Get to know this secret climate tech star

Senior Science and Economics Correspondent
Illustration with a blue background showing the same man in a variety of different poses.
Illustration by Nadya Nickels. Photos courtesy of Yet-Ming Chiang.
The cleantech economy is being created right now, every hour of every day, by a whole cornucopia of scientists, innovators, entrepreneurs, engineers, thinkers and doers. These two stories kickoff a series we will write shining a spotlight on this growing wave of climate creators. Connecting real stories of real people making big change is one way of inviting other people — like you, Cipher reader! — to be inspired to find your own way to be part of this new workforce. Thanks for reading. — Cat Clifford

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 Chaing 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,” Chaing 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 on Cape Cod. 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,” Chaing 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.

Turning ‘stone soup’ into climate progress

To understand what it’s like to work with and for professor and serial entrepreneur Yet-Ming Chiang, I am going to have to learn the story of stone soup.

It’s an old Eastern European tale, said Leah Ellis, the CEO of startup Sublime Systems, who worked in Chiang’s lab and went on to start the company with him.

A hungry beggar comes to a town and announces to the villagers that he can make soup out of a rock. The villagers protest, and the beggar, who is charismatic and charming, says he will prove it to them. They give him a pot of water and some fuel. And he stirs the rock in a pot of water, all the while cracking jokes and engaging with the townspeople. A villager asks why it is taking so long. And the beggar says the soup would come faster if someone gave him an onion and a carrot.

“Eventually everybody had a soup. And he did, in fact, make soup out of a stone, but not in the way that he said it in the beginning,” Ellis told me.

The prevailing interpretation of this story is that the beggar’s charisma brings out the best in the villagers and inspires them to collaborate.

This is Chaing’s superpower, Ellis said. “He’s the person saying ‘What if?’ and he’s setting the vision of the soup. And he’s really the architect of the soup,” Ellis said.

Chiang is a professor of materials sciences and engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he started his studies as an undergraduate in 1976, became an assistant professor in 1984 and finished earning his doctorate in 1985.

A man smiles in a scientific laboratory/office, old photograph clearly circa the 1980s.

Chiang as a graduate student at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1981. Photo courtesy of Yet-Ming Chiang.

In the decades since, he’s also learned to become a serial cleantech entrepreneur.

Chiang himself was somewhere between “ambivalent” and “reluctant” in having his career spotlighted. His capacity to be part of so many projects is a direct function of finding the right people to work with, Chiang said.

“Being at MIT he sees the crème de la crème and he has a really good eye for talent. And he has a spidey sense about people. And that is Yet’s magic: finding the things that draw people together and getting the right people around that idea,” Ellis said.

Two people (a man and a woman) pose with heavy duty lab equipment. Both are smiling.

Yet-Ming Chiang and Leah Ellis, the co-founders of Sublime Systems, in Somerville, Mass., in November 2023. Photo courtesy of Bob O’Connor.

Katie Rae, CEO of The Engine Ventures, a venture fund that spun out of MIT, has watched Chiang grow his entrepreneurial prowess over the years. (She’s also invested in Form and Sublime and sits on both boards.) For a professor to commercialize research from their lab — and particularly to do so repeatedly — starts with strategically picking Ph.D. and post-doctoral researchers who are thinking about scaling their scientific ideas, she said.

“You start to get people in your lab that are interested in following you as an entrepreneur” and then the lab bench-to-business flywheel “starts to really accelerate,” Rae told me. “And I think Yet is one of those very special professors who’s been able to repeat that multiple times now.”

Identifying which ideas from his research lab ought to be commercialized is another big part of the stone soup magic. Looking at a list of eight companies he has helped launch with two more in process, Chiang said he has probably worked on 10 times as many projects over 40 years of research. Not every project is a business opportunity.

There are table stakes for Chiang to think about dedicating his time to take a project from the lab to commercial scale: “It will first have to be something that is scientifically or technically really differentiated, a new way of doing something,” he told me.

“There is a bit of ego there,” Chiang said. “I wouldn’t want that company to be the fifth company to try something, the third company to try something, even the second company to try something. I want to be the first company to try something.”

A group of five people sits on stools and on a table and stand, looking at the camera and smiling. They seem to be in some kind of laboratory room.

Leadership of Form Energy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in February, 2018. Mateo Jaramillo, the CEO of Form Energy, is all the way on the left and Chiang is sitting on the table in the front. Photo courtesy of Doug Levy at The Engine.

Also, Chiang must feel his time and expertise are critical to the project’s success. Even in the battery space, where Chiang has been active for years, there are technologies other people can do better, he said.

Then, scale. “Being new and novel is definitely not enough,” Chiang said. If he’s going to work on a new company, “it has to have the potential for really big impact.”

Determining whether an innovation will scale is a combination of economics and simplicity, said Chiang.

“Probably the most important factor for scalability is that after your best clear-eyed analysis, the economics are easily understood, and compelling,” Chiang said. The economics may not pencil immediately, but they “certainly” should as the company reaches scale, “and ideally without any subsidies.”

Key to getting the economics to work is having relatively inexpensive and readily available ingredients — a core tenet of both of his buzziest climate companies, energy storage company Form Energy and green cement company Sublime Systems. “Form’s iron-air batteries and Sublime’s decarbonized cement from calcium silicate rocks are examples where the resource is essentially unlimited compared to the target scale,” Chiang told me.

Chiang also looks for a relatively simple design. If the technology depends on numerous other innovations, that’s concerning.

If he’s in, though, he’s all in.

For example, one of the three startups Chiang launched last year involves extracting lithium from hard rock resources. As part of the research, the team needed one specific type of rock that exists in only a couple mines in the United States. Camden Hunt, a program manager for the Center for the Electrification and Decarbonization of Industry at MIT, of which Chiang is a co-director, is working with Chiang on this project and identified an abandoned mine in New Mexico where they could get samples of the rock.

When Hunt knew he was going to be in Utah for a conference recently, he reached out to the caretakers of the mine and asked if he could collect some samples. The answer was yes, but they could only collect a maximum of five pounds per person. Ideally, they were hoping to collect 15 to 20 pounds of rock for research. Hunt roped in another post doctorate researcher in Chiang’s lab, Benjamin Mowbray.

Chiang also volunteered.

“I just thought that that was funny because never in my life would I think that a professor would be willing to hop on a plane after a conference, fly to a different state, get in a car, drive to an old abandoned pegmatite mine and then crawl around on a rock pile picking out this one specific type of rock,” Hunt said. “I should also mention, he seemed to have more fun I think than me and the post doc.”

They got the rocks, and Chiang brought them back with him to Boston on a plane.

“He had a suitcase full of rocks,” Hunt said.

A man excitedly collects rock in front of a sheer rock face.

Chiang collecting rocks in New Mexico in April, 2024. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Mowbray.

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