WARREN – Brite Energy Innovators in Warren, the clearest impact that the growth of the electric-vehicle industry in the Mahoning Valley has made is on the ability of the incubator to communicate its mission.
Brite opened in 2015 as the Tech Belt Energy Innovation Center after years of development. But its work can be “difficult to understand,” says its newly named director of partnerships, Sara Daugherty.
Brite’s mission is to empower entrepreneurs with energy-technology solutions. Energy, however, is complex. It involves physics and chemistry, sciences that “aren’t always the most fun and easy to understand,” Daugherty says.
“But even worse, it’s invisible. It’s not something you can hold in your hand most of the time,” she says. “So having the momentum around Voltage Valley has been extremely helpful to us in communicating our mission. There’s manufacturing jobs and physical products such as the fleet vehicle or the lithium ion battery that people can see and understand the systems behind.”
The announcements of the EV startup Lordstown Motors Corp. taking over the former General Motors Lordstown plant and GM partnering with LG Chem to develop the Ultium Cells battery plant bring “a lot of positive attention to the creative people in the Mahoning Valley and throughout Ohio,” says Mike Hripko, chairman of Brite’s board of directors.
The services of the incubator have remained largely the same but its impact and reputation have skyrocketed with the twin Lordstown announcements.
“Brite is happy to support entrepreneurs from all across the state who are interested in e-mobility and clean energy,” Hripko says. “These two announcements have really raised the profile of those technologies and really stirred the creativity of a lot of entrepreneurs as well.”
Organizationally, from a national standpoint, Brite is identified with Ultium and Lordstown Motors, says Rick Stockburger, president and CEO of Brite.
When former President Donald Trump tweeted two years ago that General Motors was planning to sell its idled Lordstown plant to EV manufacturer Workhorse Group, formerly led by Lordstown Motors’ founder Steve Burns, people across the political spectrum were saying that the future of electrification was in the Mahoning Valley, he says.
“Since all this happened, companies from all over the country are calling us,” he says. “We interact with people all over the state, all over the country and they believe in Voltage Valley.”
One step Brite took about eight months ago, when looking at opportunities such as fleet electrification, was to engage Randy Cole, former executive director of the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission, as a consultant to develop an e-mobility practice at Brite that Daugherty is helping to lead.
In 2019, Team NEO and its partners launched their energy storage roadmap, which outlined different energy-related assets in northeastern Ohio, including manufacturers, universities, utilities and transportation, Daugherty says.
“There’s an underlying supply chain as well as a lot of added value in this region to the East and West coasts, particularly for stationary and transportation energy storage,” she says.
Daugherty cites “the hard sciences of advanced materials. Whether that’s chemical compounds to improve battery life or advanced materials for coatings of the cells with the robotics and the data sciences, you have this perfect blend for the needs of the automotive and other industries at this time. There’s a lot of data and a lot of questions,” she says.
“We get to be a navigator between those with hardware-like products like a fleet vehicle and those with software trying to figure out how to utilize charging stations wisely or how an electric vehicle should be owned, given that it has a larger upfront cost and a vehicle is typically underutilized. So how can it be better utilized for that business model?”
Brite has nondisclosure agreements with several of the companies that use its testing labs.
Stockburger says that researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have been using its labs to study lifecycle longevity for batteries. Several other companies are looking at electric-vehicle batteries in the lab, a focus that has intensified with the EV activity in Lordstown.
“Beyond that, it’s always fun to see organizationally what we get pulled into,” he says.
Brite is brought into several aspects of e-mobility – ranging from workforce development to economic development to training – but the first mission of the incubator is to serve its entrepreneurs, Hripko says.
“We would really like to see companies in clean energy and e-mobility grow in and around the Mahoning Valley,” he says.
Adds Daugherty, “Our value is the network that we bring to the table. We’re on calls with national and international partners several times a week.”
Daugherty, hired two years ago as director of operations and economic impact, recently was shifted to partnerships, where she will head the effort to secure resources for the growth of Brite, Stockburger says.
The incubator recognized her talent for aligning people to the vision of an organization, he adds.
“We’ll never have the financial assets [needed] to scale to be the world or the state’s lead to help everybody create new energy technologies. We see leveraging partnerships as our way to move to our highest and best use,” he says.
“I’ve been very impressed by the technologies that are brought forward by our entrepreneurs,” Hripko says. “They span everything from energy creation to energy storage to energy management. There’s a broad spectrum of opportunities in the energy space and it’s amazing to see the creativity of people around the Valley who are seeking to take these technologies and create these companies.”
One of the hardest questions faced is how the Mahoning Valley is going to transform the workforce and lead the way into the future, Stockburger says.
Volvo recently announced that it would no longer manufacture vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine after 2030.
GM made a similar commitment for 2035.
“The market has said this is what we’re doing so there’s no denying it anymore,” Stockburger says. “We need to make sure that our community and our current workforce are positioned to be successful.”