An accelerator lab for battery startups launches

Can the startup accelerator model work for battery companies? The folks behind CalCharge, the brainchild of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and California Clean Energy Fund (CalCEF) that hopes to attract some 30 battery companies in the San Francisco Bay Area, think so.

Through CalCharge, battery tech developers will be able to enlist the help of researchers and use equipment at Berkeley Lab and other research institutions, participate in seminars and forums, recruit engineers and other employees and network with each other to trade information. Companies can do all this on their own, of course, but they might find better results when they go through an organization that pools resources to serve a larger community.

“What I’ve been hearing for a while is that in the Silicon Valley and the software industry, there is an ecosystem to bring everybody together,” said Venkat Srinivasan, head of energy storage and distributed resources department at Berkeley Lab. “We recognize that battery companies want an ecosystem to work together.”

Battery companies generally target three markets: consumer electronics, electric cars and grid energy storage. While Srinivasan declined to divulge which startups plan to be members, there’s quite a few in the Bay Area (see our list of 25 battery makers).

Battery technology development has generated interest from prominent venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in recent years because of federal and local policies that mandate lower tailpipe and industrial emissions and a greater use of renewable energy. The federal government has awarded hundreds of millions of dollars for engineering and manufacturing lithium-ion batteries for electric cars since 2009. Grid energy storage is a promising market because the technology complements wind and solar farms by taking in electricity from these intermittent sources and releasing it to the grid as a steady source of energy. Delivering wind and solar at a steady pace helps utilities to balance their supply with demand.

Building an innovative battery company is an expensive and time-consuming undertaking. A123 Systems (s AONE), for example, raised around $240 million in venture capital before its 2009 IPO, from which it raised $371 million. The company also won a 2009 federal grant of about $249 million to expand manufacturing, though it hasn’t used up all the money.

“We see that young companies are always under-resourced and need venture capital and other types of financing. They need to bridge multiple valleys of death,” said Paul Frankel, managing director of CalCEF’s innovations group.

For now, CalCharge is part of CalCEF, which is working on eventually launching it as an independent nonprofit, Frankel said.

Work is underway to recruit founding members who would provide the funds to let CalCharge start offering programs to battery companies. It will be a membership-supported organization, and how much help a company gets will depend on its membership level. There will be three levels of annual fees at $10,000, $25,000 and $50,000, Srinivasan said.

Some of the services Berkeley Lab is keen on providing include testing and performance verification of cells and systems, Srinivasan said. Essentially, Berkeley Lab aims to develop a reputation for setting the standards for quantifying battery performances in the same way that the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has become in the solar industry. Verifications of cell or panel efficiencies by NREL carry more weight than results from lesser established labs.

Photos courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory