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Idealab founder Bill Gross started selling solar energy kits in 1973 at 15 years old. Now he’s leading solar tech company Heliogen

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Idealab and Heliogen Founder Bill Gross speaks onstage during Vox Media’s 2022 Code Conference on September 08, 2022 in Beverly Hills, California.

Jerod Harris | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

Bill Gross is best known for founding the technology incubator Idealab in 1996, after starting a handful of companies in software, education tech and online services spaces.

In the quarter-century since, Idealab has has started more than 150 companies and had more than 45 successful exits. Today, Gross devotes virtually all of his time to being the CEO of clean energy company Heliogen, which he launched out of Idealab in 2013, scoring Bill Gates as an early investor.

But Gross has always been a climate tech entrepreneur. He’s just had to wait for the world to catch up with him a bit.

He actually started a solar device company when he was in high school, long before he got into software, and the money he made helped him pay for college.

Gross grew up in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. When he was 15, in 1973, gas was rationed after OPEC imposed an oil embargo against the United States in order to punish the U.S. for providing support to Israel in the Arab-Israel war.

“You only could buy five dollars of gasoline per day. And I remember that my mother couldn’t buy enough gasoline to drive me to school,” Gross told CNBC in a video interview earlier in the fall.

So Gross had to ride his bike to high school. “As I’m riding both ways on the bicycle, I’m sitting here thinking, ‘It’s crazy that there’s somewhere else in the world that could decide to cut off your fuel supply, the thing that people need for their livelihood.’ I didn’t understand anything about climate change, or energy or anything. I just thought, ‘Someone else could do that?! That’s crazy.'”

This thought is still relevant now almost 50 years later, as Russia has cut off supplies of gas it is sending to Europe in response to the Ukraine war.

Gross went to the library after school to read about alternative renewable forms of energy such as solar energy and wind energy in the likes of Popular Science or Scientific American magazines. He got excited about the idea of renewable energy, had just taken trigonometry in school and used his newfound knowledge of both to make a couple of devices based on the idea of catching the sunlight and concentrating it.

Notes from when Bill Gross was a teenager developing the solar device that he went on to sell by mail in the 1970’s.

Photo courtesy Bill Gross

One device he made was a parabola-shaped solar concentrator that could be used to create a solar oven or solar cooker. The other was a Stirling engine, which converts heat energy into kinetic or mechanical energy.

“Because I was reading Popular Science magazine, I saw people used to take out little ads in the back,” Gross told CNBC. “And I had $400 of bar mitzvah money leftover, so I took out a small add in the back of Popular Science advertising ‘Kits and plans to make your own solar concentrator,’ and I started selling them!”

He would go on to sell 10,000 of these plans and kits starting at $4 apiece. Personal computers didn’t yet exist, so he typed the material on a typewriter and made the drawings himself by hand.

An advertisement that Bill Gross placed in the back of Popular Science magazine to advertise his solar devices company. The plans Gross sold were $4.00, but the ad says 25 cents to get a catalog, because he had a few different offerings.

Courtesy Bill Gross

He put what he made towards his college tuition. People from all over the country bought the kits and would send Gross a check or cash. It was his first foray into entrepreneurship, which was exciting, he said, and the experience served to change the trajectory of his life in other ways, too.

“I was really passionate about it back then. It really affected my life,” Gross told CNBC. “I wrote about that little business I started — it was called Solar Devices — on my application to college and it got me into CalTech. So it probably had a huge impact on my direction.”

For a long time, ‘nobody cared’

Gross studied mechanical engineering at CalTech while continuing to run the Solar Devices business during his first year, but then college got too demanding and he couldn’t keep up with running the business. Gross graduated from CalTech in 1981, right around the time IBM released its first mass-market personal computer.

Solar Devices order tracking from Bill Gross, circa 1970’s.

Photo courtesy Bill Gross

“I have these two seminal things that happen in my life: The Arab oil embargo and now the PC is invented basically on my day of graduation in 1981,” Gross told CNBC. “So I went down and bought an IBM PC. And I started learning how to program and I had a detour for 20 years doing software.”

Gross’ detour into software started in the early 1980’s when he wrote accounting software inside of Lotus 1-2-3 to help manage his business making and selling high-performance loudspeakers. He started selling that software for $695. Gross, his brother and two CalTech friends came up with a natural language interface to Lotus 1-2-3, which they showed off at a Las Vegas tech show in 1985. Lotus ended up acquiring the product (and the four of them) for $10 million.

Gross later founded an educational software company and sold it to Vivendi for $90 million, then started tech incubator Idealab at the dawn of the dot-com boom. In the early 2000s, he decided to begin to pivot back to climate tech, this time with some money in the bank.

Bill Gross graduating from college.

Photo courtesy Bill Gross.

He started doing research and development in the space, but there wasn’t enough demand for solar energy tech. “I was way too early. No one cared,” Gross told CNBC.

“I remember I was working on this when Al Gore came out with ‘Inconvenient Truth.’ Still, nobody cared. I remember working on this in 2008 during the recession, nobody cared. I remember in the early 2010, 2012, people started talking about it, but there was no Greta yet,” Gross said, referring to the climate activist Greta Thunberg, who started protesting a lack of climate change action in 2018. “There was no movement. And certainly there was no inflation Reduction Act, which is a game changer,” Gross said.

In 2010, Gross heard Bill Gates speak at a TED conference about needing to make energy and energy storage cheaper. After that talk, Gross approached Gates and shared his idea of using computational power to improve the efficiency of solar power. Gates ended up investing in Gross’s idea, seeing the potential to replace many industrial processes that require high heat and burn fossil fuels to get there.

In 2013, Gross launched Heliogen, which uses artificial intelligence to position a collection of mirrors located in a circle around a central tower to reflect the sunlight back with maximum impact.

One critical component of Heliogen’s approach is built-in energy storage. One limiting factor for solar energy is its intermittency, which means it only delivers power when the sun is shining. But Heliogen stores energy as heat in a thermos of rocks — something traditional solar panels cannot do without batteries, as they turn the sun’s rays immediately into electricity.

“We’re gathering the energy when the sun is out. But we’re delivering the energy continuously because the energy is coming out of the rock bed,” Gross told CNBC. “And basically we are recharging the rock bed, like you would recharge your battery. The difference is a battery expensive, and rock bed is cheap.”

In 2019, Heliogen announced it had successfully concentrated solar energy to temperatures over 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit.

A bird’s eye view of the concentrated solar technology Heliogen is working to build and commercialize. This is the demonstration project in Lancaster, Calif.

Photo courtesy Heliogen

“Heliogen is the culmination of my life’s work,” Gross told CNBC, because it uses both software and renewable energy expertise.

The company had its first prototype in 2015, “but then, still, nobody cared. Couldn’t get any customers,” Gross said. He did get a couple of customers, but, it was still “struggling, struggling, struggling.” By 2019, Heliogen had the first large-scale system built and this time, “the world went crazy,” Gross said. “We got so much press and publicity, and customers started calling us all over who wanted to replace fossil fuels with concentrated sunlight, and then Covid hit,” Gross said.

After a bit of a Covid slowdown, interest started picking up again as the urgency around decarbonizing mounted and as energy price volatility made companies rethink their energy supply strategies, Gross said. The company went public via SPAC in a deal that landed $188 million of gross cash proceeds to Heliogen and on Dec. 31, 2021, Heliogen started trading.

The company is not yet profitable, losing $108 million in the first nine months of the year, but that’s expected as the company scales, according to Gross.

“We projected we would run at a loss for the few years of operation as we drive down the cost with volume production and the renewable energy production learning curve,” Gross told CNBC.

Heliogen’s first commercial grade project is in the final stages of permitting and aims to break ground next year in Mojave, California. The concentrated solar field is funded with $50 million from Woodside Energy, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Australian energy producer Woodside Petroleum, and $39 million from the U.S. Department of Energy.

This is the demonstration project in Lancaster, Calif. of the the concentrated solar technology Heliogen is working to build and commercialize.

Photo courtesy Heliogen

While Gross has been ahead of the curve for most of his climate career, he’s confident the industry is catching up with him now. As the urgency surrounding climate change has become more widely understood, corporate executives face pressure from stakeholders to clean up their corporate emissions.

“But then the final straw was price of fossil fuels went up like crazy. The price of fossil fuels after Russia invaded Ukraine is a game changer,” Gross told CNBC. “Now, it’s not just for CO2 emissions, now you can save money. Now, this is the ultimate thing, which is make the energy transition be about reducing your cost, not about increasing your cost.”

There’s no time to waste.

“When I was a teenager, there was 320 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere,” said Gross, who is now 64 years old. “And today, there are 420.”

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Two children and two adults survive after Tesla plunges 250 feet off California cliff

View from the helicopter during a rescue operation after a vehicle carrying two adults and two children went over a cliff in Devil’s Slide, San Mateo county, California, U.S., January 2, 2023, plunging hundreds of feet, according to the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, in this still image obtained from social media video.

CHP – Golden Gate Division | Reuters

Two adults and two children were rescued from a Tesla that plunged 250 feet off a cliff Monday morning in San Mateo County, California, officials said. 

The car was traveling southbound on the Pacific Coast Highway when it went over the cliff at Devil’s Slide, south of the Tom Lantos tunnel, and landed near the water’s edge below, the Cal Fire San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit said. 

The car flipped and landed on its wheels in the fall, CAL FIRE/Coastside Fire Incident Commander Brian Pottenger said. Witnesses saw the accident and called 911. 

As crews were lowered down, they were able to see movement in the front seat, through their binoculars, meaning someone was alive.

“We were actually very shocked when we found survivable victims in the vehicle. So, that actually was a really hopeful moment for us,” Pottenger said. 

Fire officials called for helicopters to help hoist the survivors to safety. As they waited, firefighters rappelled to the scene and rescued the two children.

Rescue teams are seen at the scene as a Tesla with four occupants plunged over a cliff on Pacific Coast Highway 1 at Devils Slide on January 2, 2022 in San Mateo County, California, United States.

Tayfun Coskun | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The California Highway Patrol shared video on social media showing helicopters lower first responders to the scene to extricate and rescue two adults inside. 

All four were hospitalized. The San Mateo Sheriff’s Office said the two adults suffered non-life-threatening injuries and the two children were unharmed.

It’s not clear what caused the car to go over the cliff. CHP is handling the investigation. 

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Tesla shares tumble more than 10% following deliveries report

Tesla vehicles are shown at a sales and service center in Vista, California, June 3, 2022.

Mike Blake | Reuters

Shares of Tesla dropped 13% on Tuesday morning, a day after the electric auto maker reported fourth-quarter vehicle production and delivery numbers for 2022.

Deliveries are the closest approximation of sales disclosed by Tesla. The company reported 405,278 total deliveries for the quarter and 1.31 million total deliveries for the year. These numbers represented a record for the Elon Musk-led automaker and growth of 40% in deliveries year over year, but they fell shy of analysts’ expectations.

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According to a consensus of analysts’ estimates compiled by FactSet, as of Dec. 31, 2022, Wall Street was expecting Tesla to report around 427,000 deliveries for the final quarter of the year. Estimates updated in December, and included in the FactSet consensus, ranged from 409,000 to 433,000.

Those more recent estimates were in line with a company-compiled consensus distributed by Tesla investor relations Vice President Martin Viecha. 

Some Wall Street analysts think Tesla’s deliveries miss spells trouble for the electric vehicle maker, but others see a buying opportunity for the company in 2023.

Baird analyst Ben Kallo, who recently named Tesla a top pick for 2023, maintained an outperform rating and said he would remain a buyer of the stock ahead of the company’s earnings report, which is scheduled for Jan. 25.

“Q4 deliveries missed consensus but beat our estimates,” he said in a Tuesday note. “Importantly, production increased ~20% q/q which we expect to continue into 2023 as gigafactories in Berlin and Austin continue to ramp.”

Analysts at Goldman Sachs said they consider the delivery report to be an “incremental negative,” and view Tesla as a company that is “well positioned for long-term growth.” Goldman reiterated its buy rating on the stock in a Monday note and said that making vehicles more affordable in a challenging macroeconomic environment will be a “key driver of growth.”

“We believe key debates from here will be on whether vehicle deliveries can reaccelerate, margins and Tesla’s brand,” the analysts said.

Shares of Tesla suffered an extreme yearlong sell-off in 2022, prompting CEO Musk to tell employees in late December not to be “too bothered by stock market craziness.”

Musk has blamed Tesla’s declining share price in part on rising interest rates. But critics point to his rocky $44 billion Twitter takeover as a bigger culprit for the slide.

Morgan Stanley analysts said they think the company’s share price weakness is a “window of opportunity to buy.”

“Between a worsening macro backdrop, record high unaffordability, and increasing competition, there are hurdles for all auto companies to overcome in the year ahead,” they said in a note Tuesday. “However, within this backdrop we believe TSLA has the potential to widen its lead in the EV race, as it leverages its cost and scale advantages to further itself from the competition.”

CNBC’s Lora Kolodny and Michael Bloom contributed to this report.

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Tesla makes China boss Tom Zhu its highest-profile executive after Elon Musk

Tom Zhu Xiaotong, Tesla’s current executive in charge of China, speaks as a new Tesla experience store opens on Aug. 18, 2015 in Hangzhou, China.

Visual China Group | Getty Images

Tesla’s China chief Tom Zhu has been promoted to take direct oversight of the electric carmaker’s U.S. assembly plants as well as sales operations in North America and Europe, according to an internal posting of reporting lines reviewed by Reuters.

The Tesla posting showed that Zhu’s title of vice president for Greater China had not changed and that he also retained his responsibilities as Tesla’s most senior executive for sales in the rest of Asia as of Tuesday.

The move makes Zhu the highest-profile executive at Tesla after Chief Executive Elon Musk, with direct oversight for deliveries in all of its major markets and operations of its key production hubs.

The reporting lines for Zhu would keep Tesla’s vehicle design and development — both areas where Musk has been heavily involved — separate while creating an apparent deputy to Musk on the more near-term challenges of managing global sales and output.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Reuters reviewed the organizational chart that had been posted internally by Tesla and confirmed the change with two people who had seen it. They asked not to be named because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

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Zhu and a team of his reports were brought in by Tesla late last year to troubleshoot production issues in the United States, driving an expectation among his colleagues then that he was being groomed for a bigger role.

Zhu’s appointment to a global role comes at a time when Musk has been distracted by his acquisition of Twitter and Tesla analysts and investors have urged action that would deepen the senior executive bench and allow him to focus on Tesla.

Under Zhu, Tesla’s Shanghai plant rebounded strongly from Covid lockdowns in China.

Tesla said on Monday that it had delivered 405,278 vehicles in the fourth quarter, short of Wall Street estimates, according to data compiled by Refinitiv.

The company had delivered 308,600 vehicles in the same period a year earlier.

The Tesla managers reporting to Zhu include: Jason Shawhan, director of manufacturing at the Gigafactory in Texas; Hrushikesh Sagar, senior director of manufacturing at Tesla’s Fremont factory; Joe Ward, vice president in charge of Europe, the Middle East and Africa; and Troy Jones, vice president of North America sales and service, according to the Tesla notice on reporting lines reviewed by Reuters.

Tesla country managers in China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand continued to report to Zhu, the notice showed.

Zhu does not have a direct report at Tesla’s still-ramping Berlin plant, but a person with knowledge of the matter said responsibility for that operation would come with the reporting line for Amsterdam-based Ward. Ward could not be immediately reached for comment.

Zhu, who was born in China but now holds a New Zealand passport, joined Tesla in 2014. Before that he was a project manager at a company established by his MBA classmates at Duke University, advising Chinese contractors working on infrastructure projects in Africa.

During Shanghai’s two-month Covid lockdown, Zhu was among the first batch of employees sleeping in the factory as they sought to keep it running, people who work with him have said.

Zhu, a no-fuss manager who sports a buzz cut, favors Tesla-branded fleece jackets and has lived in a government-subsidized apartment that is a 10-minute drive from the Shanghai Gigafactory. It was not immediately clear whether he would move after his promotion.

He takes charge of Tesla’s main production hubs at a time when the company is readying the launch of Cybertruck and a revamped version of its Model 3 sedan. Tesla has also said it is developing a cheaper electric vehicle but has not provided details on that plan.

When Tesla posted a picture on Twitter last month to celebrate its Austin, Texas, plant hitting a production milestone for its Model Y, Zhu was among hundreds of workers smiling on the factory floor.

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Allan Wang, who was promoted to vice president in charge of sales in China in July, was listed as the legal representative for the operation in registration papers filed with Chinese regulators in a change by the company last month.

Tesla board member James Murdoch said in November the company had recently identified a potential successor to Musk without naming the person. Murdoch did not respond to a request for comment.

Electrek previously reported that Zhu would take responsibility for U.S. sales, delivery and service.

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