MFG Austin Ep 12: Robb Misso, Global VP of Operations for Cellink

Robb Misso’s opinions and perspective will influence how you see this moment in time. He is a long-time leader in Central Texas Manufacturing, including the former CEO of Dynamic Manufacturing as well as a founding board member of ARMA. He recently accepted a new role as Global Vice President of Operations for Cellink, an important newcomer building a large facility in Georgetown. In this conversation, we discuss why Cellink chose Central Texas, the incredible technology that their products enable, and the strengths of Central Texas.

Rob Misso, welcome to the show.

Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be a part of this. I am the Global Vice President of Operations for Cellink Corporation. I’m very excited because today we’re building a 300,000 square foot facility in Georgetown. Right now, we’re scheduled to be the largest employer in Georgetown.

The company has got a very dynamic focus in a number of different applications—from the electrical system on satellites to rockets, taking satellites to space—but the higher volume, the electric vehicle market. We’re in a very strong position in building the electric system to support the distribution of power of a battery pack through a car. So it’s all about the electrification of movement.

The company was founded approximately seven years ago. We were a group of absolutely brilliant PhD engineers out of Stanford, developed technology and they’ve applied it to this industry where it fits extremely well. The company has been very successful in penetrating key major manufacturers in the automotive industry, and we now, in some instances, the backbone of those vehicles.

The company today is based in San Carlos, California. We are relocating our key manufacturing to Georgetown. And in that process, we’re going to keep the San Carlos facilities our headquarters, but it’ll really focus on R&D and product development. While in Georgetown, we’ll be doing the manufacturing to support the electrification of movement in the automotive industry.

I’m very interested in what Cellink is doing and I think it’s great they selected Central Texas. Certainly, being a company that’s driving technology, everything that’s happening here seems like a great fit. We are creating technologies that are really of the future. I see it in electric vehicles, I see it in semiconductors. I see it in energy, and I think you all are going to be at the nexus of that. So, it’s very exciting. But Rob, I’ve known you for a long time. You’re a friend. I watched you grow DMS to be a successful company. You could have done anything you wanted to do, including fly fishing for a living. So why choose Cellink? What is it that makes you want to dedicate your time to this company right now?

You know, that’s a really good question. Where I’m at in my career, I love manufacturing. Manufacturing is truly a team sport. I mean, it’s an opportunity for a group of people to work together for a common goal and make something substantial happen. And Cellink has what DMS never had. At DMS, we loved what we did and we had an incredible team, but we never had intellectual property. We never had a product that was revolutionary that we could stand behind. And I looked at Cellink as an opportunity to really manufacture a product that’s revolutionary, that can change a whole market, a whole industry, and at the same time build a manufacturing team in Texas to do so.

I get excited. I love to fly fish, don’t get me wrong. I love to snow ski. I love Colorado. But there’s not a lot of things I’d rather be doing than what I’m doing right now. I’m very excited about Cellink. And what’s really cool, is there’s a number of individuals that we’ve pulled together into Cellink that we’ve all worked together before. We’ve all got experiences together. We know each other. We know each other’s weaknesses. We know each other’s strengths. It’s a team of folks that really have a leadership and culture focus that I think is a good formula. With a great product, with good intellectual property, which we have great intellectual property, the right culture and the right group of people—I’m excited about where this is going to go.

Talk about the technology for a second, and not just the technology of Cellink, but what’s happening in EVs and solar energy. What are you excited about that’s really drawing you into this business?

You know, I drive an EV. I’ve got solar panels. I’m a conservationist at heart. So I think what we’re doing, it’s important. I mean, it’s adding value to the world. When I started in the semiconductor industry, it’s been a few years. I mean, there was a lot of change and innovation, there was a lot of growth. It was not a commodity, a commoditized market. It was truly innovation and growth and change. And I look at what we’re doing right now in the EV market and all of the companies that are jumping on board, I think this is an opportunity for a lot of change.

I think we’re going to see a lot of technology expanding, growing, and becoming more capable in the next five, really the next couple of years, but definitely the next five, 10 years. And I see Cellink as being kind of a core part of that process. For example, and I think I’ve mentioned this to you in the past, our technology enables a vehicle per charge on average go 40 miles further. And the concerns I had when I… hey—I still have my F-150 just so you know—so I still have a gas guzzler, a big truck.

Not just an F150, but a Raptor right?

A Raptor. So it’s about as un-green as you can possibly imagine. But I still love my truck. But my concern in buying a Tesla, and I bought the Tesla before I joined Cellink, just for the record. So it came before. Maybe I was seeing the future before I realized it was going to happen. But my biggest concern, number one, was range anxiety—not running out of power. I mean, what do you do? And then the other one was safety. I didn’t want to have the vehicle catch on fire. You hear a lot of negative press around electric vehicles. When I dug in and went and visited Cellink and talked with the engineers and understood the technology—our technology keeps vehicles safe. It keeps the power system and the battery system safe. The way that it operates and the way that controls and it breaks down the battery pack. And it also extends the range of the vehicle. It reduces the weight of the vehicle, but it also handles the power in a safer manner. And so it’s something I can just believe in it. So to believe in what you’re doing, and to love the people you’re working with, and doing it where you want—in Central Texas—it’s a pretty cool deal. I’m excited.

I don’t know if many of our listeners have really ever seen a battery pack or see how they’re made. But, I was lucky enough to get to see some and in my non-tech technological terms, it looked like a bunch of DD batteries being packed into a case. And I’ve heard that some of your technology helps control individual cells in that pack. Is that true?

That is correct. It goes back to one of my two fears when I was looking at buying an electric vehicle. There are people that were very early adopters. I was an adopter last August so I’ve had my vehicle for one year. The safety of a battery pack, the way that we design our product, and the way it’s a flexible circuit, replacing the wire harness — It basically separates each, call it a D cell, but each individual battery cell into its own measurable device. So if one battery cell has a current problem, a temp overload problem, and something’s going wrong with that battery cell, we’re able to isolate that battery cell unbeknownst to the person driving the vehicle. It’s all done automatically to keep that power pack safe. I had somebody tell me, and this was an engineer from one of the automotive companies, that on a typical battery pack over the years you might have, anywhere from one to five percent of the battery cells go bad in that pack.

The key is how does the system manage those batteries in that pack when they do go bad? And what our technology does, it keeps them safe. It makes it so you might lose a little bit of range. I’m talking a very small percentage of a percentage, but it keeps the battery pack safe. And that, for me, that’s important. That’s a key deal. So, we’re keeping people safe. We’re making the world greener. And we’re building a product that’s going to hopefully help motivate a whole industry to be successful, which is the electrification of automobiles. Which is pretty exciting.

Talk about where the company is right now. What are the challenges and what are you dealing with specifically?

We are a growing company. We’re growing very, very fast. A year ago, I think we had maybe 45 employees in the company. Today we’re 185 employees. This is in California and Texas. And then in the Austin facility, by January, February, we’re going to be hiring well over a hundred employees who’ll operate just in Texas. So we’re in a very steep growth path. But what’s really cool and unique about our technology is it’s very automated. The manufacturing process is very automated. So these are really good, high tech, sustainable jobs. These aren’t jobs that are going to go up and down based on the market trends. These are jobs that I think are going to be very secure in this space and this market.

Now, there are other challenges. We’re going into a market that, I believe, it’s going to be a little scary. Are we in a recession? Are we not in a recession? Is high-tech doing well? Is high-tech not doing well? We’ve got supply chain issues. My CEO, Kevin Coakley, did an absolute brilliant job raising capital, doing a very successful D round funding at the right time. In January and February, we raised 250 million. And that money was to support the build of factories to scale the manufacturing of the company. And so, from a cash perspective, we’re in a very good position. From a technology position, we’re in a very good position. I think the hiring of good people, scaling up, and getting good people to join the team in a market that’s very competitive—we have a lot of competition, as we all know, in Central Texas for, for labor. I think that’s going to be our biggest challenge. But I think the secret to that, and why I’m not so worried about that, is culture and leadership.

I truly believe we are building, and it’s similar to our strategy at DMS, is we’re building a culture where people really feel they’re invested in what we’re doing and their fingerprints are on what we do every day. And it’s not just about getting a paycheck. It’s a lot more than that. And when you can build a group of folks that are all excited about the direction we’re going in, and we’re all going in the same direction, and on a Monday morning you walk around the facility and people are smiling—you’re successful. And we’re going to make that happen. And so I’m confident we’ll be able to grow this and hire the people we need to hire.

You know, it’s kind of the irony of Central Texas. I’ve said it on this show before, but companies move here because there’s such a strong advanced manufacturing workforce. There are 67,000 workers in advanced manufacturing. It’s projected to grow significantly over the next two years. But the irony is also that there’s a lot of companies fighting for those 67,000 people. But I want to hear about the skills that are needed to succeed from a technical standpoint.

Okay, I’ll answer that. Let me add one more thing, which is kind of interesting. I had the opportunity to see the recruiting process of local communities trying to get Cellink to build their factory in a certain area. And we broke it down. Actually, the company had a number of different areas in the country they looked at. And in the end, it was between Nashville, Tennessee, which is an incredible area by the way, and Austin, Texas, in Central Texas. And the state of Tennessee, it was double, probably would’ve ended up being triple, the funding they were going to provide to Cellink to choose that area, compared to Central Texas and the way that we have set things up in Central Texas. And the company still selected Texas.

And a lot of it’s because of the question you just asked me. As we looked at ACC and Texas State Technical College and even the perspective of the local high schools, of the skilled trades, and how important that is to our community. The company felt that we would have a better opportunity of hiring the right skillset and levels here more than anywhere else in the country. Even in a market where we’ve got the Samsungs and the Applied Materials and the, you name the company growing and bursting at the seams, we still felt that Austin, Texas was the place to go.

I think that’s a big testament to the programs we have at ACC and TSTC. And that’s driven, I think, a lot by ARMA helping kind of lead them down the path to say, “Hey, this is important.” It’s that advocacy, it’s that voice for us. ARMA was the voice in that process that helped DMS, I think. That voice is what’s driving a lot of companies to say, wait a minute, even though maybe some of the metrics say you might be better off somewhere else. The true and tangible, which is skilled workforce. Austin’s a better place. So as a company, we’re hiring a lot of mechanical assemblers, electrical assemblers. From my past it was welders. We do have some welding in the process. Kind of an e-beam and some interesting welding we’ll be doing. But, most of the folks we’ll be hiring will be more on the electrical side, an electrical assembly, and people with board experience. Although our process is not a standard circuit board type process, but that definitely a bonus.

Well, I appreciate the plug for ARMA. You know, we’ve worked hard on creating that workforce pipeline, getting involved with the K-12 system, and I think some of those efforts are really starting to bear fruit. And, some of it’s around economic development, like Cellink choosing places like Central Texas. I’m really excited to watch this workforce come in and to see these products get made here. One of the things you’ve been passionate about over your career is made in America. That we can do it here and it should be done here, and that the real quality and technology is created in this country.

What are your thoughts about how the United States is going to compete and win in this new kind of global economy in advanced manufacturing?

You know what? It’s crazy. But I think we’re winning. If there’s anything positive that came out of this COVID period of time and this reality of what we’ve come through. I think that the local governments, I think the federal government, I think everybody realizes now how important manufacturing is in our country.

I think the Chips for America Act, that’s going through Congress—would that have gone through Congress before COVID? I don’t think so. I think it’s now a new realization that this is really important. And it’s interesting. When ARMA was started, manufacturing was really cool and really important. We all knew that, but the local politicians, when you ask them what’s the largest contributor to GDP in our area, or what’s one of the major ones? Manufacturing wouldn’t have been on the list. Although it was the number one contributor to GDP besides government entities. So, I think now everybody knows that. And I think now manufacturing has become something that’s a lot more recognized as a skillset and an opportunity. Not only for people like me, but for young people coming out of high school going, “Hey, what am I going to do for the rest of my life for a living?”

I’m very optimistic. I know there’s a lot of pessimism in the world right now and a lot of negativities, but I really believe that we have woken up. And I believe the innovation that we have in our country and our ability to do things smart, the right way—not focus on just cheap labor, but doing it through the right process, through automation, through a more high-quality manufacturing process—I think we’re in a really good spot, Ed. I wouldn’t have said that 10 years ago. And so I truly believe we’ve woken up. And I’m pretty excited about that. And I think that’s a testament to why Tesla built their factory in Austin, Texas. I think it’s a testament to why Samsung’s expanding here in the US and in in Austin. Why TSTC is building a factory in Arizona. I mean, those industries, they see that the quality of the workmanship is no longer, “Hey, where can I get the cheaper labor?” It’s now, where can I get the higher quality workforce? And, and where can I trust intellectual property? Where can I trust that my products are going to be protected in the world market? And I think we’re in a good spot for that.

Yeah, and I’d say the snarls of the shipping channels and shipping ports have only made that case more clear.

But those problems were difficult for all of us. Those were the same problems that they had in China and Europe and Korea. It wasn’t unique to the United States. We’ve gone through a really tough time. But I do believe we’re coming out of it and I believe the future’s really bright.

I agree with you. I wouldn’t have said 10 years ago that we necessarily had a smart industrial policy in the United States. You and I have both seen Democrat and Republican administrations talk a lot about manufacturing, but we haven’t seen it really coalesce in policy. There really has been a true bipartisan support in the past year and a half around creating domestic capabilities in a few core areas. Semiconductors being one, and the CHIPS act which you talked about. But also in this new infrastructure bill, there’s a lot of talk about supporting the emerging EV market. Which needs to be put in place. So, do you think those things are going to foster a success at Cellink?

I do. I think that it’s still going to be a world market. I still think there are opportunities. So from a Cellink perspective, I foresee us having a facility probably in Europe at one point, down the road. But I think that the reason that market is here and the reason that I think it’s going to grow and develop and innovate here. It’s because I think we’ve woken up. I think our politicians have woken up. And like you said, we were in DC together with the Austin Chamber trip a couple weeks ago, and I would agree. We met with people from Congress, people from both sides of the aisle. And I think everybody like CHIPS for America Act. I didn’t have anybody say, “Hey, that’s a mistake. We don’t care about that. That’s not important.” I think everybody understands.

DMS, in our past, we supported the pharmaceutical industry, the food and beverage industry, and also semiconductor, and a little bit of industrial. I think all of those industries, pharmaceutical and semiconductor, are really critical in the US. And then innovation of green energy and the electric vehicle industry I think is really very, very important. So I think it’s something we need to make sure we are the leaders in that. And I think we are. I think we will be,

What do you think is the next step after this CHIPS act and the infrastructure bill? Do you think there’s something else federal government could be doing to really support industry in the United States?

Boy, you know what? I don’t know. That’s a great question. And you know, I have a lot of things I could say to that, but I would rather just reserve my perspective on that since this is a public conversation. But you know what, I actually think there’s an onus, an ownership, to industry to be responsible. So I’ll kind of probably cross the line here, but I think when companies choose to develop and build a factory in an area where human beings are being taken advantage of and treated very poorly. And are being treated like we would never treat people like that in this country. I think there’s a little bit of ownership in those companies to say, wait a minute, why am I going to stand for that just because it’s cheaper? I mean, I think at some point we’ve got to make decisions that’s better for mankind, I mean for the humans on this planet to take care of people.

And I think we vote in the world market and industry with a perspective of people. People should be respected. They should be treated with dignity. They should be taken care of. They shouldn’t be abused. No matter where we operate out of in the world, I think it’ll drive a lot of other countries that may not be treating people the way they should be treated to change, I think. But, the government can only do so much. I think industry has to step up and make good decisions, but it’s hard cause we have a market. It’s capitalism. It’s driven by financial success. So it’s just a difficult thing. I’ll be very curious to see what happens with China and Taiwan. It’s not what the government, the US does, it’s really what are all the companies that operate out of China, how do they handle what’s going on over there? I’m just curious. I’ll be interesting to see what happens over the next three to five years. I think it’s going to drive a lot of really good companies to really hunker down and look at manufacturing more and more in Europe, in the US, and less in areas that may not be as friendly to human rights.

There’s kind of an analogous scenario happening right now in Europe with Russia and the Ukraine. And obviously it was a lot easier for American companies to divest out of Russia, where divesting out of China would be a little bit more disruptive.

Well, talk about the Ukraine. I didn’t know this until recently. A great deal of the automotive wire harnesses utilized in the European markets by all the major European manufacturers that we all know and I actually love— a lot of those wire harnesses came out of the Ukraine area. And it’s very sad, but a lot of those companies no longer exist. They’ve been shelved to the point where they’re a pile of rubble. So it’s very, very sad on one hand. But I tell you what, it’s creating one heck of an opportunity for companies around the world to fill that gap and Cellink is one of them. So we have an opportunity to help. And, you look at the United States and manufacturing in the US. We’re very stable. We’re very secure. It’s a great environment for manufacturing. It’s a reliable supply chain. I think that’s going to benefit us over the long run because we are a stable environment.

One of the things I’m tracking, and it kind of goes back to our earlier workforce discussion, is as you know, things become more automated and automation becomes more effective in a wider range of manufacturing applications. We’re going to be in a better position to compete from a labor perspective. But, where does that lead you to think about skills of the future for your factor? As you’re building factories and thinking about a workforce down the road, what do you think we need to be building and concentrating on in Central Texas to develop skills?

I think robotics is very important. I think automation is very important. If you look at manufacturing today, even in my past life, the welding processes, more and more of that is done by a robot not by a person. Now I’ve gone through this over the last 10 years. 10 years ago, people would say, oh, that’s awful because you’re replacing people’s jobs. But it’s not really, because what you’re doing is you’re creating jobs here in the local economy that are stable, that are secure, that can be replaced by wherever the next cheap labor market is. Because once an automation sets itself and establish itself, you’re no longer competing based on a labor rate, you’re now competing on innovation and skills. And I would put United States against anybody in the world based on innovation and skills. And I think that’s going to help our market. I think it’s going to make the jobs that we do have in the Central Texas area more stable.

Now, ACC, TSTC, I think they need to really invest in the technology to train their students to be able to support the work that the industry needs. And I think industry needs to work side by side with those institutions to help them understand what is needed. And then also, sometimes we may need to help fund some of the resources or some of the technology for them to teach the students with. I think that’s probably something that’s very important just because the cost and the barrier of entry into that process.

We’ve seen that here locally. As automation has increased, the labor force has increased. It’s not like there’s been any kind of loss of jobs and, the average salary has gone up as well. Average salary being over a hundred thousand dollars a year now, and actually it’s $170,000 a year in semiconductor, which is highly automated.

Yeah. You know, I choose to get out of semiconductor right when the market goes really, really good. I figure it’s too easy now in semiconductor. I’m just kidding. It’s not easy.

I think you just might be a leading indicator. You know, it was really good in semiconductor when you left, but I think you’re on the next hot industry and it’s going to be really good as well.

I hope so. I’m pretty excited about it.

So, Rob, you’ve been a founding board member of ARMA and an integral part of our community. You’re involved with a lot of thing. You really give back to the community. You speak at public events, you get involved with young people. You’ve been involved with the Chamber as well. I’ve talked a little bit about that. But just personally, what is the return to you and why do you get involved?

Well, you know, it’s interesting. Like this, the job I now have at Cellink. I would not have this opportunity if it wasn’t for the journey that we’ve all taken together at ARMA and with the Chamber and working with TSTC and working with ACC. I think that the more you give, the more you get back. And really if you look at your team and you’re building a company. The culture that you create and the shared ideas, recruiting and giving people the training opportunities. It honestly, has been the secret to D M S’s success. I’ve worked for companies that do it where they really contribute. They really get involved. They really participate in the local community and they try to be a part of the process. And I’ve worked for companies that don’t, that believe that nope, that’s a waste of time. And I can tell you the companies that really give and give their employees the opportunity to grow and expand and be a part of the process in the community, those employees, number one, are loyal. And they’re not loyal to a paycheck. They’re loyal to what they’re learning. They’re loyal to the company. They’re loyal to the leadership of the organization, the culture. And you learn things. I mean, there’s things that I do today and believe today that I would’ve never figured out on my own. I’ve learned from other board members at ARMA, through conversations with teachers and guidance counselors, and people at TSTC. I mean, it’s silly to close your doors and say, hey, I’m my own little island and I’m going to do what I’m going to do and anything else is a waste of my time. Because we’re not a little island. We’ve got to really work and share ideas and learn from others to grow and be a better company.

And I think especially ARMA—and I know I sound like a commercial, and I’m not trying to sound like a commercial—but ARMA’s really done a lot for me personally. I would’ve never gone on a trip to Washington DC with the Austin Chamber if it wasn’t for you going, “Hey Rob, you may like this. Why don’t you come check this out?” And I’ve learned so much. It’s so cool to now see how the government works, being a part of talking to Congress about the Chips for America Act. Meeting with the Secretary of Labor for the United States about labor needs and welding requirements and trade schools requirements. For me, it just fills my cup. But also, I would not be in the position I’m in if I hadn’t taken that path. And I feel bad for folks that don’t see the value in that. Does that answer your question?

Yes, totally. And, I want to also share back that you’ve been a terrific advocate for manufacturers in Central Texas. And the work you’re doing in the community I think is really bringing a lot back from people that maybe weren’t as aware about manufacturing in Central Texas and you’re really helping bring their eyes to our industry and in turn, that’s strengthening our environment. So really appreciate everything you do.

Well, I appreciate it. It’s a lot of fun. Like I said, manufacturing is a team sport and I love team sports.

Well, hey, we got a great team here. And when I say that, I mean a team at ARMA, a team in this community. I think that might be a good place to wrap it up today. Rob, I really appreciate your time on this conversation and look forward to seeing what you do at Cellink.

Hey Ed, thanks a lot. I really appreciate it and I look forward to getting Cellink very involved with ARMA. So, we’re going to have a lot of fun.


Minutes + Agendas