Jason Xiangbing Li: Building Better Batteries

Jason Xiangbing Li didn’t move to California in the mid-1990s so he could live in the center of the tech universe. He relocated there because his wife, Ling Zhuang (CSci, M.S. ’95), landed a job at the semiconductor-equipment maker Applied Materials. “Since it was a better place for her,” Li said of his decision not to pursue a typical chemical engineer’s job at Proctor & Gamble or ExxonMobil. “I joined her in Silicon Valley.”

The decision proved life changing for Li (ChemE, Ph.D. ’96). Initially, he took a job with Applied Materials, learning the ins and outs of product development. But in January 2004, after completing an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania, Li decided to go out on his own. He launched Tenergy, Inc., which provides total mobile power solutions for products used in medical devices, consumer electronics, power storage, transportation, data storage, and the military. The company, headquartered in a 50,000-square-foot facility in Fremont, Calif., employs nearly 100 people.

While many of the company’s customers are located nationwide, Li likes being based in the Silicon Valley. He’s grown fond of the place—and the pace.

“We have become a significant player in the rechargeable battery market, and are constantly innovating in such areas as battery technologies, chargers, power components, and protection circuit modules.”

 — Jason Li

“I get to witness the rapid technical innovation and creation of wonderful products,” Li said. “You see how new companies started small and grew up to be the largest in the world, like Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Yahoo, Google, Facebook. And you feel these dreams are attainable in real life…. Life and work in California is fast paced and a higher percentage of people seek higher risk with their career for the growth opportunities.”

Li, a native of southern China, and Ling, who grew up in Beijing, met while they were undergraduates at Tsinghua University. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in materials science and a minor in electrical engineering, Li applied to a number of graduate schools in the United States and eventually accepted a scholarship from the University of Minnesota’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science.

In 1992, he and Ling moved to Minnesota to start graduate programs. “I am fascinated by physics and chemistry and I like to be intellectually challenged,” Li says of his affinity for engineering. “I also like to create products that solve problems in life.”

Much like the tech world itself, the world of batteries is evolving quickly—and our company is challenged to keep up with increasing demand for more mobile power, says Li. “We have become a significant player in the rechargeable battery market, and are constantly innovating in such areas as battery technologies, chargers, power components, and protection circuit modules,” he added.

Building a business from scratch hasn’t been easy, but Li believes his education and background have contributed to his success. He also hopes he can be an inspiration to other young College of Science and Engineering graduates.

“The thinking focus of an engineer and an entrepreneur are very different,” he said. “An engineer is tasked with solving specific technical problems. An entrepreneur is focused on identifying and meeting market needs with innovative and competitive products or services. Combining the skills and qualities of both, with the right support, ensures ideas do not just remain as dreams but become real, viable businesses that bring good things to life.”