The story of how Bill Gates discovered (& backed) a battery startup

Investors and entrepreneurs don’t always connect via the standard VC pitch. According to Phil Giudice, the CEO of a battery startup called Liquid Metal Battery, his company found their most high profile investor, Bill Gates, through a more unusual way: the classroom.

Giudice told me during an interview at the Department of Energy’s research and development program ARPA-E last month that Gates started taking a class from Liquid Metal Battery founder and MIT Professor Don Sadoway via MIT’s online open-course program. Gates took Sadoway’s 34-lecture series on batteries and contacted Sadoway by email to meet with him and learn more, said Giudice.

“At first Don thought it was a joke,” said Giudice, “but then realized it was actually Gates and that Gates was serious,” said Giudice. Soon after, Gates invested in Sadoway’s new battery venture Liquid Metal Battery, and has also invested in at least four other battery startups.

Liquid Metal Battery is developing a battery for the power grid using molten salt sandwiched between two layers of liquid metal. The battery is still at least two years from commercialization, and the team has built a 16-inch prototype, though they might later scale that up to 36 inches. The startup is still figuring out if they want the battery to be squarish or circular, says Giudice.

The bulk of the development work will be focused on getting the cost of the battery down. Sadoway, who spoke at TED last month, told us last year that what drew him to use liquid metals for a grid battery was a belief that a battery based on liquid metal electrodes would be stable and scalable at an acceptably low cost for grid storage and renewable energy storage applications.

In addition to Gates, the liquid metal battery project received an ARPA-E grant of $6.9 million, as well as a $4 million investment from oil company Total.