WARREN — Tech-heads from throughout the world crowded the show floor of the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show in January in Las Vegas to hawk the technologies of tomorrow.
Many of them found Rick Stockburger, the president and CEO of BRITE Energy Innovators, a Warren-based energy storage incubator.
Stockburger was wearing a black shirt with bold, white lettering that read “WARREN OHIO” — something he said he usually does when out of town on a business trip.
“‘I’m from Howland’ or ‘I’m from Salem’,” they told him. “It was exciting to meet a bunch of people that had like experiences. But all they had was a memory of Warren. Now they’re living in Chicago, in L.A., in Austin, in all these places, out there doing amazing, great things,” Stockburger told Mahoning Matters.
Most said had BRITE existed — or had they known about it — when they entered the technology trade, maybe they would have started their company in the Valley. Maybe they wouldn’t have left, Stockburger said.
“Our No. 1 export is talented young people,” Stockburger always says.
The 36-year-old Beloit native and 2002 West Branch grad said it wasn’t until he returned home from his U.S. Army tour in Afghanistan — reading dire news headlines on the way — that he realized he could serve better at home.
In 2010, Stockburger founded the media company “Saving Cities” which focused on the revitalization of post-industrial cities like Buffalo, St. Louis, Detroit and Cleveland — the latter of which Forbes had just named “the most miserable city,” he recalled.
With $20,000 in crowdfunding and a borrowed van, Stockburger and a few buddies toured the Rust Belt, shooting a documentary on the resilience of its communities. The film, “Red, White and Blueprints,” was released in 2013.
“We thought it was going to be a story about cities,” Stockburger said. “What we found was it wasn’t stories about cities. It’s stories about people — unique, interesting humans that are doing cool stuff.
“People are what’s going to save cities — it’s not ideas, it’s not government, it’s not anything but people.”
Stockburger obtained his bachelor’s degree in political science from Kent State University and his master’s in economic development from Penn State University.
After some time helping develop Akron-area startups, he waded into the energy sphere. Later, he ran communications for the Energy Ohio Network trade association, which promoted renewable energy tax credits established during Gov. John Kasich’s administration.
“I knew a lot of the players in the energy space, a lot of the soft stuff you need to know,” he said.
He joined BRITE in mid-2017, and was named CEO in May.
BRITE offers free mentorship to help energy startups bring their products to market. Clients also receive funding through grants, Stockburger’s personal network of angel investors aimed at late-stage technologies and BRITE”s partnership with the venture capital firm Valley Growth Venture, which includes local partners like Youngstown Business Incubator and Youngstown State University.
BRITE’s West Market Street labs offer a shared workspace for testing new technologies. Paragon Robotics, one of the 10 companies currently using the labs, recently obtained a multi-million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Another has partnered on a pilot project with the City of Akron to use specialized equipment that can detect RF waves from electric utility lines and find weak spots in the city’s power grid.
“It’s smart people doing really smart stuff and letting me look good,” Stockburger laughed.
Lordstown Motors Corp. is currently refitting the former General Motors Lordstown Assembly Complex to manufacture a line of electric vehicle batteries and plans to test them at BRITE, Stockburger said.
“In many ways, we’re a connector and a convener,” he said. “We’re really able to be a conduit in many ways … able to be that access to the supply chain of Lordstown Motors, but also be able to speak intelligently and eloquently about those technologies and why [they’re] important.
“The greatest frontier that we have is battery technology — trying to figure out how we store energy in lighter weights,” Stockburger said. “That’s what’s going to unlock accessibility and availability of electric vehicles. That’s what’s going to bring down electric [vehicle] prices.”
Though the electric vehicle market is still in the “early adopter” phase, Stockburger said energy storage research and electrification has been happening in Warren for quite some time.
“I think Lordstown Motors is kind of the lightning strike we needed in many ways. This is legitimate, this is real, this is something we could build an industry around,” he said. “We already knew we could build an industry around cars. It’s something we’ve always done and always been good at.
“Packard rolled off the line here in Warren, Ohio, in 1899 with their first car. We’ve got a rich history of building cars. We don’t have a rich history of building cars that are future-facing.”
From mid-2017 to mid-2018, about 3.1 million direct jobs in the U.S. were in the energy efficiency field, according to the U.S. Energy and Employment Report.
More than 240,000 of those jobs were in the electric, hybrid or fuel cell vehicle market, representing about 16 percent growth — the highest growth noted in the energy efficiency field in that time.
Likewise, jobs in energy storage technologies shrunk about 3 percent in that same time, while jobs in “smart” or micro-grid technologies grew by about 4 percent, according to that report.
Stockburger said he gets multiple calls each day from outside companies looking for a landing pad in the Valley. The next step for BRITE is expanding to meet that increasing demand, he said.
Stockburger currently lives in Akron but said he's actively house-hunting in the Valley.
“What really drew me to [BRITE] is that I grew up here and I just see so many of my friends that I went to high school with who had to go somewhere else to be successful,” he said. “I really see business incubators and I really see the future of the energy space being one of those conduits that can make … [young] people have a reason to be here and to do something cool.
“Keeping our talented young people here is the most noble work I think anyone can do,” Stockburger said. “I’m excited that BRITE and organizations like YBI and Youngstown State can really focus down trying to make sure the Mahoning Valley is a place where talented young people can thrive.”