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Court documents reveal DOE-backed Envia isn’t the breakthrough battery startup it appeared

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Silicon Valley battery startup Envia Systems once claimed that its next-generation lithium ion battery tech was such a breakthrough that it could bring electric vehicles to the masses. Those claims brought in millions of dollars of funds from the Department of Energy’s APRA-E program, Valley venture capitalists, and a deal with car giant GM, which makes the Volt electric car. But according to information revealed in two lawsuits against Envia, the company is alleged to have used other companies’ technology in its battery tech (one part allegedly stolen, one part purchased and used as if it was their own), and hasn’t been able to recreate the breakthrough battery results for its GM deal, leading to that deal allegedly being cancelled.

I’ve reached out to Envia for more information on the status of the GM deal and haven’t heard back. Envia’s former PR agency no longer represents it. Updated: Envia has responded and denied the allegations in the lawsuits, and now has a new PR firm. You can see their response below.

400Whkg Battery pic #2_IMG_1028On November 22, 2013 Envia’s former CEO Atul Kapadia, and Envia executives Hari Iyer and Rohit Arora filed a lawsuit against the company and its co-founder Sujeet Kumar alleging fraud in the inducement of employment, and wrongful termination.  A few months earlier Kapadia, Iyer and Arora had been terminated after the deal with GM — Envia’s only source of revenue according to the court documents — had gone south. So what happened?

Well, back in February 2012 a nanotech startup called NanoeXa Corporation sued Envia saying that Kumar and two other executives had left NanoeXa in 2007 and taken NanoeXa’s intellectual property for battery cathode technology with them. A battery is made up of an anode on one side and a cathode on the other, with an electrolyte in between. For a lithium ion battery, lithium ions travel from the anode to the cathode through the electrolyte, creating a chemical reaction that allows electrons to be harvested along the way.

That lawsuit, which is still ongoing, alleged that Kumar used NanoeXa’s cathode technology as the basis for starting Envia in 2007. When he was still with Envia as CEO, Kapadia was in charge of working on getting that lawsuit dismissed. But in the lawsuit that Kapadia filed just last month, he says that it was revealed to him after he left Envia that Kumar downloaded over 99 files and more than a gigabyte of confidential information from NanoeXa and attempted to cover it up.

Updated: Envia has a new PR firm and it sent me this statement, denying the allegations in the lawsuit:

The allegations in the complaint are baseless. The evidence will show that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit is nothing more than the spurious allegations of three disgruntled former employees.

In their lawsuit, plaintiffs contend that Envia misappropriated trade secrets from NanoeXa.  Not true.  NanoeXa’s lawsuit against Envia, filed nearly two years ago, asserts these very same allegations and yet NanoeXa has failed to produce a shred of evidence even suggesting Envia misappropriated trade secrets from NanoeXa or anyone else.  Moreover, during his tenure as Envia CEO, Kapadia spearheaded Envia’s defense in the NanoeXa litigation and identified under oath and at length the weaknesses of NanoeXa’s claims. It defies logic that Kapadia would now, after leaving Envia, file a lawsuit against Envia based on the very same set of facts. NanoeXa has suddenly dismissed Kapadia from the lawsuit – and Kapadia appears to be working with NanoeXa’s counsel.

enviaphotoFebruary 2012 was also the time frame when Envia was touting that its breakthrough battery technology — which used both the next-gen cathode and a new type of anode — had achieved an energy density of 400 watt-hours per kilogram. Energy density refers to how much energy a battery can store and provide for a car with a given battery size — the more energy dense the battery, the smaller the battery can be. As I explained when I covered the news at the time, a 400 watt-hour-per-kilogram battery could be a tipping point for bringing electric cars to a mainstream car owner, and could lead to an electric car that has a 300-mile range and could cost around $25,000 to $30,000.

At the same time in February 2012 that Envia was talking up its battery, the Department of Energy’s annual ARPA-E Summit was being held. The ARPA-E Program gives small grants to high-risk, high-reward projects that can create breakthroughs or moonshots for energy. In 2009 ARPA-E had given Envia a $4 million grant for a battery that could deliver 400 wh/kg energy density. The California Energy Commission followed up with a $1 million grant for the tech.

Because Envia had reached this milestone in early 2012, ARPA-E highlighted Envia above many other companies as a symbol of its success at the Summit. At the Summit, Kumar gave a talk and former ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar later joined the board of Envia. I’m not exactly sure of the ARPA-E process, but I would assume that ARPA-E validated the milestone at the time.

But it turns out, according to the court filings, the battery that had achieved this milestone not only used cathode tech that might have belonged to another company, but it also used anode tech that had been confidentially purchased from a Japanese chemical company Shin-Etsu. Kapadia’s lawsuit alleges that Kumar hid the fact that the battery tech used Shin-Etsu’s anode, and Kapadia and Majumdar allegedly didn’t find out about the real ownership of the anode tech until the spring of 2013.

Charging a Chevy VoltOver the years, Envia’s breakthrough battery had also attracted the attention of GM, which likely wanted to use the tech for future EVs and evolutions of the Volt. GM, though its venture arm, had invested in Envia back in 2010, and had gained access to licensing its cathode technology.

After Envia reached the ARPA-E milestone in creating a battery with an energy density of 400 wh/kg, GM in December 2012 entered into a deal with Envia to license the battery tech for future cars, and also pay Envia a royalty on each car. In that deal, the court documents claim that Envia said it owned or could legally license all the tech involved with the battery.

According to the court documents, after that deal was signed Envia — still led by Kapadia — started to look for a buyer. However by spring 2013, it started to become clear that Envia could not replicate the 400 wh/kg technology and turn it into a product. Samsung, LG and Asahi Kasei declined to buy the company because it found problems with the technology, according to the court documents. Kapadia’s lawsuit also alleges that Kumar wanted to create a fake term sheet from Samsung that he would leak to the media to start a bidding war.

When the technology was not recreated for GM by summer 2013, GM eventually cancelled the deal. According to the lawsuit, the board supported Kumar in his actions and didn’t stand behind Kapadia. Kapadia and the other two execs were dismissed shortly after.

Envia raised $17 million in 2010 from GM Ventures, Asahi Kasei, Asahi Glass, Bay Partners, Redpoint and Panagea Ventures, as well as about $10 million before that. In addition Envia also snagged the $4 million grant from ARPA-E and the $1 million from the CEC.

It’s not a ton of money for a battery startup, but the company’s struggles are embarrassing for both ARPA-E and GM, which have been working hard to find breakthrough battery tech. The problems also highlight how difficult it is to achieve a battery breakthrough and turn it into a mass produced product.

The issues also highlight how hard it is for investors and business execs to do due diligence on battery chemistry. Kumar was touted as the brains behind the tech at Envia and Kapadia and the other execs hadn’t worked at a battery company before and didn’t have oversight on any tech matters.

[slideshare id=29058752&doc=enviacomplaint-131209210439-phpapp01&type=d]

Updated: This article was updated at 2:56 EST to clarify that the lawsuit on November 22, 2013 alleges that Envia was using an anode from Shin-Etsu that was purchased confidentially and used as if it was Envia’s IP.

Updated for a second time at 5:52 pm EST with a response from Envia denying the allegations in the lawsuits.

23 Responses to “Court documents reveal DOE-backed Envia isn’t the breakthrough battery startup it appeared”

  1. Lord Aldamgir

    very sad. You can get an indication who is right and who is wrong from detail and from law firms and PR firms they hire. Striking thing about the filings is that Envia has hired a PR firm whose name is Sitrick and Co. I went to Sitrick website. They pride themselves to represent David Lee Roth, Paris Hilton and her jail problem, Michael Vick in his dog fighting scandal, Blackberry. He charges $900/hour and says you can give me a set of facts and i can write you four stories from the most negative to the most positive. I also see they hired Bergeson and co. who call themselves silicon Valley business litigaton. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out the facts based on these hiring decisions made by Envia. Looks like lawsuit facts are facts and Envia is trying to be aggressive to shake the allegations. very sad. Good advice would be to find facts and not attack because what if you are wrong? you look like a thug now but then you look like a clown. badly bungled for envia.

  2. IEEE article pointed me to Gigaom. Sujeet’s AABC presentations were laughing stock of industry. My colleagues would also get a chuckle because they felt Sujeet was going to break the 1 minute barrier for the mile. One colleague from Umicore had said that maybe when Sujeet puts water in battery also it will have high energy density. VC can buy snakeoil without knowing. My surprise is how industry expert like Purnesh Seegopaul and ARPA-E director also buy Sujeet story when others know. Battery muscle 123 is right because I asked him simple question and he will never answer question but give me talking points. sujeet thinks we are all idiot and he is smartest human being. Vichael- Board members must trying to find how to finish this matter properly. now they have to put pressure on ceo and other management who brought this in light, so they take charge back. But no worries everyone knows about it from many years.

  3. Battery Muscle 123

    I met with Sujeet last year at ARPA-E and asked him basic questions about Envia’s impressive Si-C active anode material and its swelling performance. Either he is clueless or he intentionally lies. He tried to pass off swelling numbers at low temperatures. In CE world it is obvious swelling numbers are for higher temperatures. Sujeet’s answers were disingenuous. Even though we liked Atul’s strategic idea for separating innovation and engineering, I could not convince my management to work with Sujeet. Now I learn that the active Si-C material was not Envia’s. Go figure.

  4. Vichael M

    Shame on you John Walecka, Purnesh Seegopaul, Jon Lauckner and Takashi Morishita. I read the court filings and you did not heed red signs from management team for long. Everyone in battery industry knows about Sujeet Kumar AABC presentations not to believe. You can be fooled once but you are in his side. Now I have read more court filings and you are using legal system and lawyer pressure to read emails between spouse of this management team and get personal computer. Shameful. Shame on you John Walecka. I hear about bad things from your venture capital company but now I believe its not only unethical but shameful. Instead of punishing the stealer who everyone knows is stealer you are shooting the messenger. I also find Purnesh Seegopaul is CEO but he is not on website. Lies. Now I also find Arun Majamduar on Board but not on website. Shameful. How do you live with yourself?

  5. I am an Envia employee and Sujeet Kumar has approved this message. Sujeet Kumar has told me that he is not forcing me to write this message. Our company meeting last week with the greatest CEO ever Dr. Purnesh Seegopaul inspired great confidence in all the scientists. None of us are spending time on our mobile phones trying to find new jobs. Loyal employees like us are testing the lithium ion batteries in our phones. Atul did a horrible job in company meetings. We never tested the batteries in our phones after his company meeting. Instead we would just leave inspired and call our friends and ask them to come join Envia. We are all going to be program managers and it will be a great feather in our cap. Is it midnight already, Cinderella?

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  7. ex kumar colleague

    Mr. Kumar was very tight on technical info from his subordinates, from 01/2007 to 06/2007, he was working very hard to make 18650 in China to get performance data, he claimed to smuggle the electrolyte to China illegally, he also said the Samsung electrolyte contained chloro-phenyl which suppressed fire, and he planned to use that Samsung secret.
    He also worked hard with Mr. JB to design high-performance cells and get performance data (if he design battery in the future, the data here would be very critical), certain critical info was NEVER shared with subordinates at all, yet he would drill every bit info from them everyday. Around 06/19/07, he quarreled with COO, next day he decided to quit, and he immediately asked subordinates to show him (he watched very carefully and asked questions/documented everything) each step of making the cathode material (he did not have any background in making this material before joining NanoeXa), this info would be considered most proprietary by any battery material company. The methods demonstrated to him by subordinates (two methods) were actually not commercially sound, but Mr. Kumar clearly wanted to know everything. In about two days, he quitted and left the company. Subordinates would NOT know if he took data or anything else from NanoeXa, but the new company he started was working with the same national lab (who used to work with NanoeXa), the fundamental chemistry was the same, so if he would use NanoeXa data (I don’t have absolute proof he ever did, simply because he didn’t tell me so), R&D would be dramatically accelerated. Of course, one has to wonder his motives and earlier actions, and surely would suspect he actually took proprietary IP from NanoeXa.
    Several months after he quit, he contacted subordinates 1-2 times and talked very negatively about NanoeXa CEO (he was a Korean fugitive, wanted by Korean court, would be in jail immediately back in Korea, Nanoexa will die very soon, company had no $$$, company CEO got money from Hong Kong mafia, NanoeXa had non-competing clause with him, blahblahblah).
    In early fall this year, Mr. Kumar frantically tried to make contact with subordinate(s), and subordinates never replied, he obviously was very nervous about something!

  8. Shenzen Tech

    i worked with sujeet in past. my prediction – sujeet kumar goes to prison. directors run for the doors and do not remember who sujeet is. prunesh gets fired. employees wish they did something about this earlier.

  9. EnergyStar

    The 400 Wh/kg ARPA-e announcement obviously was not ready for market. Going from energy density like that to a battery product ready for market is a long haul and one shouldn’t be surprised that they are not there today.

    With respect to Shin-Etsu, presumably they need to buy raw silicon from somewhere and Shin-Etsu or any other silicon company is probably happy to supply to Envia and have them develop an anode from that.

    This all seems fishy to me. Having seen both Kumar and Kapadia present in the past, I would trust Kumar far before I would Kapadia. Nanoexa doesn’t seem like an operating company so the credibility there seems low as well.

  10. Im confused by the lawsuit and by the article: the takeaway seems to be that they stole technology that doesn’t work? does that make sense? it seems like Kapadia et. al. are trying to badmouth a company that is making progress, albeit slowly, with the hope of some settlement behind the scenes

  11. Thank you Katie and Gigaom for publishing this article and for diligently connecting the discussion to your previous reporting on Envia and Envia’s connection with ARPA-E, GM, and others. Having sat in the audience as Arun Majumdar proudly announced Envia’s 400 Wh/kg accomplishment at the ARPA-E Summit, it is unfortunate to see events take such a bad turn for the worse.

    Hopefully the lesson here is for battery tech investors, whether from the private or public sector, to remain vigilant in obtaining accurate due diligence.

    Please keep up the good work !

  12. Harry Burkmitz

    We should contact FBI/DOJ, so they can prosecute this swindler, taxpayer’s money should never be used for illegal activity, nor fraudulent practice, because the other party will sue, and in the end, taxpayer will pay for the mess, not Mr. Kumar!

    He should be jailed for 10 years, I will contact my Congressman from TX. What a shame, because I bought GM Volt.

  13. Jouni Valkonen

    People often do not realize how valuable distruptive battery technology actually is. It would annihilite big oil industry almost immediately as oil price would plunge into $25 per barrel. Also nuclear industry would die immediately as it no longer cannot compete with wind and solar with Envia battery storage. Coal and natural gas would be rendered only into supplemental role to fill the remaining gaps of renewables.

    The most hard hit would be however ICE cars because electric vehicles would replace them immediately. And all the teradollar level investment capital on ICE technology would lose any value overnight. And when the car fleet is rapidly electrified, most likely new Tesla like aggressive start-up companies would crush old dinosaurs, who have ignored the research and development of electric vehicles.

    Therefore mostly it is just impossible that small start-up companies would revolutionize the teradollar scale markets. Technological progress does not happen by distrupteve innovations, but it is gradual process where the cost is pushed down due to competition and economy of scale.

    However there is reason to be optimist. The battery technology follows Swanson’s Law. The more production volume there is for batteries, the faster the battery cost declines. According to Swanson’s Law, tipping point when long range electric vehicles are cheaper, should happen around 2020. But this is not distruptive change but gradual change. Tesla has already demonstrated, that BEVs can beat gas mobiles in top premium sedan class. And by 2017, long range BEVs (Tesla Mode E) should be competive in mid range premium sedans class. And by 2030 long range electric vehicles should be cheaper in every price category without subsidies. This is the power of Swanson’s Law.

    • And, for what it’s worth, Tesla is approaching 200 watt-hours/kg these days using a bunch of off-the-shelf LiIon tech. At 7% per year improvement, it will reach this allegedly magic threshold before 2025.

      We’ve been hearing about battery breakthroughs for a decade, but exactly none of them have reached production in any interesting way. What should be focused on is whether anode, cathode or chemistry improvements can actually improve upon this >while also allowing for manufacture that is at least as easy as existing LiIon designs. And that focus should be a combination of basic research dollars and industry money. Some Envias will happen, but the cost of those is small given the potential reward.

      If something can accelerate the progress via one of those changes, great. It clearly won’t be Envia.

  14. battery fraud is universal

    ARPA-E is lead by government pushovers, they have invested in a company where the technology is extremely wonderful, that its inventor (ex-ORNL employee) does even not believe it at all!

    If the technology is success, if you put it into a midsized car, the car will not run more than 200 ft (no typo here), and the battery may cost over $1,000,000 because it is made of gold, and the battery probably has a max output of 50 Watts (once again, no typo here)

    Of course, that breakthrough is highlighted here, you must be insider to know who they are: