Got Topnotch Engineers? SoulBrain Needs 'Em
"What you see here at Soulbrain," says CEO Allen Ibara, "is a technology transfer. But instead of going from the U.S. to Asia, it's coming from Asia to the U.S. It's my position that batteries are going to be a very important part of our future ... Batteries are a big deal and we want [our customers] to have a choice to buy that energy and energy storage from Asia, or from Michigan."
The home office of Soulbrain MI is in Northville, in a vast 135,000 square-foot building sitting on 14 acres. Nearly one half of the space is dedicated to what is described as the engineering and pilot production phase of Soulbrain's business, which is the development of an ingredient called electrolyte, an essential component of lithium ion batteries. Unlike primary batteries, which can be used only once and are useless when they run out, lithium ion batteries can be recharged and used over and over again.
Electrolyte is comprised of organic solvents, lithium salt and a variety of special additives, all blended together in an array of vats and tanks in a process that is mostly robotized, but supervised by engineers. Mixing can take anywhere from six to 18 hours per batch.
"What we mix here and provide for our customers is proprietary," says Allen Ibara, Soulbrain's CEO. "And each blend is unique for each customer application."
Soulbrain's customers come from three major areas: The first centers on vehicles - rechargeable batteries are essential for electric cars, like the Volt, as well as for trucks, motorbikes and bicycles, "and eventually certain vehicles that fly, manned or unmanned," says Ibara with a grin.
Then there's what Ibara describes as the grid market.
"For bulk storage," he says, "perhaps next to a generation plant." Like the Fukishima nuclear power plant in Japan, which failed last year in the wake of an earthquake and tsunami and resulted in the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
"The backup power was supposed come from a generator," Ibara explains, "but it was flooded and didn't work. If they had batteries that were buried or up high enough, they would have had power - at least for some amount of time - with battery backup."
Soulbrain's third customer category comes from the military sector. "The Department of Defense has many applications," Ibara says, with a cryptic smile.
And, his inquisitor replies, you could tell me more about those applications, but you'd have to kill me, right?
"Oh yes," Ibara says, chortling as he nods vigorously, "some of those are obviously pretty sensitive and many of the applications are very, very private. But losing power on a satellite or a drone or even on a Humvee in the field obviously wouldn't be a good thing."
The challenge to being Michigan-made
Soft-spoken and casually dressed in jeans and a long-sleeve shirt adorned with the Soulbrain logo, Ibara is the antithesis of the typical CEO. He's 64, a native Californian and third-generation Japanese-American who was an officer in the US Army. He worked in high tech in Silicon Valley for most of his career.
"I'm an unusual executive in Asian business," he says dryly. " I don't drink, smoke or golf." And then, after an impeccably timed beat, he adds, "or take pictures."
And it makes perfect sense that this unusual executive is at the helm of a company with an unusual mandate:
"We are a subsidiary of a Korean company," Ibara says. "The Asians - specifically Japanese, Chinese and Koreans - decided 15 to 20 years ago that batteries were really important. So they've invested heavily in them."
Ibara sees an opportunity for Michigan to develop an energy industry that competes with Asian battery producers, and has made significant commitments to prove his belief.
"We have 21 employees," he says, "and 15 of them are native Michiganders. And I don't mean they just went to school here and lived here, but all of them have had multiple generations, deep family roots in Michigan."
Seven of the 15 Michigan natives are engineers, all graduates from U of M, Michigan State, Wayne State and Michigan Tech.
"So non-Michiganders are the clear minority here today," says Ibara, "and will likely continue to be for the future."
But Ibara admits it's a challenge to stock his company with home-grown talent.
"It's been more difficult than we expected," he says. "At the top universities here, the advanced degrees - Masters and PhD programs - approximately 50 percent of the graduating class are foreign students. So they're not only not Michiganders, they're foreign. We're looking for the top half of the class, so if you take a GPA of 3.7 or 3.8 or up, the pool we have to select from is narrower than I would have expected."
And the paucity of talent in that high-end pool is only part of the problem:
"What we need doesn't exist in the curriculum of the major universities here in Michigan," Ibarra says. "We're looking for knowledge workers, multi-disciplinary high tech graduates, so they need the basics in chemistry, material science, and chemical engineering, but they also need to have a strong understanding of automation and what it takes to work in an automated factory."
Because automobile production has been the prevalent business in Michigan for over a hundred years, the state's universities have tailored their academic programs to appeal to aspiring mechanical and industrial engineers.
"Electrical engineers and chemists haven't been at the top of the list here for decades," says Ibarra with a shrug, "so we sent our first batch of engineers to Korea for basic training. We couldn't possibly hope to find the real talent here in Michigan."
Which means another important aspect of Ibara's job is to spread the gospel of electrolyte production and the critical role he believes lithium ion batteries will play in the future.
"Detroit doesn't come at the top of the high tech list," he says, "and part of our goal is to change that. So yeah, I gotta be evangelical when I talk to these kids, and my opinion is university is too late. The kids in high school are really our focus, and below. We want to make sure they have a clear idea that math, science and, specifically, chemistry and engineering are very important and there's a good path here in high tech in Michigan."
And when it comes to lithium ion batteries, a lucrative path, too. "In the next 10 years," Ibara says, "it will be a $10 to 20 billion worldwide market, for vehicles alone."
Which explains why the CEO is so bullish on the prospects for his company.
"I think $10 million in sales is a reasonable goal in a year or so, for what I call the near term," he says. "And for the long term, more like $100 million. That wouldn't be a stretch for what we want to do. The sky is truly the limit."
All Photos by Dave Lewinski Photography