Venture capitalists seemed to be taking a break from battery funding last month, but investment in Infinite Power Solutions last week could indicate the pause might be over. The Littleton, Colo.-based thin-film battery manufacturer announced last Wednesday that it had raised $13 million in its second round of financing from previous backers D.E. Shaw Ventures, Polaris Ventures, Core Capital Partners, Applied Materials’ venture arm Applied Ventures and In-Q-Tel, as well as from a new and unnamed strategic investor.
The company had previously raised $35.7 million in 2006, and it says the combined total means it has raised more private equity than any thin-film micro-battery technology in the past decade. CEO Ray Johnson said in the release that the funding is “a testament to our compelling value proposition” in the current difficult financing environment.
Infinite said it would use the money to expand its sales and increase its engineering resources to help support its customers and strategic partners; the startup plans to start shipping product this month from its first factory completed this year. It didn’t disclose its first customers but has said it is targeting makers of wireless sensors, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, smart cards, medical devices and consumer electronics, as well as automotive, civil, military and aerospace companies. In October, the company announced it had signed an agreement to apply its batteries to products that Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) was developing for military and civil applications.
Founded in 2001, Infinite is one of a pack of companies developing thin-film batteries, which have the potential to deliver as much energy as lithium-ion batteries in thin, moldable shapes (for more about thin-film batteries, check out Earth2Tech stories here, here and here). Along with others such as Planar Energy Devices and Cymbet Corp., Infinite is licensing thin-film technology from Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The ability to create unique shapes could be an advantage in consumer electronics such as cell phones, where manufacturers are squeezing more features into thinner, sleeker packages. After the company’s first round, Enderle Group analyst Rob Enderle told me the batteries could lead to cooler-looking products.
But Brian Barnett, a managing director at product development and consulting firm TIAX, also told me then that one challenge is that thin films are better for providing small bursts of high power over shorter amounts of time, in comparison to the longer stretches of energy needed to deliver acceptable runtimes for mobile phones and laptops. The thinner the cell, the less energy you get, he explained.
Thin film batteries are also still considerably more expensive — and costly to manufacture — than conventional batteries, and will need to be able to compete with coin-cell batteries, the circular batteries often used in watches, on cost and performance, according to a report from research firm Frost & Sullivan.
Bernd Neudecker, Infinite’s chief technology officer, is no stranger to the difficulties. Neudecker told me last year that taking thin-film batteries to market is far more difficult than simply licensing the technology.
“Many people have tried [to overcome the challenges] and, when they get into it, they are always surprised how difficult it is to make a flat battery . . . It reads so easy in all the patents, but keep in mind that most of the good stuff isn’t written in patents; they are trade secrets. … There is a reason so many have licensed from Oak Ridge and ours is the only one, basically, going into mass production.”
But Infinite claims its ultra-thin rechargeable batteries deliver higher power than its competitors’ and also last longer, have longer shelf lives and can be recharged more times. In 2006, the company said the batteries could be recharged more than 60,000 times and made as thin as 15 microns.
The company also says its batteries can operate in a larger range of temperatures, from negative 40 degrees Celsius to 85 degrees Celsius (negative 40 degrees and 185 degrees Fahrenheit.) Most lithium-ion batteries operate between negative 20 degrees and 60 degrees Celsius (negative 4 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit), although competitor Solicore’s lithium-polymer batteries operate at between negative 20 degrees and 60 degrees Celsius (68 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit).
It’s taken Infinite quite awhile to start shipping products — it first announced it was building a factory two years ago. But the announcement that Infinite is ready to begin shipping products – and earning revenue – is certainly a noteworthy milestone, considering that scientists have been developing thin-film batteries for some 20 years, with few examples of commercial success so far.