The New York Times writes this weekend that batteries, “long the poor cousin to computer chips in research-obsessed Silicon Valley, are now the rage.” It’s true that the battery has long been an obstacle for increasingly power-hungry gadgets and is now being looked at much more closely for the emerging markets of wearables, as well as electric cars. But Silicon Valley, startups and entrepreneurs haven’t made all that much progress creating battery innovations.
1). There’s no Moore’s Law for batteries: Battery progress moves much more slowly than the progress of computing, which follows the relatively rapid Moore’s Law. As Bill Gates has said, that quick rate of innovation has in effect spoiled us into mistakenly thinking other sectors beyond digital can move at the same rate as Moore’s Law.
It’s really difficult to deliver battery innovation from the lab to the commercial market on a timeline that a startup, particularly one backed by venture capitalists, would want. Look at the battery startup Envia — it has promising longer-lasting battery tech, but the company lost a deal with GM this year because it couldn’t hit the commercial milestones fast enough.
2). The valley of death between lab and commercial product: Battery innovations also need a large amount of money and need to reach a large scale to get from the lab to a commercial product. The New York Times article quoted the chief technology officer of A123 Systems, and described A123 as “a company that makes batteries for electric cars and invests in start-ups that are developing new battery technologies.” Not mentioned is that A123 was one of the few battery startups out of Silicon Valley and it was recently hit hard by the slower rollout of electric cars. It went bankrupt, and then was subsequently bought by Chinese company Wanxiang.
3). Progress comes from the battery giants: Much more of the progress around batteries for cell phones, laptops, wearables, and even electric cars, will likely come out of the labs and factories of the Asian battery giants, like Panasonic. These companies have the scale, the funds and the expertise to work on different types of incremental progress that can reduce the cost of the battery and also make it better — longer lasting, safer and more energy dense. That’s why electric car maker Tesla Motors made a strategic bet at the beginning of its life to buy standard small-format lithium-ion batteries from companies like Panasonic, instead of relying on next-gen or electric car specific batteries.
4). The lack of battery expertise in the Valley: Building battery technology, scaling it and commercializing it is vastly different than running an internet or software company. There’s a lack of executives in Silicon Valley who have expertise with scaling battery technology businesses, and I’d be wary of any CEO or big name exec that’s running a battery company that doesn’t have the domain expertise.
5). Look to the power grid instead: While building a better lithium ion battery for gadgets is tough for a startup, there are actually quite a few startups that have made headway building large stationary batteries for the power grid. These batteries need to be super cheap and safe, but since they don’t have to be small, wearable, and moveable, there’s more flexibility with new materials and designs. Startups, backed by VCs, that are making next-gen power grid batteries include Ambri, Aquion Energy, Eos Energy, and more.