From cornfield to high-tech factory: CelLink opens Georgetown plant for EV components

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Oct 11th, 2023

The first products are now rolling off conveyor belts at a long-anticipated factory in Georgetown — aluminum, copper and plastic film are being transformed into flexible circuits that will go into electric vehicles and other high-tech marvels.

CelLink Corp. recently moved into a 295,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in the city north of Austin. Nineteen months ago, the site was a cornfield. Robb Misso, the company’s vice president of global operations, called the transformation “amazing.”

“What we’re creating here, it’s really special,” Misso said.

Austin Business Journal got a first glimpse of the facility at 110 Witerra Way on Sept. 21, alongside local and federal public officials, including representatives from the office of U.S. Rep. John Carter and the city of Georgetown; workforce development leaders, like Michael Reeser, chancellor and CEO of Texas State Technical College; and private industry representatives. Additionally, a one-hour discussion touched on important regional concerns, like workforce, land use and infrastructure.

Then it was time for the tour. Machines and humans build wire harnesses — essentially, electrical circuits used in EVs and other products. The company has five production lines built, and two in use, with each line aimed at supporting one model of vehicle. It employs 42 at the factory and plans to add 45 more by the end of the year.

The factory has space for up to 25 lines — it could eventually reach 2,000 employees and make products for 11 million cars per year.

The opening came nearly two years after ABJ first reported in December 2021 that CelLink was considering Georgetown for a factory. CelLink confirmed those plans in February 2022 and secured roughly $8 million worth of incentives, including infrastructure and job creation grants and property tax abatements.

The company ended up with an entire building in Gateway35, one of two large industrial parks being developed in Georgetown by Titan Development Ltd.

Silicon Valley-based CelLink could become Georgetown’s largest private-sector employer if it reaches its goal of hiring 2,000 people. The company is reportedly a supplier of Tesla Inc. (Nasdaq: TSLA), although CelLink executives have never confirmed that client or others. Nondisclosure agreements are abundant. But CelLink executives previously said they chose Georgetown to be closer to customers; Tesla operates its new gigafactory in eastern Travis County, about 30 miles away, while General Motors Co. has a presence in the Dallas area.

Misso said the biggest challenge was getting pieces for the factory delayed by supply chain hiccups. That slowed the hiring process, but he said the company is now full-steam ahead. Despite the delays, he said the building was finished on time and under budget, when considering a February 2022 groundbreaking.

Also at the opening was Jigar Shah, director of the Loan Programs Office within the U.S. Department of Energy, which has played a key role in CelLink’s development. When the company was founded, the DOE provided a grant to help CelLink get started.

More recently, the federal agency earlier this year conditionally approved a $362 million loan to help pay for what was initially planned as a $130 million facility in Georgetown. The money is from the DOE’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program, which provides loans to support domestic manufacturing of “advanced technology vehicles, qualifying components, and materials that improve fuel economy.” CelLink is required to hit certain milestones and conditions before it is issued a final loan but officials said they’re nearing those benchmarks.

Shah, who goes on many site visits, enjoyed the trip.

“You can be very nit-picky and very critical of something when it’s just a piece of paper that you’re reading,” he said. “When you come here in person, you always are very impressed by just how large, how important and how really special this is.”

The DOE said the loan was part of President Joe Biden’s Investing in America agenda to “onshore and re-shore domestic manufacturing of technologies that are critical to reaching the clean energy and transportation future.” The Loan Programs Office aims to leverage additional loan authority through the Inflation Reduction Act, which is intended to spur billions of dollars in public-private investments “that will boost the nation’s competitiveness, strengthen supply chains, and create good-paying jobs to power the clean energy economy,” according to the May announcement.

Georgetown, with a population of more than 75,000, has been identified by the DOE as a disadvantaged community, meaning it has an above-average impact from “burden indicators” — those can be related to fossil fuel dependance, environmental and climate hazards and more. The Biden administration wants at least 40% of clean energy benefits to go to such communities.

Shah said it’s been “impressive” to watch CelLink. His office’s loan program is invitation-only, and admittedly an extensive process with an average loan size of $1 billion. But Shah said office staffers were interested in helping CelLink again because its products are already in 3 million vehicles.

“There’s no doubt in our mind that the product works,” he said. “So I think our loan was really around figuring out how to get them to full production scale, so they could get their costs down and become a profitable company.”

Asked if other Austin-area companies might be eligible for loans in the future, Shah said there’s a reason he keeps returning to the area.

“This is not my first visit to Austin. So we certainly have been very impressed by the folks who have chosen this region as their place,” he said. “Obviously as the federal government, we are uniformly excited about every part of our great nation. But I do think we work hard to get a partnership with economic development folks in each region, so they can flag companies they think we should pay attention to. And I think Austin and Texas broadly does that for us.”

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