The next generation of battery technologies are going to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles which will be pivotal in mitigating the effects of climate change !

Asang Mehta, our next pathbreaker, Battery Cell Engineer at Cuberg, works on a lightweight battery technology that is based on pure lithium metal, with an initial focus on the aviation sector.

Asang talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his initial exposure to battery chemistry in a lab where he worked on the design of a shoe box sized car solely run on renewable energy sources.

For students, when you develop a mindset of sustainability, you will start thinking about how you can create a better world in the coming decades using your interest and skills !

Asang, what can you tell us about your background?

I was born and raised in Mumbai, after which I moved to the US for undergraduate studies in 2016. Growing up, I spent a ton of time outdoors playing sports and travelling. This made me realize the alarming rate of increase in global warming and all its detrimental effects across the globe. Even though my parents have a manufacturing background in commodities, as a high school student I was more inclined to leverage my strong background in chemistry to pursue challenging problems to solve global warming at a large scale 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I graduated from the University of Southern California in May 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering & Materials Science and a minor in Consumer Psychology. I chose USC because of its strong engineering research program and close ties to Silicon Valley/ Silicon Beach. Even though there are several other great engineering colleges out there, I chose USC due to its amazing balance of academic, sports and social culture. Moreover, my unique major/minor combination allowed me to pursue my passion as well as appreciate other disciplines. This added tremendous value in helping me think outside the box and mingling with people from diverse backgrounds. 

With a strong research background in electrochemistry and engineering fundamentals, I wanted to pursue opportunities in the energy storage space after graduation. I moved to Midwestern USA right after to work for a battery startup as a Battery Engineer

Tell us, why did you opt for such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

In general, my biggest motivation to choose a career in Battery Engineering was dominated by a strong desire to solve crucial problems at the cutting edge of new climate technologies. I am driven by a desire to scale such technologies that can benefit humanity as a whole. I was fortunate that my parents were very supportive of my choice and pushed me to do my best. 

This initial interest made me pursue Research Assistantship in a battery chemistry lab during my undergraduate studies and join a club called Chem-E car, where we designed a shoe box sized car solely run on renewable energy sources. My stint as a Research Assistant taught me a lot about the fundamentals of battery chemistry, testing, and operations; whereas Chem-E Car showed me how batteries can be implemented in a real system. These two experiences really drew me towards batteries and energy storage as I was able to get my hands dirty at a ground level and gauge the impact these can have at a larger scale. 

As I was seeking professional opportunities in the industry, several networking events helped me build a strong base that opened a few doors in a field that has been historically dominated by people with PhD degrees. Since the energy storage industry is growing at an exponential rate right now, my first career opportunity was very crucial in opening many more doors, and that is something I am eternally grateful for. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

Overall, other than those mentioned in the previous answer, several experiences in and outside college were crucial steps that helped me kickstart my career in the energy storage. I was very fortunate to serve as President of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) USC Chapter. This really helped hone my leadership, communication, and networking skills – the most important facets for both job hunting and entrepreneurial endeavors. I learned how to secure funding, run several teams, delegate tasks, and coordinate logistics. A 2-month summer internship at Vinati Organics in Mumbai after my sophomore year of college also opened my eyes to Process Engineering and the production of niche chemicals. This helped me understand scaling and large chemical processes, which further complemented coursework in Chemical Engineering such as Reactor Design, Process Design, and Controls Implementation. 

When it came to job hunting, I tried to be as meticulous as possible: reaching out to people on LinkedIn, keeping an Excel spreadsheet of places I applied to, and even applying to some master’s programs in case I had no options. Eventually the grind paid off and I was able to secure a position where I learned a lot about the industry and applied research in general. This convinced me enough to stay in the same industry and I recently moved to Silicon Valley, California to work at another company that is commercializing Lithium metal batteries for aviation applications. I think I’d like to stay in this field for a while unless life throws some curveballs at me!  

Looking back, my first job out of college was very lab oriented: wet chemistry tests, assembly of battery cells, and running tests to evaluate the performance of new materials at a very small scale. I was briefly able to move horizontally and also do some work with product development, which gave me good insights into what customers are looking for with next generation battery technologies. Those skills naturally transitioned into my current role where I exclusively work on Product Development for these battery technologies, which is much less lab based and more forward facing. 

How did you get your first break?

My first break was through LinkedIn when I reached out to my former company and was able to secure myself an internship after graduation. Everything was very fragile at the time since the COVID pandemic had just broken out and no one was willing to hire fresh graduates, let alone international students. I gave my best during the internship period and was able to transition myself into a full-time role within 3 months

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Being very far away from home and moving to a new place after graduation was super challenging, especially since I had no friends or family within 500 miles.  The pandemic did not do me good either because it was impossible to socialize during the first few months. Also had a few hiccups with my initial accommodation. However, I went out of my comfort zone to seek help whenever required and was able to make a lot of new friends when pandemic regulations eased out in the Midwest in early 2021. My biggest takeaway from this experience was that it is important to be relentless when necessary and not give up  

Challenge 2: One of my biggest initial challenges was securing a new job after the pandemic rescinded a previous offer at a large company in Los Angeles. Starting from scratch just a couple months before my graduation was difficult and frustrating at the least. Being able to get through this phase and re-leverage my network and LinkedIn during this phase helped me get a few interviews, and I was fortunate to land an offer on the day of my graduation. Good riddance for sure! 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I currently work as a Battery Cell Engineer at a company called Cuberg, which is based right outside San Francisco, California. We are commercializing an ultra-lightweight battery technology that is based on pure lithium metal, with an initial focus on the aviation sector. This technology is a step up from current lithium-ion batteries technologies, and we are working hard to get these into small aircrafts by completely electrifying them. 

The skills needed for my current job are both broad and deep, requiring a very good fundamental understanding of cell chemistry, testing, and operations on the scientific and engineering side of things, as well as how these chemistries can be integrated into real life products to solve practical problems for our customers. These skills were acquired not only from my undergrad education and previous job, but also from reading articles and blogs and more about the industry in general. The part I love best about this job is working with a group of extremely bright and driven people who are as motivated as I am in solving practical problems with new battery technologies. I also love how cross functional the teams are, which lets me learn something new every day and contribute in several ways. 

How does your work benefit society? 

As we try and electrify different sectors of daily technologies, aviation will play a key role in not only reducing greenhouse gas emissions from short haul flights, but also creating whole new modes of transportation that would have not been thought of about 5 years ago. Building such new technologies are risky for any business, but doing it the right way with the right people is very important as it will enormously benefit society in the coming years. Also, being able to share this with others and instill a similar mindset of sustainability and resourcefulness is helpful in life in general and will get the next generation thinking on how we can create a better world in the coming decades

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

In August 2021, I published an article in a popular blog site called BatteryBits on practical considerations for new battery technologies with regards to their end customers and final applications such as electric vehicles, mobile phones, and others. This was very memorable to me because I was able to bridge my own previous knowledge gap of working in the lab with real world considerations for new battery technologies. It was well received and proved extremely pivotal for my career and confidence in general!

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My general advice to students would be to never give up and be as relentless while pursuing something you are passionate about. This can sometimes be not very well received by others who regard it as “unnecessary toil and grind” but being able to focus on yourself and grow as an individual is very pivotal during one’s formative years. Also, never shy away from learning new skills and having an open mind. 

I would highly recommend that students learn the right life skills (e.g. socializing, investing, cooking, cleaning) in small amounts from an early age, which would make adulting a lot easier once you’re out of college. Eventually, your grades and marksheets mean absolutely nothing if you can’t boil water in a pan or can’t mingle with at least one new person at a party

Future Plans?

Unsure as of now, but I definitely want to stay in the energy storage space and see where life takes me!