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3 Under-the-Radar Battery Grant Winners

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smithimage1The biggest grants awarded this week under the Department of Energy’s $2.4 billion electric vehicle battery initiative went to big-name companies: battery giant Johnson Controls, IPO-hopeful A123Systems, General Motors (s GM), Dow Kokam and LG Chem’s Compact Power all snagged more than $150 million each. But some lesser-known companies also hit the jackpot, and may see rising prominence over the next three years as a result.

Take EnerG2, eTec and Smith Electric Vehicles — companies that together represent three legs of the stool for mass deployment of electric vehicles: energy storage, charging infrastructure and the vehicles themselves, but have lower profiles than many of their fellow grant winners and competitors.

The three ventures snagged a total of nearly $131 million in grants this week, including about $100 million for eTec, which is hardly a stranger among insiders, since for years it has provided EV-related products and services to automakers, government agencies and fleet operators, and it has partnered up with Nissan for infrastructure development. Smith, meanwhile, has been around for nearly 90 years (it started out as Northern Coachbuilders in 1920), but its electric trucks and delivery vans don’t generally boast the buzz or glamor of consumer models. And EnerG2 is just getting started, having raised its first round of venture capital less than a year ago.

It’s too early to tell which awardees, if any, will be able to leverage this week’s grant money to snag or increase leads in the electric vehicle ecosystem, and we’ll likely learn a whole lot more about the competitors as they start working on their projects. Here’s what these under-the-radar entries have going for them straight out of the gate:

energ2-logoEnerG2: Seattle-based ultracapacitor startup EnerG2 was founded in 2003 as a spin-out from labs at the University of Washington, by then-Ph.D. candidate Aaron Feaver and materials science professor Guozhong Cao. Since then, the company has, as VentureBeat explains, “taken the pure activated carbon typically used in today’s ultracapacitor electrodes, the plates that hold the electrical fields, and restructured it at the nano level, increasing its surface area and making it more porous so that ions can flow more easily.”

In November 2008, EnerG2 announced an $8.5 million round of Series A financing led by OVP Venture Partners and Firelake Capital Management. At that time, there were just six people in the company, and CEO Rick Luebbe told John Cook at Techflash that he aimed to triple the headcount within 12 months. EnerG2 plans to use the $21 million DOE grant to build a manufacturing facility in Albany, Ore. for “production of high energy density nano-carbon for ultracapacitors.”

smith-ev-logoSmith Electric Vehicles: The DOE awarded UK-based Smith Electric Vehicles $10 million to develop and deploy up to 100 electric vehicles, such as the Ford Transit Connect EV, Ford F150 EV conversions, Step Vans and so-called Newton medium-duty trucks in Kansas City, Mo., and Michigan. When Smith, part of the publicly traded Tanfield Group, struck a deal with Ford (s F) earlier this year to develop an electric version of the auto giant’s Transit Connect compact van, a Tanfield spokesperson explained the division of work to us this way: “Ford provides the chassis and we integrate everything else…Our IP and know-how is in the drivetrain, the battery packs, the control systems, and how all of that is integrated together, and also how it integrates with the existing vehicle systems.” The company’s strategy is generally to “sell into major fleet operators for demonstration purposes,” and once that cycle’s complete, “expect them to come back and purchase many more.”

etec-logoeTec: Founded in 1996 and acquired in November 2007 by Arizona-based ECOtality, Electric Transportation Engineering Corporation (eTec) has relatively deep roots for a company in the nascent field of electric vehicle charging infrastructure (infrastructure startup Better Place, for comparison, has been around for less than two years). The company, which snagged a $99.8 million grant this week, often works behind the scenes on alt-fuel vehicle projects, providing battery and vehicle performance testing, life cycle cost estimates and comparisons, as well as management and maintenance services for electric fleets. In addition, eTec’s smart fast-charging system was deployed, as Green Car Congress notes, for GM’s EV-1 program, as well as Chrysler’s EPIC minivan and Ford’s electric Ranger programs.

At this point, eTec — which reportedly has about 20 employees at its Phoenix headquarters — now says it has installed more than 400 charging stations for on-road electric vehicles, and a total of 5,500 systems if you include installations for airport ground support and other applications. The DOE grant will go toward installation of some 12,750 charging systems (in partnership with Nissan (s NSANY) as it rolls out the 2010 LEAF electric sedan) in five states, including Arizona, California, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington. According to the Arizona Republic, eTec will also be working with Starbucks (s SBUX), Walmart (s WMT) and other retailers “to determine if they can make money off charging stations, either by charging money for parking or by driving traffic to the locations.”

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