Is it possible for small battery startups to beat big giants? - India Renewable Energy Consulting – Solar, Biomass, Wind, Cleantech
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Net Zero by Narsi is a series of brief posts by Narasimhan Santhanam (Narsi), on decarbonization and climate solutions.
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This is a part of the EV Innovation Intelligence series

The battery is a fairly old industry, over 100 years old. (The very first lead-acid battery was invented in 1859 by a French physicist, Gaston Planté).

Even the relative newcomer, Li-ion battery has been around for over 30 years, as part of a slew of electronics that we use. (The very first Li-ion batteries were commercially available in 1985)

Given this background, it should not be surprising that the battery tech industry is dominated by giants – LG, Panasonic, BYD, AESC, Samsung…

Yet, we hear about intrepid startups trying to make their mark in the battery world with announcements of innovations, some of which appear like quite fundamental.

Are these companies flying solely on hope, or is there some hope for them?

Could be difficult if working within the current generation

If these startups are trying to compete on the current generation of batteries, they are definitely playing a losing game. The global battery leaders are too strong and too big to allow too many gaps for improvement / disruption in the current battery chemistries

Solid state batteries are not currently commercial, and there’s scope for significant innovation in this domain. Many startups – including some of them from university research – are indeed working in this field. Even here, however, the prospects are moderate as it could take 5 years or more to get these to commercial – a very long time for startups to last.

Batteries such as metal air etc. offer more possibilities for startups

There are other companies working on metal air batteries. The challenge with these is that they are not rechargeable. The battery giants seem to be a bit less interested in this, but some smart startups are working on different technical and business models to make metal air batteries work for electric vehicles.

Capacitor based batteries

Super capacitor and ultra-capacitor based batteries enable really fast charging and discharging, though they hold little charge at any point in time. Innovations from startups are trying to match capacitors and batteries together to make the whole thing work better. This again is not an area where the big boys do not seem to be involved at the moment.

IP & core of their invention

The competitiveness of battery startups will also depend on what are the fundamental technologies that give them the differentiation. If it is nanotech or material sciences or even electronics, their IP likely will be more competitive than if it is mechanical or electrical, sciences mature enough that the old boys might already be in the know.

IPs by startups are also more feasible if they are in specific areas within cathode or anode, than overall cathode or anode improvements. IP innovation is also quite viable in BMS, as there is a lot of software involved in this, and BMS has taken on a new importance after the advent of battery use in electric vehicles.

Core of their invention

There are many startups claiming significant improvements in energy density and efficiencies, but it is not clear what exactly they know that the global giants do not. As most of these companies are quite secretive about their work, it is a bit difficult to comment on the real prospects of their work.

Founder profile

And of course, the profile of the founder matters quite a lot. Our EV Next team regularly comes across founders who claim startling innovations, and the first thing we check is the background of the founder. If the founder does not have a specialized educational or professional background in the fields related to their reported innovation, we would be highly sceptical. Sure, innovation can come from anyone, but it is all a question of probability, isn’t it?

Support ecosystem

What also matters to the success of the battery startup is the support ecosystem that they enjoy. If they are working solo, they are on a tough pitch. If they have the support of a top notch university like Stanford, a big plus. If they have the support of a large company related to the core technology in some way, an even bigger plus.

Here are some examples of how small battery startups have actually performed better than the big boys

Battery startups may not compete with the tech giants with their comparatively miniscule manufacturing. However, the technology they develop or possess can be adopted by industry majors and can be scaled up. Most battery startups are validated by investments from auto majors who would like to co-develop, test and scale up the startup’s technology.

  • Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler has invested millions in an Israeli start-up whose battery technology can charge electric vehicles in a matter of minutes.

    • Tel-Aviv-based StoreDot announced Thursday that the trucking arm of the German automotive giant had led a $60 million funding round, and would partner with the firm to adopt its FlashBattery technology(10C rate charging)

    • The company claims these lithium-ion batteries are able to charge smartphones and electric vehicles in just five minutes. Its batteries are powered by organic (carbon-based) compounds and nanomaterials (substances made up of tiny particles).

    • StoreDot’s OneGiga factory would span 15,900 square meters and have an initial manufacturing capacity of 1 Gigawatt hour (GWh) – scalable to 10 GWh. This is a significantly smaller scale than Tesla’s 35 GWH Gigafactory 1.

  • The alliance of manufacturers Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi, has invested in the Californian battery startup Enevate via its venture capital subsidiary Alliance Ventures. The amount of the strategic investment is not known.

    • Enevate has developed a battery technology on the basis of silicon anodes called HD-Energy. This technology will make it possible to build very fast-charging lithium-ion batteries with a high energy density. For electric vehicle owners, this means fast charging within five minutes – even at low temperatures.

    • Enevate is based in Irvine, California. The company currently grants licenses for its silicon-dominant HD-Energy Technology to battery and electric vehicle manufacturers in order to quickly generate production volumes.

  • Volkswagen, the world’s No. 1 carmaker, has decided to invest a total of 900 million euros to build a new battery production plant in Norway jointly with Northvolt, a battery maker from Sweden. The major OEM is also discussing the construction of an additional joint venture (JV) plant with SK Innovation. Yoon Ye-seon, head of SK Innovation’s Battery Business Division, said during a news conference in May that the company has been in discussion with Volkswagen about setting up a joint venture for about a year. “We have to be tight-lipped about further details because of a business confidentiality agreement,” Yoon said.

  • Sila Nanotechnologies (“Sila Nano”), developer and manufacturer of advanced battery materials has announced a partnership with the BMW Group on next-generation lithium-ion batteries. The company has developed silicon-based nanoparticles that can form a high-capacity anode material for lithium-ion batteries.

    • Silicon has almost 10 times the theoretical capacity of the material most often used in these batteries, but it tends to swell during charging, causing damage. Sila’s particles are robust yet porous enough to accommodate that swelling, promising longer-lasting batteries. Sila Nano’s team is focused on developing and commercializing the next generation of battery materials. Their first products are a family of silicon-dominant anode materials that replace conventional graphite electrodes.

  •  Mercedes-Benz AG is currently going into a development partnership with Canadian battery material specialist Hydro-Québec on future technological leaps of electric vehicles. The focus: Solid state batteries.

    • Hydro-Quebec have developed a first-generation solid-state battery in the 1990s and have continued R&D to improve both efficiency and manufacturing methods with a view to a new generation. Solid-state lithium metal batteries are supposed to be a next important technology milestone, having a very high energy density, are long lasting and very light moreover harnessing the potential of solid-state-materials on safety

  • Quantumscape is a solid-state-battery manufacturer which is heavily invested by Volkswagen and Bill gates.

This is a part of the EV Innovation Intelligence series

Posts in the series

Tesla’s Valuation | EV’s in different countries | Purpose built EVs | Mainstream Fuel Cells | IT in Emobility | EVs versus ICEs | Advent of China in Emobility | Charging vs Swapping | Micromobility & EVs | Electric Aviation | Li-ion alternatives | Million Mile Battery | Battery Startups versus Giants | Sales & Financing Models | Ultrafast Charging a Norm | Heavy Electric Vehicles | Material Sciences in Emobility | Lithium Scarcity | Solar Power in EV Ecosystem | EV Manufacturing Paradigm | Innovations in Motors | EV Startups – a speciality Oil Companies’ Strategies | EV Adoption Paths | Covid-19 affect on the EV Industry |


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About Narasimhan Santhanam (Narsi)

Narsi, a Director at EAI, Co-founded one of India's first climate tech consulting firm in 2008.

Since then, he has assisted over 250 Indian and International firms, across many climate tech domain Solar, Bio-energy, Green hydrogen, E-Mobility, Green Chemicals.

Narsi works closely with senior and top management corporates and helps then devise strategy and go-to-market plans to benefit from the fast growing Indian Climate tech market.

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