24Jun 2019

You are an entrepreneur. You understand that batteries are powering the future. You think present battery technology falls short of market demands. You invented a new battery technology. You may even have some early prototypes that show some exceptional promise. So you start a new company to commercialize your new technology. Welcome to the Battery Gold Rush, ca. 21st century.

In the first Gold Rush, ca. 1849, many made fortunes, and many others lost riches. The new Battery Gold Rush will not be much different. So what factors should you be thinking about in your pursuit of the battery holy grail?

I will assume here that your battery technology is exceptional.You have tested it. It works in the laboratory. What I will address here is whether you and your investors will make money in this endeavor.

Five factors require consideration.

  • Are the economics of the battery market in your favor?

As a young graduate student several years back, I was constantly advised to move my thesis work away from silicon to gallium arsenide (GaAs). Known as III-V compounds for their position in the periodic table of elements, these new materials offered immensely better performance than silicon integrated circuits. Yet today, silicon dominates the semiconductor landscape simply because its economics far outweighed the economics of any other competing material system. There is a lesson here for emerging battery technologies to be economically viable from the get go.

As batteries increasingly become the energy source powering everything from smartphones to electric cars, one key economic metric to pay attention to is $/kWh: the cost per unit of energy stored within the battery. For the big manufacturers in Japan, Korea and China, the cost metric stands today somewhere between $100 and $150 per kWh.  It is forecasted to drop below $100 by 2025 at which point the cost of an electric car is equal to that of a traditional combustion engine vehicle. 

If your technology increases this cost, or your business model is based on a significant premium, then you are at risk of serious commercial headwinds. It does not mean that you will fail, but it means that the adoption of your products may be limited to niche markets, or that the rate of adoption may be too slow for your company to reach profitability.

  • Are you sure you have a working business model?

Most battery startup companies are exploring a wide variety of business models. Some favor building the entire battery. Others feel that manufacturing the materials are sufficient. A few others are content developing the technology and selling its underlying intellectual property. Which one is better? You will need to quickly validate the business model for yourself. 

If you choose to build the entire battery, will you be able to scale your manufacturing and distribution fast enough? Will you have the investment capital required to compete with the incumbents? Ramping up a battery manufacturing operation could cost in the billions of dollars. History has not been kind to battery startups. The rise and fall of A123 Systems is a business case worthy of serious study.

If, instead, you decide to build your business model on selling materials, your customers are now the battery manufacturers, the  vast majority of whom are based in Asia. Your technology may be differentiated but your customers are also your competitors. How will you protect your intellectual property? Will they pay you what you think is the value of your innovation? History also has not been kind here too. You will need to think out of the box to experiment and identify a working solution to the business model dilemma.

  • Will your product scale?

I have seen many amazing demonstrations in the laboratory of innovative battery materials. It is truly exciting to see this degree of innovation. But I am not aware that any of these recent battery material ideas have made it to volume production, at least not yet. As companies begin to ramp up manufacturing, many problems rear their ugly head. Uniformity of manufacturing across lots; meeting specifications on larger batteries; cost overruns; scarcity of available capital; investor fatigue are only a few examples of headwinds.

  • Do you understand your “exit” opportunities?

Your capital comes from investors who have an expectation of returns. A return of 5X or more is considered good; 10X or more is considered great.  So if you company requires $200 million to $500 million of capital to reach some degree of scaled operation (and hopefully profitability), then the expected “exit” valuation of your company is in the range of $1 billion to $5 billion. Congratulations if you achieved these valuations in your recent fundraising round. Very few companies can achieve this milestone. But will a potential buyer pay these valuations to acquire your company? Most incumbent battery companies in Asia have shown serious hesitation paying such valuations. You might, instead, choose to take the path of an initial public offering (IPO). A123 is such an example. But be careful, public markets have not been kind to company valuations with poor margins and tepid growth trajectories. In any case, the “exit” path — i.e., how you and your investor will turn your shares in the company into cash — is not well charted for battery companies. There are no easy precedents to follow and the path is fraught with incumbents who might choose to wait for you to reach desperation.

  • What about the Dragon?

China is rapidly becoming the battery manufacturing powerhouse. It means that Chinese battery manufacturers will likely be customers or partners of your company, or even potentially acquirers. Given the geopolitical tensions between the USA and China, it is difficult that the US Government will authorize the transfer of your technology or products to China under the export reform rules of the Defense Authorization Act of 2018. Will you choose to build your company anywhere else, may be in Europe or other geographies that will allow you to work with China? If so, you will need to figure that out early on in your endeavor.

My intent here is not to scare you off. The battery industry is in need of innovators. But innovation alone is not sufficient. Reaching financial success is essential to you, your employees and your investors.