What’s it all about?
Batteries, glorious batteries. With the exponential growth of battery demand for both electric vehicles, and grid storage, we’re already seeing resource challenges as mining and supply of materials tries to ramp up with this demand. Given batteries are lasting in EV’s far longer than many expected, I thought large scale recycling of batteries was some time away, but it isn’t for an interesting reason, and it’s not to do with end of life batteries. Take a listen to what, and enjoy the episode.
About Mike O’Kronley:
Michael O’Kronley was named CEO of Ascend Elements in March 2020 and has served on the company’s board since 2017. Before Ascend Elements, he was Head of Corporate Strategy at A123 Systems. He has worked in the automotive and EV battery industries for over 25 years with previous business development, operations and engineering roles at Metaldyne Corp. and Robert Bosch. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Engineering from the University of Michigan.
About Ascend Elements:
Based in Westborough, Mass., Ascend Elements is revolutionising the production of lithium-ion battery materials by establishing a clean and sustainable supply chain using recycled feedstock. Its patented Hydro-to-Cathode™ technology directly synthesises new cathode active materials from spent lithium-ion cells more efficiently than traditional methods, resulting in reduced cost, improved performance, and lowered GHG emissions. With fewer batteries going to landfill and a cleaner manufacturing process, Ascend Elements is taking the lithium-ion battery industry to a higher level with a truly sustainable, closed-loop battery economy.
- Mike O’Kronley on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-o-kronley-32173715/
- Ascend Elements website: https://ascendelements.com/
- Ascend Elements on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AscendElements
- Ascend Elements on Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/company/battery-resourcers/
About Hyperion Cleantech Group:
Hyperion Cleantech Group is the holding company for businesses focused exclusively in cleantech talent acquisition, retention, leadership development. working with some of the most innovative cleantech companies in the world, helping to find extraordinary talent to enable their growth and success. Partnering with leading cleantech VCs, as well as directly with founders and entrepreneurs in the sector. With our clients we are transforming business and growing a strong and prosperous cleantech economy. We work across EMEA and NORAM, with teams based in the UK, Germany and the US.
Hyperion Executive Search is a retained search firm operating at Board, NED, C-Suite, VP and Heads of… level www.hyperionsearch.com
Fully Charged Recruitment is a contingent recruitment firm operating in the Mid/Senior level. www.fullychargedrecruitment.com
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David Hunt 0:00
I’m David Hunt CEO and founder of Hyperion executive search and your host for losing claims at podcast. Thanks very much for joining us again. And thank you for everybody who’s given us feedback on the new video format. Great if you’re joining us there on YouTube, of course, glad if you’re still meeting with us on Apple and elsewhere. One thing I do want to do very quickly, actually, because I do get some great feedback from from New Orleans. And please do keep that coming. Actually just a quick note up to Sebastian flash hacker who’s one of our long term fans whose father is unwell, and he’s heading off to Panama to look after him for an operation over the Christmas period. So good luck with all that Sebastian, in terms of today’s episode, real exciting times, obviously right the way across the supply chain and the battery manufacturing space. I’m delighted that my guest this week, Miko Cromley from ascend elements, very much central to the circular economy and batteries. So much going on there, which is really, really good news. I hope you enjoy the episode. There’s lots to take in. Hello, Mike. It’s great to have you on the losing cleantech podcast.
Mike O’Kronley – Ascend Elements 0:53
David, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me. Super. So
David Hunt 0:56
there’s clearly so much to talk about in and around what certain elements are doing. And the whole supply chain battery space, which is very much in the sweet spot of other most of our audience are involved in in some way, shape, or form. But we always like to get a little bit of a backstory. Mike, you’ve been a seasoned CEO and business leader for some time, but obviously the end in the battery sector for some time, but relatively recently, in terms of joining a sense, or perhaps you can just give a little bit of a backstory of how you came to join the organisation.
Mike O’Kronley – Ascend Elements 1:26
Sure, sure. I’ve been in the automotive industry really my entire career ever since I graduated with a mechanical engineering degree. So I had been in and around the the the automotive industry, but the last 12 years or so I’ve been in lithium ion batteries, right. I was previously with a with a company A 123 systems, a battery manufacturer based out of the Boston area, and was with them for quite some time moved through that organisation. And my last role there was head of corporate strategy. And that’s where we got into a lot of things but but also we made various technology investments. And as part of that we made an investment into or I was behind the investment into a little small company out of Worcester, Massachusetts was called better resources at the time. But now the name is ascend elements. So this was back in 2017, that I became aware of the company. And it was really on the heels of some joint development work that was going on between a one to three systems and ascend elements. And that was where a 123 took some cathode material that was made from recycled batteries, Rayas and elements. And a 123 took that material and the cathode materials important because it’s the most expensive material that goes into a new battery. Well, that material was built into batteries by a 123 and tested and we did it was an A to B comparison. And the material performed much, much better than anybody expected, better than the commercial material that a 123 was buying and had in production at the time. So that they have a lot of the technologists really kind of scratching their head at a 123 How did this little company make this high performing cathode material out of spent batteries? And so the the technical team dove in, said, yes, the process is really good, it’s valid. And then me being the business guy behind it came in and essentially led the series a funding round, okay, back in 2017. And that’s how I became involved with the company. So I was then sitting on the board of ascend elements since 2017. And it was really more or less in stealth mode. Still, at that point. We weren’t really public and advertising what what it was we were doing, but the technology continued to evolve and get better and better. And then in the 2020 timeframe, I joined the company full time as CEO, and then we’ve been on a path of commercialization ever since.
David Hunt 4:02
Right? Okay, interesting, Sheldon. Sure. I was in Boston in February of 2020. And I met up with some of the 123 people. I was doing some work with Malta, which are also a Boston based company. So interesting, but that again, obviously as soon as I got back from the US, pretty much things were shutting down. So that was an interesting time to be taking over an organisation. Yeah, it
Mike O’Kronley – Ascend Elements 4:21
was crazy, actually, very first week was the week that everything started shutting down in March of 2020. So it’s tough time to to launch and come out of stealth mode and go out and start talking to investors about fundraising. But you know, we went ahead and we did it. We found some success with some success of fundraising rounds in completed those in 2021 and 2022.
David Hunt 4:46
Yeah, now you’ve had some great fun, fundraising successes, including fifth war, which Greg Smith is from fifth fifth world has been a guest on the podcast and not too distant past. And also you’ve had some very good successes with some commercial projects and grants from the DOD, which would be good to we will refer back to that shortly. But in terms of joining the organisation, as you say, You joined a really difficult time with what was going on in the world. But where were you at at that point in terms of commercialization? Because again, I guess when people were having to work more remote, we’re still very much in the lab stage, where were you at sort of, I guess, in commercialization from from a product and technical point of view at that point?
Mike O’Kronley – Ascend Elements 5:20
Yeah. So the company itself, moved out of the lab and into a pilot scale operation, really in 2018 2019. Okay, so the company had a functioning pilot scale operation, that we had engineers, scientists, technicians, that were making cathode material, recycling batteries, and extracting the value out of them. So that we had an operation that was going and Worcester, Massachusetts, that’s really where we were founded, we’re a spin out of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. So that’s really our home. And so we had an operating facility there. The pandemic was, was a bit of a setback, as it was for most all companies. But, you know, at that point in time we did, we had to be in the lab, in the pilot scale operation making materials. And so we did have to do some some strange things with with off shifts and spreading people out and still had multiple people in the, you know, in the plants in the pilot plant. But, but we took a one shift operation had to spread it across to it just in order to get physical spacing. And just as the rest of the world is trying to figure out, what how do we deal with this? And how do we still operate and work? But I would say throughout the pandemic, we were largely hands on, we had to be in the facility actually making materials and recycling batteries, it wasn’t we the type of work we do was not conducive to just, you know, more or less office worker working from home.
David Hunt 6:50
Yeah, yeah. There’s lots of talk around the specifics of the supply chain and really wonder keen to pick up because I’ve heard from a number of sources in terms of the actual quality of recycled materials being better than primary source materials. And we’ll we’ll we’ll touch on to that. But just again, for the audience shift, you can share a little bit of SM elements, what specifically is it that you do what do you create? And what’s your sort of, I guess, the the business model?
Mike O’Kronley – Ascend Elements 7:13
Yeah. So there’s been a lot said about circular economy. And what does that mean, ultimately, so we are essentially applying the circular economy, to battery materials. And so fundamentally, what we do is we start with a raw material and our raw material is spent lithium ion batteries. And so this could come from end of life EVs, it could come from end of life, consumer electronics, cell phones, laptops, power tools, things like that. There’s also quite a few batteries that have been deployed out on the electric grid. Once those reach end of life, they also come back to us. But, you know, we don’t necessarily have to wait for the end of life to have a lot of feedstock available. In fact, the largest amount of feedstock for us, or the raw materials that we use, actually comes from the large battery Giga factories that are being built up and operating now. Okay, there’s a tremendous amount of manufacturing scrap that’s available. And that’s the largest source of feedstock for us today. Eventually, once once the EVS reached the or their end of life or batteries that are on the grid reach their end of life, they will come back and need to be recycled. But we take all of that material, and we begin to process it. And we process it in a very unique way, a very cost efficient way to directly synthesise new cathode active material. And so this is important and it’s a key distinction. Many other recycling companies will take in batteries, the spent battery, same raw material that we’re dealing with, or that we’re taking in, and they they go through a process and they try to extract out the lithium or they try to extract out the cobalt, or nickel that are in these batteries, we don’t do that we have a slightly different process are quite a bit different. And our output product is much, much more valuable than these commodity metals that are extracted our output material is is three times the value of just these raw materials. And so because we’re making the cathode active material, which is the like I mentioned, the most expensive material that goes into a battery, that’s around half the cost of a total battery is just the cathode material. And it’s partly because it has these expensive metals in it. Lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, that’s all in the cathode material. And so we’re we use this very inexpensive source of feedstock spent batteries and create a very high value material out of it. And we supply that directly back to a battery manufacturer to the battery room. So going back to that whole Circular Economy idea. We said I actually work with battery manufacturers in evey manufacturers. So they have a lot of battery material available to them through manufacturing, scrap, warranty returns, or even end of life batteries. So we work with them, we bring in all of that material, we process it, and then we sell them back material that they can use directly back in their new batteries. And so it’s not an intermediate, it’s material that can go right back into the battery manufacturing plant to be used.
David Hunt 10:27
Okay, thanks for sharing that. It’s really interesting, actually. Because, again, one of the things that and we work extensively across storage and batteries, is the know the saying sometimes that there’s not enough recycling generally, which to an extent may be true, but equally, batteries are actually lasting far longer than we anticipated in vehicles. And then of course, you have the whole second life battery thing, particularly for stationary storage. So all these great applications before a battery is spent. So one of my questions was going to be around, you know, what, what’s the lag time before you actually get some real, you know, quality of feedstocks, but you’ve hit the nail on the head with with this idea of the sort of the surplus is warranty seconds and scrap from from from Giga factories, which didn’t obviously immediately springs to mind, but from what you’re saying, that’s actually the biggest source of feedstocks at the moment. Yep. So
Mike O’Kronley – Ascend Elements 11:11
around 70 to 80% of the material that’s available today is is from manufacturing scrap, it’s not from end of life batteries, when we look forward, seven, eight years from now, that will tend to equal out. But recognise that, it seems almost every month, there’s a new giga factory that’s being announced, or maybe even every couple of weeks, there’s a new Gigafactory that’s being announced and starting to be constructed. So there’s a lot of new capacity for battery assembly, that’s happening all across Europe, all across North America. And certainly China’s is well ahead as far as capacity on ahead of Europe and North America. So there’s a lot of battery manufacturing capacity globally, that is either installed or being installed. And the scrap rates that any one of those plants are putting out, I would say are relatively high, relatively high from the scrap rates most people think about, right. And when it’s, it’s really, uh, you know, eight to 9% is really a world class scrap rate number. And, you know, when I first got into the battery industry, I was I was shocked at how high that scrap rate number is, you know, and part of it is because of just the the fundamental method of making batteries. And when you make batteries, a lot of the electrodes, so being the positive and negative side of the battery, there’s these coded foils. And virtually every battery manufacturer and application requires those foils, those electrode foils to be stamped. So similar to a car body panel, where you have a sheet or roll of of steel or aluminium that comes out and you stamp out a body panel, about 40%, depending on the geometry, about 40% of that material goes into the scrap Hopper, right. And that’s actually by design. Same thing with with batteries, it’s not quite that high. And the cut offs in the stampings are also quite a bit lower. But there’s a tremendous amount of material that just comes out of the these manufacturing plants that that ultimately should be recycled, should be returned back to the battery manufacturer one way or another. And that’s where we step in. That’s where we take all of that material, process it and our raw material and process it and provide it right back to the battery manufacturers.
David Hunt 13:38
Yeah. So as you said, that approach is somewhat unique in the most recycling does exactly what you said before, they you know, they’ll extract the various materials or common metals in particular. And obviously, then they commoditize and obviously go back into the marketplace when gene itself is not a bad thing, of course, which is good. But that’s a very different approach. Are there anyone on anyone else sort of doing this more? Yeah, more definite circular process that you’re doing?
Mike O’Kronley – Ascend Elements 14:01
Yeah. So there are there are other approaches. And I’ll say lithium ion batteries, like many other materials are being recycled, and they are being returned back to the supply chain in general. It’s really a question of how efficient Can you do that. And so the the state of the art in the industry now, it’s being practised in large scale in Asia, certainly in China, Korea, Japan, is a process called hydrometallurgy. And this is a process where you essentially taking battery material, the scrap batteries that I was talking about, and mechanically shredding them and saving them. That process alone yields a product that is also referred to as Black Mass. It’s a real technical term I know. But but that black mass is really the anode and cathode powders that are in a battery. And so when you mechanically shred and sieve this material, you you are essentially liberating or getting In the cathode and anode powders off of these coated foils, and in sieving them through mechanical means. And in just collecting this, this material, it’s a relatively straightforward process. Many, many companies are doing this. And actually, that is a process many people believe is recycling, because you take a battery or battery material, and you run it through a process, and you’re transforming it into something other than a battery. So technically, that’s recycling it, I think it’s more of a question of efficiency and how much value you can extract this black mass that is the output of this shredding process is something that you you cannot put back into a new battery, it needs a lot more refining. And so yes, it has all of the nickel and cobalt and lithium in it, which is good, and you’re able to capture that, but there’s more processing that needs to be done there. So what what many companies are doing certainly in large scale in Asia, there’s several others that are in North America and Europe that are trying to put this in installed capacity to do the next step in the process, this refining step, which is a hydrometallurgical process, think of it as a as a chemical process, where you take this dry black mass, and then you one by one you leach into an acid and then you pull out the the various metals, the nickel and it comes out in the form of nickel sulphate comes out in the form of a cobalt sulphate or a lithium carbonate these are, these are metal salts that essentially you can chemically extract from this black mouse. And yes, you’re absolutely correct, these are commodities, they can be as, as you extract them, you purify them and sell them out into the commodities markets, which they they can go those materials can go back into the battery supply chain, they can go into other other applications as well. Back the largest consumer of nickel sulphate globally is not lithium ion batteries, it’s stainless steel. Okay, and so that’s, you know, there’s, there’s a market for it, and it’s, it is needed. So you are recovering these materials, and putting it back into the supply chain. You know, when when I talk about what we do as a company, we do it very, very efficiently. And we help battery manufacturers and very specifically, battery manufacturers close the loop in this circular economy. So we help them collect the battery materials, the raw materials and convert them into a material that they use directly. We don’t sell it off to another cathode precursor company or a cathode active material company, we sell that our output material directly back to a battery company. And so number one, we’re shortening the loop. You know, when you talk about a circular economy, how many, how many companies need to touch that material, before it gets returned back to an application. And so with us, there’s only one company that needs to touch that material, before we return it back to the supply chain. So that’s, that’s efficient. But further this hydro to cathode process that ascend elements has developed that’s uniquely ours, and we’ve patented many different ways we have an entire patent portfolio around it. But that particular process is, is more capital efficient, more op X efficient than this hydrometallurgical process I described. And the output product is higher value, and short circuits, this extended supply chain and closes that loop really, really tight. So we’re able to, to provide these materials in a very, very efficient way. And when you look at you know, the economics of circular economy, number one, can you you know, technically do it, yes, it’s being done today. But it really becomes down to how efficient are you at doing that? And that’s the unique technology, the unique differentiator that ascend elements brings to the market,
David Hunt 19:05
right? I mean, it’s such a an important part of the process. And I’m sure it’s something that I read with regards to ascend that amounts this phrase of urban mining, because again, we all know that these that electric vehicles are far cleaner than their fossil fuel counterparts. But you know, mining does have some some negative consequences. And it’s really important when we do have these elements and these materials that we are able to recycle them particular things like the cobalt, which obviously is coming from from from some very challenging places, so that that phrase of urban mining and that sort of so it’s not just the fact that there’s certainly economy in itself, which is of course great, but you’re actually offsetting a lot of the need for fresh, primary sources of some of these materials,
Mike O’Kronley – Ascend Elements 19:45
right? It’s exactly what what we’re doing so anybody that can recover these materials and reintroduce them back into the supply chain. You we are reducing the need for reminding what you know we can Just look at different industries as examples that have essentially done this in very efficient ways in the past, and even looking at lead acid batteries, so these are the 12 volt batteries that are in, essentially everyone’s car and starts there, their internal combustion engine. It has many, many other applications as well. But, but recycling rates of or of a lead acid battery today are up above 99%. And so, still around. And so the main output there is, is obviously the lead. And so when you look at lead acid batteries, around 90% of all lead acid batteries are from recycled lead. Now we’re still mining a little bit of it, because there’s still growth in the in the industry. But ultimately, we’ve This is a technology that’s more than 100 years old. So it takes a little while to get an equilibrium equilibrium of these materials. So that’s essentially what we can forecast will also happen with lithium ion batteries. Okay, it’s it’s a, it’s a really a growing market right now for all lithium ion batteries, depending on the forecast that you look at, its forecast to grow at 30% year over year for the next decade plus. And so when you have that type of growth, you cannot supply all of the raw materials that need to go in that without mining, you must have mining in order to do that. But eventually, that growth will slow on a year over year basis. And as we’re developing and this is a new business, a new industry of recycling lithium ion batteries. And yes, we will be offsetting it. And initially, the total amount that the entire recycling industry can provide right now is something closer to 5% of total material requirements. But that will increase year over year, and eventually 10 and 20 and 30. And eventually we will get up to the rates of where the lead acid battery industry is already at. And that’s really going to be more of a function of how much material has already been extracted out of the ground, and processed and put into this into the market, what we certainly do not want to do is to have these materials go into a landfill, you know, to extract them, use them once and then not reintroduce them back into the material supply chain, that’s actually the worst thing we can do. And for those that have looked at the economics of this business, there’s there’s a compelling argument to say that we should never put any battery and ie the battery into into a landfill, there’s just too much valuable material inside that battery. And the cost to collect it, process it and put it back in the supply chain is is far less than it is to mine, this mine these materials out of the ground.
David Hunt 23:00
Yeah, there’s so many I mean that in itself, as you say, is an obvious direction of travel. But particularly at the moment when we have as you touched on before, mesh is a new giga factory launched or announced at least, at least a few times a month, a lot of talk around supply chains, of course, because there are challenges in in supply of many of the materials for batteries and electric vehicles. So even with these new factories, which are coming on stream to some extent that as fast as they’re growing, you’re able to grow in theory, because the materials, you know, as they come on stream, they’re producing more relative weight of material, and you can bring that straight in. So that clearly is a massive opportunity for your scaling. And we got to talk about that. So I’ve seen the new factory or the new sites that you’ve been acquiring lots of fundraising been done. And also, I think to a couple of as far as I could see a couple of projects that were funded or some fight financing from DOE in terms of help you scale because the importance of what you’re doing. How is this, you know, come about in this year, you know, as a CEO, can come into the pandemic that eases off, and then suddenly you have this 2022 When the market really starts to accelerate?
Mike O’Kronley – Ascend Elements 24:00
Yeah, so without question, the market is accelerating. And I think you know, some of the some of the things that happen first, is really the growth or the number of announcements of the large Giga factories that was being done. And of course, everything that’s been happening in Europe and also North America that you see all the new announcements, all of the new investment. This is something that has already happened to China. So really the with all things lithium ion battery, it really grew up big and fast in China because of the environment that existed in China. And this is going back well almost a decade. But in the 20 1314 timeframe, things were really taking off there. You had consumer acceptance of EVs. You had very favourable policies that existed, and then a lot of incentives and help to enable you local Chinese battery manufacturers to grow and scale quickly, there was a lot of incentives and a lot of market demand for EVs in China. And a lot of that initially was was government supported. But you know, with when you look at it now, China is by far the world’s leader in everything to do with batteries. And this is all the way from refining the raw materials to creating the the materials that go into batteries, battery, assembly, EVs, even the equipment that’s used to make evey batteries, right, all of it is done, or the majority of it is done in China. What you’re seeing now is you’re seeing a recognition broadly across Europe, you’re seeing a recognition in North America, that, hey, we need to do something similar. If we want to have a, I’ll say a domestic or a local battery supply chain here. And this is I think, it’s broadly recognised now that this energy transition is happening, the energy transition is happening with in the automotive industry, certainly the replacement of internal combustion engines with with electric drive trains, in the even in the electric grid, the transformation of coal and gas facilities to renewables, a lot of times renewables are being placed with very large batteries. So batteries are at the centre of that, and two massive industries that are transforming need a lot of batteries. And how do you make those are you in governments in Europe, and also in North America do not want to be reliant upon one country for such a critical component of that transformation. And so you’re seeing a lot of favourable policies come out now. Specifically, in Europe, there’s no requirements to for local content, there’s requirements for even recycled content in new batteries. Okay. And so this is, this is driving a lot of new investment from battery manufacturers from battery material manufacturers, and even recycling companies. So that whole loop, so a lot of activities happening. And you see a lot of I’ll say, incentive money, or you see a lot of health, financial health coming available from EA the EU. They were EU is about a year ahead of where North America was now but but recently last year, as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law that was passed November of 2021. That year, March around 7 billion US dollars, to to help speed the construction of the infrastructure that’s needed for for lithium ion batteries in the United States. And then further, some additional legislation was passed just this August and 2022. The be inflation Reduction Act. And that encouraged a lot of I’ll say, local content, battery manufacturing assembly needed to be done in, in North America or with a free trade partner. And or the materials that go into that battery also need to be made in North America or with a free trade partner. So they’re they’re encouraging a lot of a lot of construction and infrastructure to make these batteries and all the battery materials to support the local region. So you see, it’s really a globalisation of the battery industry that’s happening right now.
David Hunt 28:42
Yeah, it’s kind of globalisation, and yet localization as well, obviously, in terms of narrowing supply chains, and making sure that there aren’t the challenges, for example, that we still see now and have done for a while with the chips being fairly much single source from from from one part of the world. So which all occurred clearly plays very strongly towards ascend and obviously contribute to some some great investments and that you had one thing if you’re able to share or to sort of without even, you know, expose anything commercially sensitive, but clearly the technology is relatively unique from what you saying some really solid patents in terms of the markets growing and scaling very rapidly. Are there plans to either have a send plants in other parts of the world or would you licence the technology to other partners and JV what what’s the sort of given the risk so many opportunities globally are certainly within North America and Europe, as you mentioned, were way behind the curve, compared to China, as you say. So what’s the sort of plan for your international growth and expansion?
Mike O’Kronley – Ascend Elements 29:40
Yeah, that’s a great question. We’re, we are focused initially in North America, that’s that’s our home. That’s where the technology was based. And so we have an operating facility now in Georgia and a new one that has just broke ground in Kentucky. Right. But that’s where we’ll we’ll be starting. We all So we’ll be making announcements of facilities in Europe as well. Okay. So we’re going to be focusing on owning and operating facilities in North America and Europe. When it comes to Asia, we already have a very mature market, there are already companies that are bringing in battery material and recycling that and extracting these key metals. So there’s already a well established supply chain there. It’s it’s relatively immature in North America and Europe. And so the the barriers to entry are lower. And that’s why we’re focusing on those regions first. But to the extent that we achieve a lot of traction in North America, and in Europe, we will also be expanding into Asia, we’ll do that with a partner, whether it’s through licencing, or, you know, through the type of joint venture, but it’s, that’s that’s on the on the radar for us is to move into Asia, eventually.
David Hunt 30:59
Now, how does that affect you, Mike, as as the CEO of this business, because as you say, there’s all these things that are the perfect storm in some regards, in terms of demand, in terms of the IRA and other sort of acts that you say, which are pushing things in the right direction. Scaling is challenging at the best of times, when it’s hyper scaling, it’s, it’s really challenging, you’ve got to physically build stuff, right? So it’s not a software platform. So you’ve got to actually build sites to do this stuff. You’ve got to build your team, of course, in itself, which is challenges we will know. So how are you coping? Or how are you enjoying the challenges of this type of scale up in this new frontier land?
Mike O’Kronley – Ascend Elements 31:34
Yeah, so I find it very satisfying. One of the things personally that has been driving me in my career is I’ve always looked for roles and opportunities, that enabled me to, to build something. And whether it was, you know, an organisation, or a plant or a division, that was always something that I was always sought after, because I, I liked that challenge, I liked that type of, of opportunity, when when I was presented with this particular opportunity was the opportunity to really build and shape a company in the hypergrowth, that you talked about, that’s really what we’re experiencing right now. So it’s not a stepwise function, you have to be comfortable with a certain level of risk, when you’re when you’re moving forward, and you’re gonna move forward. So, so quickly and so fast. But yes, we need to scale our team. And we have been scaling our team very, very quickly. We’re scaling our own supply chain with equipment, our construction teams, building these plants, also our business development team, that is securing all of this feedstock and all of the offtake contracts. So all of that is happening in parallel, we’ve consciously decided not to do this in a serial fashion, where you know, we we develop a technology, and then have that as a checkmark, put that in a box, then we go out and we develop a customer relationship, get the customer excited about what it is we’re doing and then get get a contract. And then we go out and raise funding to build a plant. And then after we raise funding, then we go out and, and build a build a plant. That’s, that’s more of a serial fashion. And this industry is just moving too fast to do it serially. So we had been developing the technology really since 2012. And only came out of stealth mode, really in the 2020 timeframe. So the technology was by far the the the most mature out of out of any of those steps. But the rest of it, getting the customer traction, finding locations to build plants, and raising funding all happen simultaneously. And you know that because of all of the tailwinds that exist in this in this market, there’s just a lot of excitement around it. And in moving forward, like you mentioned in this parallel fashion is, is really what’s needed to take advantage of this hyper growth in this industry that is really just just starting out in in North American and in Europe.
David Hunt 34:09
Yeah. One of the things like to be interested to hear your thoughts on again, there are so many people who want to do something meaningful with their careers, who would love to work in the clean technology or the you know, more sustainable environment. And we assert concerns often or working with people already in the sector, but things like what you’re doing, you know, touching on a lot of different industries, I guess enable a lot of people to hopefully join that revolution, whether they’ve come from construction or manufacturing or production or other sort of noncollege traditionally clean tech sectors and automotive Of course, it’s making that transition. How have you sort of built the team and how have you managed to to build a culture that was fit for this hyper scaling? Yeah, so
Mike O’Kronley – Ascend Elements 34:48
actually, we spend a lot of time on on culture in the company, so that for me, that’s a really critical part, because we’re hiring people and we’re we’re hiring five or six people a week now. And we’ve been doing that for about a year on trying to grow and scale this. So we’re hiring people, some of them are fresh college graduates that really haven’t have a whole lot of work experience. And then we have some very experienced people from adjacent industries are actually in the battery industry or battery materials industry. They all come from a from a background, it’s all very different. So how do you bring in and blend all of those cultures that existed in other companies, and every company has a different culture. So part of building the company was also building culture. And we talk a lot internally, about teamwork, and all working together support one another. I’ll say the majority of the people that come to ascend elements, they, they believe in what we’re doing, they believe that, you know, they want to make a difference in the world, they want to help clean up the environment, they want to help with this energy transition. And so they’re already a believer, when they when they walk in the door for their first interview. This is I want to be a part of this. But really, what sort of cements things is once they need a bunch of people from the Sunday elements, we talk about teamwork, and how we help each other. And it’s, you know, it’s not in then I’ve been in, I’ll say, toxic organisations where you’re under a lot of pressure under hypergrowth. And everyone’s held to be accountable for their KPIs and their metrics. And then it tends to be a toxic environment where you’re pointing fingers at somebody that’s not getting their job done, or didn’t get their job done. Like they said, they were gonna get it done. And we fundamentally don’t do that. We don’t speak like that, at ascend elements, you know, what we do is we look at what’s going on. And yes, we all recognise what the goal or the mission is here. And we are scaling very, very quickly. So there is a lot of pressure. But we do it in an environment where there’s teamwork. Yeah. And so I guess maybe it comes from, from my roots of being involved in a lot of team sports growing up, you know, it’s not one person that can get things done, you really need a whole team. And there’s no one person at ascend elements, that’s, that’s going to be able to accomplish our goals or our missions. It truly is a team. And so when one person is struggling or falling behind, it’s not like, hey, you know, you don’t point your finger at that person and say, You got to get, you got to be moving faster. And you started getting down on them. You know, it’s, it’s more of a more of an approach of, Hey, how can I help you out? I see that you’re struggling, I see that you’ve got some challenges ahead of you. Can I help you hire Can I help you use with some more resources. And it’s not just myself, it’s everybody in the company, that recognises and pitches in wherever is the help is needed. And in that way that, you know, when I go around to our various sites, and I talk to employees, that’s the thing that most of our employees find most satisfying and gratifying for being at the sound elements.
David Hunt 38:04
Yeah, yeah. But that’s not easy to achieve, where you have that level of accountability, which of course needs when you’re going through this fast growth pick, everybody has to pull their weight, right. But equally on the flip side, as you say, it’s not micromanaging. It’s letting everybody perform to their best and providing the sport for them. Do you think the your sporting background and maybe you can touch a little bit on that, or the fact that you you come to this role, you’ve been in industry for a while a little bit of maturity, shall we say that is enabled you to help build that culture?
Mike O’Kronley – Ascend Elements 38:29
Certainly. So I’ve been involved in several different organisations. And so I’ve had the opportunity to see what works well. And what doesn’t work well. And so you know, all the while going, through my career and in various organisations at different companies, has given me some background of what, what is the really the best way and the most effective way to operate as an organisation. You know, there’s a lot written about high performing teams and how those high performing teams really work well together, we trust each other. And that’s, that’s a big part of it. We trust that each other is going to do what they need to do. And we trust each other that we have each other’s back. And so because of that, people want to come in, and they want to do what is needed to do, they will go that extra, that extra yard or that extra mile to do what needs to be done. They’ll come in at at three o’clock in the morning, when there’s a reaction that’s going on, and it makes sure that it will not fail. You know that we have this level of dedication throughout the organisation. And it’s, it’s really, really important to get success in a very rapid fashion. And, you know, we we’ve talked about how quickly the market is growing in order to to essentially be part of that and be one of the leaders in the Oregon or in the market. We have to move very quickly at an is a high pressure situation, but everyone wants this company to be successful. Our customers, our investors also want this company to be successful. So they are also helping us. So as we have, we have, we have partners that are outside the company also, that wants to see us be successful. And to the extent that, you know, we receive these massive grants from the Department of Energy, you know, they, the federal government in the United States also wants to see us be successful. So there’s a lot of a lot of people that are counting on us a lot of stakeholders that want us to be successful. And so you know, it to me, it’s a no brainer, let’s all work together and to make this happen.
David Hunt 40:39
I think trust is a critical factor there. And again, are we always, you know, as Headhunters, we know, what are good environments and whatnot, in terms of why people leave organisations. And invariably, it’s the lack of trust, and that lack of ability to have some autonomy and challenge to get the job done. Right. So I think that that trusting is really important. And again, those come out well in sport environments. In again, because the role is so varied, you’ve obviously had the fundraising, you’ve had site acquisition, you’ve had, obviously, to technology, whilst it was reasonably mature evolutions of that hiring teams, looking at internationalisation partners, all this kind of stuff that’s going on, which parts of your world do you enjoy most, and which do you find most challenging,
Mike O’Kronley – Ascend Elements 41:18
they’re, they’re all different. And I enjoy all aspects of it. So even though I come from a technical background, I do like seeing progress everywhere. So interactions with with customers, and seeing that we can essentially solve problems for customers, and see that engagement to help them seeing manufacturing sites getting built, because they’re being built right before your eyes. And you can see something very tangible happening. That’s, that’s very, very satisfying. It’s very satisfying to me to sit down with a new employee, and to talk with them about the market, about the company about our goals and visions, and also what they want to do and accomplish in their own careers. And how do we as a company, or an organisation, help them on their own personal journeys, that is also very, very satisfying. So in all of these areas, you know, I, there’s, I get satisfaction in all of them. And at the end of the day, you know, if we’re able to make a little bit of money along the way, it’s also pretty satisfying for myself and the investor. So, you know, being someone that has more of a business hat on these days, as opposed to a technical person. So that’s always, that’s very good and satisfying, as well.
David Hunt 42:39
Yeah, we’ve touched on as we all can see that, you know, we’re in disruptive industries that are going through exponential growth. And the challenge with with you know, the S growth, and you’ve got this super super growth going on is to, you know, that’s going to be quick, you know, it’s going to be fashion, or it’s going to lots is going to happen, but it’s very difficult to predict. And it’ll put you on the spotlight a little bit just in terms of how you see firstly, for for certain elements, and then perhaps for the broader battery marketplace evolving over the next two to three year timeline. Yeah, so
Mike O’Kronley – Ascend Elements 43:05
these plants and the investments that are being made and have already been announced, are already underway. We’ve announced a $1 billion investment in our new plant in Kentucky, to take in battery material and make this high value cathode material. Yeah. So that’s, that’s a very large investment for us. But even when you look at the battery manufacturers, and the billions that they’re investing in every single factory, you know, they’re, you know, a small factory is several billion dollars. Larger factories are five to 6 billion, we see investments being made from other battery material companies as well, cathode material companies, anode, material companies, everybody that’s supplying into the battery industry. And then on top of that, you see the tremendous investments that the OEMs are making, not only in their, their battery jayvees that they’ve developed, but also in their own infrastructure and trying to transform their industry. So there’s a lot of investment that’s going in. And what you’ll see over the next two to three years is some of this investment, and it’s all of that has been announced, or a lot of it has been announced. But all of that is being built and constructed. And so you’re gonna see a tremendous ramp up in the this industry starting up and transforming. So from a from a hiring perspective, all of this investment, all of these plants that are starting up, they’re going to need people who are gonna need employees. And so this transformation is already happening. We can see it in front of our eyes. All of these new plants are going to need people and you know, we can’t make EVs we can’t make batteries. We can’t make battery materials without people. And so we will see a shift as part of this energy transition. And they’ll be leaving industries that are maybe going by the wayside you know there There’s not a lot of growth in engine and transmission manufacturing, as as an example. That’s one thing that’s going away. But even you know, if you look at the broader energy transition, you know, the people that used to construct coal fired power plants, that that really isn’t happening anymore. So those companies, those employees need to transition into something else. Now maybe they’re building and constructing Evie plants or evey battery plants. So it is a transition, it’s different, they can still we can still use everyone’s skill set. Right. But it’s maybe in a slightly different way or with a different company.
David Hunt 45:36
Yeah, no, it’s great that you recognise that. And again, you know, from from the last sort of 10 years of my life, it’s been helping people on that transition, helping clean tech companies to scale, but also helping individuals to come and play a part in that. And to leave, we were friends with sunset industries, I should say industries which are in decline, they may not be there just yet, but they’re in decline. So rather than work somewhere where things are a bit more exciting, right? Well,
Mike O’Kronley – Ascend Elements 45:57
so we, you know, I think it’s also important to recognise that change is scary for a lot of people, whether it’s the products or the types of car we drive, or the jobs that we have, this is part of a transition, it is happening. And, you know, I think it’s important to recognise us as people that are helping facilitate job change through the recruiting industry, or even, you know, as an employer to recognise that, you know, we’re, we’re seeing and working with people that are going through a change, and it is a little bit a little bit scary for them at times. And to help them along. Understand that and help them along through that transition.
David Hunt 46:35
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Mostly, it’s been great to hear more about ascend, and the technology that you have, and the evolution of the company is clearly going to be, as you say, rapidly growing and scaling along with the whole industry over the next two or three years. Going back to you as a CEO and closing my eyes. You know, again, it’s difficult sometimes to get any free time. But are there sort of things you get up to or places you go to or books you read that are your go to when you need a little bit of headspace and you need a little bit of inspiration sometimes on on the more challenging base?
Mike O’Kronley – Ascend Elements 47:03
Yeah, so it’s certainly a love to be outside. Running in, in the better weather outside and or, you know, staying in shape. And in the wintertime, wintertime, skiing, snow skiing, is something I certainly enjoy. And both of those are some good headspace type activities. And I find that it’s, you know, the, the vastness of the outdoors helps helps me open my mind. But even when I’m inside, started to take up a bit of meditation, that’s also really kind of helped clear, clear my head clear my mind. So that’s a that’s a practice. That’s, that’s ongoing. Yeah. But, you know, and some days are better than others. But, but those are all activities that I try to open up my mind. Yeah.
David Hunt 47:53
And obviously, it sounds ridiculous. You can’t find 10 minutes to go and sit and meditate or chill. But I struggle. Again, like you said, it’s probably two days out of seven rule of threes out of fear, if I’m lucky, it’s a hard thing to get them but to your point. Leaving a business is challenging or being involved in any of these businesses going through disruption is challenging and finding the space to have and getting outside into the world is clearly a good thing, because that’s why a lot of us are doing exactly what we’re doing is right is to try and protect the environment that we live in. So it’s been really good to hear from you, Mike. We’re going to point everybody to the website, which will have details of where they can find out more information about what we’re doing. There’s some really good stuff showing some of the factories that you building and some of the technologies but for now, thanks so much for joining us and wish you every success for the future. Thank you, David.