Meet the MIT professor who is a secret star of climate tech innovation

Senior Science and Economics Correspondent
A man stands smiling with his arms crossed in front of scientific laboratory equipment.
Yet-Ming Chiang in his lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts in June 2024. Photo courtesy of Yet-Ming Chiang.

If you’re not deeply enmeshed in climate tech innovation, there’s a good chance you don’t know the name Yet-Ming Chiang. But if you are, you probably do — or you know about the companies he has helped launch.

Chiang is a material science and engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he started his freshman year undergraduate studies in 1976. Chiang never left. He got his bachelor’s degree and his doctorate from MIT in 1980 and 1985, respectively.

He’s also an entrepreneur and a co-founder of two of the buzziest climate tech companies right now: Form Energy, which is developing long duration energy storage systems and is currently valued by financial data firm Pitchbook at $2.06 billion, and Sublime Systems, which is commercializing cement made with electrochemistry and is currently valued by Pitchbook at $90 million.

That’s not all.

Chiang is 66 years old, and in just the last year he co-founded three new companies, all of which are still in relative stealth mode. One of the companies, called Propel Aero, is focused on electric aviation. Chiang declined to share the names of the other two but did share their general focus areas: lithium extraction from hard rock resources and the stimulation of geologic hydrogen.

“Climate is the biggest problem that I could think of tackling with the skill set that I have,” Chiang told me in one of three interviews with him for this story. “And why not do that?”

Cipher is profiling experts flying under the radar while doing big things in climate tech. This is part one of our two-part series on Chiang. Email us your ideas for future profiles: [email protected].
A young man stands with hands in his pockets in an office with stacks of paper everywhere, models of molecules lining a bookshelf, and a clunky early 2000s computer on the desk.

Chiang seen here in his office at MIT in June 2001. Photo courtesy of Yet-Ming Chiang.

Mateo Jaramillo, the CEO of Form Energy, which he started with Chiang, has worked with other professors before.

“Yet is uncommon, though, as an academic, in being as entrepreneurial as he is and being so commercially minded, again, for being an academic and as close to the science as he is,” Jaramillo told me. “That’s one of the joys of working with Yet is he is able to see core scientific ideas and their translation into the market with sort of astonishing speed and facility.”

Becoming an entrepreneur

Chiang, who was born in Taiwan and emigrated to the United States in 1964 at age six, hasn’t always been launching startups at the pace he did when he was 65. He has, over the years, learned how to be an entrepreneur.

An old photograph of a family — a mother, a father and a little boy and a little girl — standing in a small garden in front of a brick building.

Chiang is seen here with his family in Brooklyn, New York, in the mid-1960s. He was born in 1958 and emigrated in 1964. The family lived in two apartments in Brooklyn before moving to New Jersey and then Connecticut. Photo courtesy of Yet-Ming Chiang.

A few years after Chiang started his first appointment as a professor at MIT in 1984, two senior MIT faculty members launched a superconductor company, called American Superconductor, and invited Chiang and another more junior professor to join them. At the time, Chiang was advised to keep his startup activities under wraps because being an academic involved in startups wasn’t “particularly highly regarded,” he told me. American Superconductor went public on NASDAQ in the early 1990s and currently has a market capitalization of almost $800 million.

“I didn’t ever expect there to be another company,” Chiang said. “There was never expectation of ever doing anything like that again.”

He wasn’t part of his second startup until 2001, when A123 Systems launched to commercialize a battery technology that came out of Chiang’s lab. Early on, the company pivoted to focus on one novel battery ingredient, lithium iron phosphate, said David Vieau, the former CEO of A123. The goal was to make and sell a new class of lithium-ion battery packs and systems with cathodes (the positive ends of batteries) made of the material, Chiang said.

“We raised, in that 10 years, over a billion dollars. We went public on NASDAQ in September of 2009,” Vieau said. “We built over a million square feet of manufacturing space and had up to 3,000 employees.”

But the electric car market — and A123’s potential place in it — didn’t take off as expected in the early 2010s, and that hit A123 hard. The company had recently invested in a lot of expensive overhead it ultimately couldn’t pay for. A123 declared bankruptcy and was acquired by Chinese company Wanxiang in 2012. While the company got over its skis financially, the lithium iron phosphate technology is still widely used in lithium-ion battery technology today.

A man uses a power drill.

Chiang tests a tool with an A123 battery in it in 2006. Photo courtesy of Yet-Ming Chiang.

A driving force of Chiang’s career as a scientist and an entrepreneur is that he is always innovating. “There’s never a wrong time to be thinking about a research problem or an entrepreneurship problem,” Chiang said.

This fountain of innovation led him to develop a new way of making lithium-ion cells with less expensive materials and fewer manufacturing operations, which he spun out of A123 Systems to launch his third company, 24M Technologies, in 2010. So far, 24M has licensed its technology to seven companies, including Japanese manufacturer Kyocera and Norwegian company Freyr Battery.

Over the next few years, he also launched a couple of non-climate related startups — Springleaf Therapeutics (2007), a wearable drug infusion device, and Desktop Metal (2015), a metal 3D printing company.

Zeroing in on climate

But around 2010, Chiang decided he wanted to intentionally focus more on climate technologies: “2008 was roughly when ocean warming and global warming became ‘climate change,’” Chiang said. “Broader recognition and acceptance of the impact of climate change was beginning.”

He had become aware of climate change in the 1990s through his love of fishing. Over the years, he noticed the kinds of fish he caught off Cape Cod changed as the oceans warmed. In 2012, his daughter Miki, who was 9 years old at the time, won the local fishing derby prize for the most unusual catch for catching a triggerfish, which is essentially a tropical fish, Chiang said.

A man in a blue baseball cap holds up a flat brownish fish while a young girl in a pink bathing suit points to it. Both are smiling.

Chiang seen here in 2012 with his daughter Miki and the triggerfish she caught in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Yet-Ming Chiang.

“Getting to work on climate changed my life in the sense that it gave me a purpose I never had before. And I feel that very strongly to this day,” Chiang told me.

Since 2010, Chiang has started five climate tech companies.

“I used to consider every company I co-founded as a bit of an accident, but the pattern suggests otherwise,” he said. “I continue to actively carry out research in climate tech, so it would not surprise me if there were another.”

A voracious urgency

Chiang has a charisma that enables him to get other people excited, said Leah Ellis, the CEO of Sublime Systems.

“He’s very cerebral. And so, he’s drawn to things that make his neurons fire. And then I think people who also like this tingly feeling in their brains, they come to him,” Ellis told me. “And he’s very, very good at finding things that make people’s brains tingle.”

Benjamin Mowbray, a current post doctorate researcher in Chiang’s lab, described this trait as an “infectious enthusiasm.”

This inspirational wizardry is where Chiang’s power lies. “Companies don’t go anywhere until you find the right people. And that’s, that’s how I’ve been able to do it,” Chiang told me at the beginning of our first interview.

Meetings with Chiang are action-packed.

“Every interaction is packed with information from both sides because he is always learning new things and so he is always updating you on how his thinking on what you’re working on is changing,” Mowbray told me.

A voracious urgency drives Chiang.

He knows decarbonization of the industrial economic complex globally is still in the early stages and will require so much innovation that there’s still a fair amount of “low hanging fruit” that needs to be gobbled up in the climate space, he said.

“As fields develop, the amount of effort to make incremental progress gets harder and harder. The learning curve for the whole field becomes shallower and shallower. That’s a tough place to be,” Chiang told me. But “climate change is on that very steep learning curve: Your effort will pay off more than in these really mature areas.”

A young man in a bucket hat smiles and holds up a silver striped fish, while an older man in a blue baseball cap smiles next to him. Behind them is blue sky and a large expanse of water.

Chiang with his son, Casey, fishing on Labor Day in 2023 in Cape Cod. Chiang has a lot of work, but he has a lot of hobbies, too. They clear his mind, he says. “I can’t sit and just read scientific literature all day long.” Photo courtesy of Yet-Ming Chiang.

Editor’s note: Form Energy’s investors include Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a program of Breakthrough Energy, which also supports Cipher.