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Tesla loses former Gigafactory boss to start-up that makes designer molecules for food and drugs

Tesla is losing a battery manufacturing leader, Jens Peter Clausen, to Zymergen, a synthetic biology company funded by Softbank.

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Clausen’s move is the latest in a string of executive departures from Tesla. As CNBC previously reported, more than 40 executives have left this year as the company contended with a difficult production ramp-up for its Model 3, punctuated by high-profile antics from its eccentric CEO, Elon Musk. Among those who left are engineering leader Doug Field, now with Apple’s self-driving car project, Titan, and Tesla’s general counsel Todd Maron.

At Zymergen, Clausen will help the company scale its manufacturing teams, processes and facilities.

Zymergen is experiencing growth “at a pace that I’m not sure has been seen in life sciences,” CEO Joshua Hoffman said in a phone interview with CNBC.

Hoffman said his company hired Clausen after an extensive search, in part because of his experience “designing and improving largely automated manufacturing environments.”

As vice president of Gigafactory 1, Clausen oversaw a rapid expansion of battery manufacturing at Tesla’s humongous plant outside of Reno, Nevada. Tesla manufactures its vehicle batteries and energy storage products there using a mix of automated and manual processes alongside Panasonic, its supplier and partner in the facility. Before joining Tesla in July 2015, Clausen spent more than a decade in manufacturing at Lego, the toy company whose products are often used for prototyping in robotics.

Tesla Gigafactory workers told CNBC this summer that they thought Clausen was on leave, and they weren’t sure if he was returning to the company. On Sept. 7, Tesla announced a spate of promotions as part of a broader restructuring. In that announcement, it named Chris Lister as Gigafactory vice president. At that time, Tesla said Clausen had no plans to leave the electric vehicle maker.

Earlier this month, Zymergen raised more than $400 million from the Softbank Vision Fund, Goldman Sachs and others.

The company said it takes a biological, rather than purely chemical-based approach, to make diverse things like insect repellent and new smartphone screens that fold. Ultimately, it is hoping to develop products that are not tied to the traditional petroleum-based manufacturing processes. Its closest competitor in doing that is Gingko Bioworks, which describes itself as learning from nature to develop “new organisms that replace technology with biology.”

Like Gingko, Zymergen relies heavily on robotics and automation, and describes itself as fundamentally different to life sciences labs. Its processes are designed to surpass the traditional method, which involves humans in lab coats who move sensitive biological materials around with pipettes.

Zymergen said the company already works with agriculture businesses, off-patent drugmakers, food manufacturers and others. Hoffman declined to name any of Zymergen’s customers. But the company did disclose that it is working on a product of its own that it expects to release by 2021: an insect repellent and sun-screen combo.

Clausen’s official start date at Zymergen is Jan. 3.

An inside look at Tesla’s Gigafactory