As we’ve all learned too well in recent years, fire season is no longer, well, a season – it’s an ongoing state of affairs. The Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) amidst a high fire threat have provided a new dynamic to navigate, and PG&E has sought to provide more resources to help communities before, during & after shutoffs. Vital local businesses have invested in generators to provide a safety net in times of need.
But in a thrilling twist, those disruptive months in 2019 have birthed a Mill Valley-grown company that is seeing a massive spike in growth and employees (nearing 300), as well as an infusion of investment from some of the biggest companies in the world. Most importantly, the company – Moxion Power, whose manufacturing facility is based in Richmond – is squarely focused on reducing the carbon footprint for industries that have historically not done so.
Over the past year, it has become quite apparent that the company’s trajectory has been upward, to say the least.
In September 2022, the company landed a $100 million Series B with critically important investors like Sunbelt Rentals, Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, Microsoft’s Climate Innovation Fund and much more. Sunbelt in particular stands out because the company owns a massive fleet of diesel- and gasoline-powered generators that provide electricity to construction sites, film locations, concert festivals and more. That transition is a potential game changer.
And for the first time, the list of battery-powered events includes the MIll Valley Music Festival on May 13+14, as Moxion Power will be energizing – literally – the Sweetwater Music Hall’s Second Stage at the event, which features a dynamite lineup of Bay Area talent. Moxion will also be powering other crucial elements of the multi-faceted music festival. We sat down with Mill Valley resident Paul Hueskamp, CEO of Moxion Power and one of at least five Moxion employees who live in the 94941, and with Cynthia Leung, the company’s senior manager for strategy & partnerships.
Jim Welte: I wanted to start with sort of the origin story. I’ve heard that you, Alex Smith, your co-founder/CTO and your wives and some friends were hiking up on Mount Tam in 2019 along the Dawn Falls Trail above Larkspur. As you ascended, and this is amidst one of the Public Safety Power Shutoffs that year, you happened upon a large diesel generator serving as a backup as you neared Blithedale Ridge. “I said, ‘Alex, look at this machine — isn’t it ridiculous that this is what we use when we need electricity? We have to burn diesel fuel in an engine and throw that mechanical energy through an alternator to generate electrons.’ It’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Paul Hueskamp: I don’t know if it was a 55kva (1,000 volt-amps) or a 75 kva. It was the same size as ours now, which is just kind of a coincidence. I have a little bit of a background in renewable energy. I had looked at some investment opportunities for similar products. Nothing ever really made sense to me. I always felt like the products that were out there were a little gimmicky. And in the back of my mind I was always thinking, ‘at some point, someone’s going to make this product and it’s going to be all battery’ – a well designed, highly engineered, solid product. When I saw the generator, off the cuff, I was sort of lamenting the generator and the fact that we could hear it and smell it. And it was just annoying. I casually mentioned it. And then Alex being more of a serial entrepreneur, he kind of latched onto it and would not stop talking about it for literally weeks. And tied me down and convinced me to quit my job.
JW: So you dove headlong into this.
PH: And it was a pretty short runway from there, to be honest. There are folks on our team who come from the automotive world or who have advanced engineering and manufacturing expertise, making big, complicated pieces of hardware. The stars really have to align. And honestly, you’ve got to take some pretty bold bets with your timelines. In most cases, if you want to do something with the least amount of risk, you do things sequentially. Frankly, we were doing a lot of stuff in parallel. That’s the only way you can bring a product like this to market. Literally an idea on a napkin. From two non-engineers.
JW: A moonshot.
PH: We’ve been just truly blessed to have a CTO like Alex that could architect a product like this. Take some crazy idea that a non-engineer kind of dreamed up and then just turn it into reality, without really any other engineering help. Soup to nuts by himself.
JW: It seems like the Sunbelt deal in particular supercharged the excitement behind the possibilities.
PH: They’re one of our biggest investors and they’re basically buying everything we can make this year. They’re bullish on us, obviously, which we’re excited about, But they’re also really bullish on electrification in general. They don’t need to do this. But they’re going to be driving the industry forward because they know it’s the right thing to do. And there’s a lot of people within that company.
JW: You pretty quickly turned to building a high volume, state-of-the-art, world-class manufacturing facility in Richmond, and now a second.
PH: And launching a groundbreaking, innovative new product that in some ways is not like anything that’s been done before. There are other products that are similar, but we’ve done some things quite a bit differently. That’s a really remarkable achievement in about three years. JW: How long between the time that Alex started nudging you relentlessly and you seeing what it could be? That was late 2019. I had already made up my mind that I was going to quit my job and get back into real estate. I was going to join my older brother and help him grow his real estate business. I was basically just burnt out, traveling to India a lot for my other job. But I hadn’t quit my job yet. I had just bought a house in Mill Valley earlier in 2019, my wife and I were thinking about starting a family. You feel fortunate when you have a family that can be that support network and give you that comfort to take a risk like that. Not everyone is as fortunate. So I was in that fortunate position. That’s one of the reasons why I did it.
JW: It’s been a wild ride.
PH: I’m looking at Mount Tam right now, outside of our window. We’re building a new factory across the street from this one that’s on the water. We’re redeveloping Terminal Three at the Port of Richmond, into an even bigger factory. It’s going to be a really amazing project. So we’re picking up a lot of momentum. And the Inflation Reduction Act that passed last September is a huge value creator for us. So that’s another thing. You quit your job, you start a company. I had been following a lot of the legislation in that bill for years. It is going to be such a game changer for Moxion. So we’re really excited about that, too. It changed the potential height of the opportunity and accelerates that market opportunity. We know that future is going to arrive. But is it 10 or 15 years because of (IRA)? Maybe it’s five years.
JW: And that’s the inflection point you’re looking for, when mobile batteries are going to be what everyone wants instead of a generator.
PH: We’re going to look back in a couple of years and say, ‘man, it was silly that we used to rent this thing called a generator and fill the tank with diesel fuel and run that engine even when you’re basically running on idle just to eke out a few kilowatt hours. They quite literally haunt my dreams. You’ll see generators at a conference where there’s a generator that’s on and it’s powering like a little conference booth. And if you follow the plugs, there’s a person sitting at the booth charging their iphone.
PH: And there’s a 25k data generator behind the booth. And no one else is using electricity except for that person with their extension cord plugged into the junction box. You see these things all over and it’s horrifying.
JW: What have been the pain points?
PH: We’ve dealt with our fair share of challenges, but we’ve had a pretty good north star. The business model and the plan have been intact since the beginning. We’ve never pivoted. We haven’t done anything that was wildly different from that very first fundraising deck – before we even had a name for the company.
JW: What other challenges have you faced?
PH: There was a period where hiring was challenging, especially when the market was really hot and you’re competing with companies like Tesla and Rivian and Lucid to hire the top talent. Now we’re kind of on the receiving end of that as other companies are slowing down and potentially laying people off. And so
JW: We’re incredibly excited to have Moxion power key elements of the MV Music Fest this year.
PH: You guys nailed it last year. It was amazing. That was, like, flawless execution.
JW: Thank you. You know the drill. It comes off one way to your average attendee, and it might come off a different way if you’re the one waking up screaming in the middle of the night on like a Thursday before the event, thinking, is this thing buttoned up?
PH: I bet you had a lot of anxiety, but I can tell you that every single one of my friends, we were there. We had all our kids there. We had a bunch of blankets thrown down, and that was about as much fun as I’ve had at the music festival. Probably ever. Honestly, I think I can say that. I’ve been to Coachella a bunch. It was perfect. Awesome.
JW: I appreciate that very much. We’re thrilled to have you have a huge role this year. It’s exciting. We probably talked about this a while ago when we first met, but being able to tell Mill Valley stories again like this is amazing. This story goes way beyond just our little town. But being able to tell these kinds of stories is what keeps all of us thrilled to be part of it, be part of the community. Any nerves on your end powering key parts of MVMF? Seems like something you’re built for.
PH: Yeah, I would say this definitely. Yeah. Cynthia probably has at this point orders of magnitude more experience than I do out with customers during live pilots and live demonstrations. Cynthia’s been down to Hollywood, probably too many times to count, working with the biggest movie studios in the world, filming some really high profile movies and series – like, Star Wars type stuff. So we’ve been doing some amazing things and have had some amazing opportunities.
JW: Lessons learned?
PH: Definitely. It’s not like everything goes smoothly, right? There was a period where the pilots and the demos that we were doing were with close partners, who were willing to let us make mistakes. Amazon has been a huge partner in that regard. We’ve learned a tremendous amount, with their support and encouragement. But we’re now at the point where we’re selling our product to Sunbelt.
JW: Are either of you losing any sleep over powering key elements of a large music festival?
PH: Definitely not. I don’t lose any sleep over this at all. Honestly. With this load profile and this use case, a lot of the variables are boxed in. There’s a lot of other things that we’re considering and that we’re doing that are probably more logistically complicated. Or where the load profile is not as well defined.
JW: Paul’s not losing sleep. Cynthia, how about you?
Leung: I lost sleep at one point, but it’s really exciting now. I joined right after you guys did the first Mill Valley Music Festival. I heard all about it. But to Paul’s point, we definitely had a lot of trusted partners and. It was a lot of setting people’s expectations to take just enough risk for us to – maybe have room to mess up a little bit, but not so much that we get kicked off a set. But we’ve built out a lot of that trust since those early days. So I think it’s also really exciting too, to have come full circle. Once again the Mill Valley Music Festival, where instead of just the generator that’s there, we’re bringing the Kva 75 there. There are going to be a few really cool use cases we can prove out. At the Music Festival, we’re powering the Sweetwater Music Hall’s Second Stage across both days of the event, as well as other key elements of the event. It’ll just be really cool to capture that content and continue to tell this growing story for live music events as we’ve gone from film sets to powering local festivals. And I think drilling back down to your point of Mill Valley, having the festival be a spoke point is just such a great story.
JW: Yeah, it’s a thrill. There are the key kind of touchstone elements of the event. Obviously the bands we’ve curated. We’re over the moon about the food and drinks, the roller skating is going to be fun for everybody. But stories like this and having these elements, especially with the Mill Valley connection to it all. It’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.
PH: We are beyond thrilled to do this. And hopefully we’re doing it for a long time.
JW: Thank you so much – ditto.