(Editor’s note: When we met Karl McGoldrick in May, we realized he is the archetype for the global entrepreneur. He’s why we started Dispatches … the lifelong expats who are tech revolutionaries. This is also posted on the High Tech Campus Eindhoven website. This special profile is part of our Tech Tuesdays series.)
Get ready to have your worldview shaken to the core.
Battery technology is still in its infancy. Electric car batteries underperform and are a potential hazard. As the number of batteries used increases exponentially, it is only a matter of statistics and time before we see more of them bursting into flames in electric vehicles (EV) and e-bikes. Yet, the EV trend will not only continue, but future growth will also be explosive (pardon the pun).
Oh, and by the way, only the paranoid survive.
These could be interpreted as the rantings of a technophobe. Except LionVolt CEO Karl McGoldrick has spent decades inventing the future, and he’s busy now developing the next generation of battery technology here at High Tech Campus Eindhoven.
We like his odds.
You say you want a revolution ….
That’s because McGoldrick has been at the ramparts of multiple tech revolutions. His first startup used Dutch technology to put a camera in your smartphone, which was at HTC 27 while he worked at Philips.
Now, after an illustrious corporate career and multiple startups, he’s back in HTC 27 as CEO of the next-generation 3D solid state battery company LionVolt.
This explains in part his take on current battery technology. McGoldrick compares the batteries in everything from Teslas to 14,000 euro Turbo Levo e-bikes and finds them wanting.
In a recent interview on Campus, he compared today’s lithium-ion batteries to the first days of the Internet with slow dial-up connections: “You opened the connection, it made all these noises, then you went out for a cup of coffee while your page loaded. That’s where the battery is today. Yeah … you only get 300, 400 kilometers in range, it takes hours to charge etc., etc.”
This native of Ireland is vocal about how he sees no future for the electrification of the auto industry based on the current battery technology – even though manufacturers and suppliers are building Giga factories all over the world. Those factories are, by their nature and materials used, hardly environmentally friendly. “So, all this talk about, you know, saving the planet by having an electric vehicle is far from true today.”
Fortunately, McGoldrick is working on that. His LionVolt startup, a spinout of TNO/Holst Center, is developing a 3D solid state battery architecture to replace the current lithium-ion battery format. The technology involves layering ultra-thin materials in a 3D structure. The physics are, well, complicated, but McGoldrick says the battery is lighter, charges far faster and more sustainably than current lithium-ion batteries … and doesn’t explode. Which is a good thing.
In March 2020, McGoldrick founded LionVolt with Sandeep Unikrishnaan, who had researched high-performance batteries at Holst Center on Campus. Since then, LionVolt’s trajectory has been straight up, raising more than five million euros so far. “When we started, the company was just the two of us,” McGoldrick. “And in 2021, we raised our first capital. Now, there are 16 amazing people in the company.
If somebody asked me today, you know, ‘What is your greatest pride?’ it wouldn’t actually be our technology performance. It is the fact that this team has evolved so quickly while developing a passion for what we do.”
His team, he says, is working non-stop. “Even this morning they were saying to me, ‘You know, maybe we should start earlier.’ And one of them asked me, ‘Should we put beds in (the LionVolt offices)?’ ”
Only the paranoid survive
That American startup mindset – rare in the Netherlands – has been the norm for Karl McGoldrick for most of his career. He started at the Intel fab in New Mexico, and he was Employee No. 1 at Intel’s Ireland operation. McGoldrick had dinner once or twice with the admired/feared Intel legend Andy Grove. “The guy who cracked the whip to turn Intel into the number one semiconductor company in the world,” as McGoldrick puts it.
And a guy who changed the world.
McGoldrick’s business approach comes out of his conversations with the late Intel CEO in which Grove expounded on the concept of an “inflection point.” “And he wrote a book, which I would advise anybody in the tech industry to read. It’s called ‘Only the Paranoid Survive.’ ”
The rest of the world is all about being positive and thinking big, whereas Grove’s philosophy was, be wary. Be very wary, be paranoid and react, McGoldrick said. And that crucial moment to react is the inflection point – a moment in time which will determine what happens in the future.
“If you recognize it and you respond to it, it will be a positive inflection point. If you miss it, it will be negative and the company will go down.”
After 15 startups, McGoldrick says, he knows Grove was correct. “In every startup, there are crucial moments to the success of the startup. And if you miss that, then you will die.”
Big man on campus
McGoldrick is so influenced by Grove that he named one of his companies “Innflect, and it comes from talking to him.”
At one point, Intel sent McGoldrick to its headquarters in Santa Clara in Silicon Valley, and while he was there, he says he got – his term – “besotted” with the whole startup world.
After Intel, Philips headhunted McGoldrick to come back for the start of Philips Semiconductors, now NXP. But once he got a taste of the startup world in The Valley, there was no going back: “This is where my heart and soul is. I want to be a starter.”
That was to come. One added cameras in smartphones and another developed flexible displays where that IP is now in Samsung Fold phones – all in HTC 27.
“That started right here in this building. I can’t believe I’m back in it,” McGoldrick said.
“As I got older, I started drifting away from just liking sexy technology to wanting to do something that makes a difference,” he said.
“While I was at TNO helping with a spin-out, I saw the technology behind (LionVolt). So, here’s where we get into your question of why am I doing this …”
EV growth is explosive, and not in a good way
If you look at the auto industry today, all the headlines are about electric vehicles, McGoldrick says. The reality is that EVs are only about three percent of the total automotive market. Electric cars get publicity not because of the percentage of the market they have today, but because of the size of the market they’re going to capture in the future, driven also by the EU and other countries planning to ban internal combustion engines, he adds.
“So, all of a sudden, the world knows, electric vehicles are the future; it’s going to be explosive. Now, they’re going to be – excuse my pun – because that’s exactly the problem. It really is going to be explosive.”
Today, the world uses wet lithium-ion batteries, yet the word “wet” is often omitted, McGoldrick said. “But that’s exactly what they are. There’s a liquid (electrolyte) in there which makes them (potentially) flammable and explosive.”
With the failure rate being one in millions, he acknowledges that today the events are scarce. “So, people argue with me that ‘Hey, you know, your point is not valid.’ But it’s only a question of time, as the (adoption) curve increases, it becomes statistically impossible for it not to start happening.”
As LionVolt technology advances, McGoldrick plans to enter every industry, from automotive to aircraft to wearables.
So, Karl McGoldrick is – as usual – at the inflection point, ready to seize the opportunity. Somewhere up in tech heaven, Andy Grove is smiling.