing his Master’s degree at Northwestern, I spent 6 months writing grant applications, while also working as a consultant in the battery space. Meanwhile, I met Ryan Zarkesh through my cousin – they both worked at Sandia National Lab as synthetic chemists. Ryan soon became Lilac’s Director of Chemistry, and we moved into our first lab space in Berkeley, CA.

What was it about Lithium and EV’s that made you want to create Lilac?

As an undergrad, I studied Chemistry and Molecular Biology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. My research used quantum mechanics to study DNA-protein interactions. I spent most of my time at Wesleyan playing drums in a rock band called Red Wire Black Wire. When I finished college, I wanted to go work for an oil company and design the next generation of clean energy technologies. I quickly realized that the oil industry was doing essentially nothing to develop next-generation energy technologies. So, I decided to go to grad school. I had never taken a materials or engineering class, but I realized that materials science & engineering was the field where new batteries and solar technologies were originating. I applied to five PhD programs, and was accepted into one: Northwestern. Northwestern has a top-three materials science program, so I considered myself very lucky.

While I was at Northwestern, I did research in Professor Chris Wolverton’s research group to improve conventional lithium-ion batteries and to create a new generation of solid-state lithium metal batteries. In my free time, I also spent a lot of time starting and leading student groups focused on the energy sector, including several cleantech seminars and an investment group focused on mitigating climate risk in Northwestern’s endowment. I served as a research advisor for SiNode Systems, a battery startup from Northwestern. Working with SiNode’s team was a fantastic experience, and I learned a lot from CEO Samir Mayekar, who serves as an advisor to Lilac.  

Leading a company requires the ability to effectively communicate your vision, strategy and future of the company, how do you  keep your team focused?

Our team is very focused on building a product that has great performance and durability. At the moment, all five employees are engineers. I often get slapped with cliches like “PhDs don’t understand business” but we go deep in the weeds together trying to understand every aspect of our customer’s needs, which are highly technical. Every week, I reiterate the importance of building a product that is unmistakably best in the world for lithium brine extraction, and as we hit technical targets, we raise the bar.

Share with us some your most critical experiences starting out, raising capital and recruiting for your venture?

The first couple hires were difficult. The Midwest is a great place for heavy industry, but when I was in the Midwest, I struggled at first to find engineers who were willing to take the leap into a new company. In the Bay Area, more engineers think that working for a startup is worth the risk.

What are some of the technology advances and changes you envision in the next 5,10 and 20 years in your space ?

Electric vehicles are about to make a huge impact globally. If you look at all the announcements made by automakers for 2025, and assume even a fraction of those announcements bear fruit, then we’re going to need huge investments in lithium to get there. Brine resources in South America are large and have high concentrations of lithium, but the production rate is limited by evaporation ponds and water drawdown. Over the next five years, I’m excited to see a new generation of lithium projects come online in North America that using Lilac’s technology to deliver massive supplies of lithium with minimal environmental impact. In ten years, the lithium sector will be completely transformed.

What are some of the ethical questions you think about as Ai, big data collection and robotics will have on our privacy?

Lilac is fundamentally a play in decarbonization. The decisions about energy made by our generation will reverberate for thousands of years and shape the course of our species. The clock is ticking, so we need to move fast. 

AI is already getting out of hand, as evidenced by Russia’s use of social media during the 2016 Presidential election. Social media is amazingly powerful but incredibly addictive and can blind us to obvious facts in front of us related to the physical environment and personal character. 

What are the characteristics you look for in talent that you recruit into your company?

Passion and healthy debate. I need people that are so driven to create an amazing product that their neurons will work on the problem while they’re sleeping. I also need people that aren’t afraid to shoot down stupid ideas from their boss, and aren’t afraid to have their ideas shot down.

What are your most rewarding moments as a founder?

Personally, the most rewarding moment for me has been delivering positive results to customers. As nerdy as this may sound, I care deeply about the success of the lithium industry, and I want to do everything I can to make a major contribution. For me, Lilac is a small part of something much bigger — the lithium battery industry — a relatively small industry today that carries the weight of a billion future cars and trucks on its shoulders.

What causes you the most stress and how do you manage these episodes?

Cash management has become my number one priority. I used to worry more about product development, but now that product development is on track, I worry about bringing in enough cash to keep my team going.

What big things are in store next for you and the company?

We’re currently running demonstration projects for customers at our lab in Oakland, California. Next year, we’ll start preparing for pilot projects in the field. Our first pilot will be a huge milestone for the company and will position us to become a major force in the lithium industry.

I am working on a series of interviews of founders that I have come to admire, who are building game changing companies. The interview will include a short introduction piece on your company and its impact on the industry that I will author.

By Brian M. Snow of Impala Ventures

About Impala Ventures — Impala Ventures is a boutique Venture Capital & Advisory firm focused on early stage and growth companies in PropTech Tech (real estate tech) and CleanTech and Energy/Sustainability sectors. Impala Ventures seeks investment opportunities with growth companies that disrupt their industries and bring positive environmental impacts and financial returns. We have active investments in IoT, Artificial Intelligence (Ai), Aquatech, Cleantech and Sustainability Automation and Enterprise SaaS companies throughout the US, Europe and Africa.

Brian Snow is a general partner in Impala Ventures, he works closely with companies as an advisor and investor primarily working with Cleantech, Sustainability and Real Estate Technology companies, guiding them through strategic growth decisions, capital formation and M&A.

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