When the electric-vehicle company Rivian Automotive first reached out to him in 2019, Brian Sisk, PhD (PhD ’04) was used to fielding recruiting calls from startups. With EV technology taking off, his expertise in battery engineering and his leadership experience in the field were in high demand.
Sisk was also used to turning down those invitations. Summoning the healthy skepticism so often seen in Techers, he would always find a flaw in the initial pitch.
But Rivian was different. “It was the first time I couldn’t tear apart the business case within the first five minutes,” Sisk says. “It surprised me. With some due diligence, I saw a company that wanted to get a product to market, with a good investor group, backing, and leadership. Ultimately, I couldn’t find the hole in their argument, so I was like, ‘I guess I have to join.’”
As senior director of energy storage systems, Sisk leads a Rivian team informally known as the “Battery Pack,” responsible for everything from system architecture and component design to testing and validation for the power sources behind the company’s trucks and SUVs. According to the latest public data, Rivian is working to fulfill over 200,000 orders, 100,000 of them for fleet delivery vehicles; already, more than 1,000 Rivian vans are making deliveries for Amazon. These automobiles have drawn plaudits—including MotorTrend naming Rivian’s R1T pickup 2022 Truck of the Year—but, as Sisk says, “that’s not why we do what we do. We do it so we can contribute to the transformation of transportation and help fight climate change.”
On a mission
The big picture informs Rivian’s very intention of electrifying off-road vehicles and fleet transport. Although those are classes of automobile that have come to the EV market later in the game, Sisk believes that the priorities should have been flipped from the start.
“Trucks need electrification the most,” he says. “It made no sense that electrification started with egg-shaped vehicles that were already the most efficient. You’re pushing diminishing returns that way, whereas if you electrify a truck, that will make a meaningful impact.”
Indeed, the larger mission supersedes business as usual from his point of view. Asked about what sets Rivian’s technology apart from competitors, he offers a gentle objection to the premise: “I don’t look at this industry as a zero-sum game. We’re really about defeating climate change more than we are about defeating any other car company.
“We can’t tackle that problem all by ourselves,” Sisk continues. “So we welcome other participants in the market, because we’re all pushing for the same goal. If we can push separately and make progress, then we all win. The climate wins. The world wins.”
Guided by data
Rivian’s success to date is the story of a serendipitous meeting of makers and market. Sisk speaks of Rivian with pride, first for the people he works with—on his team and across the company—and then for what they’ve accomplished together. The task of making highperforming, heavy-duty automobiles powered by battery is no small challenge. He and his colleagues have met it, producing along the way a vehicle that “shows the world a new way to build a pickup and new ways to think about truck design, engineering, and use case,” according to MotorTrend.
Sisk reserves some credit for Rivian’s customers. “We’ve done really creative things to pack as much energy as we can into a relatively small volume while still requiring it to do all the wild, adventurous things Rivian drivers do,” he says. “That can mean everything from water fording to rock crawling. What our customers want to do is a big part of what makes our technology exceptional.”
Part of the remit for the Battery Pack team is to turn data into useful insight that can help optimize battery performance and longevity.
“We have the ability to use data to help us understand how our battery is functioning,” Sisk says. “That makes our next products better, and even allows us to improve productivity in the field.”
“Trucks need electrification the most ... It made no sense that electrification started with egg-shaped vehicles that were already the most efficient. You’re pushing diminishing returns that way, whereas if you electrify a truck, that will make a meaningful impact.”
Changing the world can be fun
During his doctoral studies, Sisk worked in the research group of Nate Lewis, PhD, the George L. Argyros Professor of Chemistry at Caltech. Sisk looks back with gratitude at both the team Lewis assembled and the atmosphere in which they worked.
“He built a culture that I absolutely treasured,” Sisk says. “Every day, I would wake up excited to take that next step in an experiment. I’d say that my time at Caltech was among the happiest of my life, for the combination of the people, the culture, and the science.”
Straight out of school, he worked in defense intelligence for about six years, then switched tracks to work in energy storage, first at Johnson Controls and then at A123 Systems, where he was vice president of product development. Today, he is one of almost 20 Techers working at Rivian.
That the company would draw so many from a small university doesn’t surprise Steven Low, PhD, Caltech’s Frank J. Gilloon Professor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences and Electrical Engineering.
“Our students are very entrepreneurial,” he says. “Additionally, a lot of young people are enthusiastic about the energy transition. Rivian has a reputation for being cutting-edge and innovative, so there’s a natural fit.”
Sisk sees a lot of similarities between the cultures at Caltech and Rivian, especially their commitment to teamwork and their ambition.
“What meant the most to me about my time at the Institute was how easy it was to collaborate with world-class people,” he says. “I could feel the welcoming, collaborative environment from the first day I set foot on campus.
“Rivian has a lot of the same qualities—people wanting to join together to solve major problems, such as climate change, but also wanting to do something truly awesome.”
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The United Nations predicts that 70% of the world’s population will live in urban centers in the next 30 years. The city of the future will need to function differently than it does today, and the change over the next three decades will be rapid.
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