A consortium of the battery technology companies ranging from the huge — Duracell, Hitachi, Volkswagen, LG and Eaton Corp. — to local startups this week formally launched CalCharge, a group tasked with accelerating research around energy storage.
CalCharge’s formation buttresses the Bay Area’s status as a center of gravity in energy storage. The new public-private partnership also includes San Jose State University, SLAC National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the National Electrical Contractor’s Association.
Some of the smaller corporate founders include Fremont’s Enovix and Leyden Energy, Sunnyvale’s EnerVault, Primus Power and Farasis Energy of Hayward, and Emeryville’s Halotechnics.
CalCharge President Jeff Anderson said CalCharge’s mission is to give nascent battery companies more support through the expensive R&D portion of their life cycle. That goal is meant to lower the barriers to entry in an area of technology that has traditionally been difficult to break into — and even more difficult to find funding for.
“What’s interesting here is that our job wasn’t so much to create a battery hub. A battery hub already existed — we have about 80 battery tech companies in the Bay Area, which is probably the largest concentration in the country,” Anderson said, speaking at western regional summit for the Dept. of Energy’s Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative, where CalCharge was announced. “What was needed was to create a center of gravity for the region. That’s kind of backwards from a lot of places that are trying to create something from nothing.”
CalCharge plans to do that by streamlining the process of conducting research at its partner laboratories, SLAC, and Lawrence Berkeley. Battery research often takes sophisticated scientific equipment that’s beyond the reach of most startups on their own. But getting space in one of the national laboratories often requires a difficult, bureaucratic process.
CalCharge has been able to cut the lead time to begin working at one of the labs from as much as a year to as little as a few weeks in the case of one of the startups in the program. The idea, said Anderson, is that companies can begin working sooner and for less money, enabling them to then go out and fundraise from VCs with actual prototypes instead of vague ideas.
The new initiative will be funded mostly by dues from its member companies. Fees start at about $2,500 a year for startups and scale up to about $50,000 for larger companies, based on headcount.
Craig Horne, co-founder and chief strategy officer of EnerVault Corp., which is building grid-scale energy storage using flow-battery technology, told a story about trying to start the company in his garage and how difficult it was to work on the product with so few resources. He said that based on his experiences, he thinks member companies probably get back five dollars for every dollar they spend on membership in terms of speed and resources.
“I really wish we’d had something like CalCharge when I was getting started,” he said.
Of course, just having more battery R&D isn’t enough to really make the Bay Area ground zero for batteries. Unless you can also turn that research into battery manufacturing and battery manufacturing jobs, the regional impact will be limited, and there’s still barriers to building things here.
If you need an example of that, you need only look to Tesla Motors. Even though it was born in the Silicon Valley and does its final car assembly in Fremont, Tesla ruled California out for its new “Gigafactory,” which will create 6,500 jobs building battery packs for the Model S.
Anderson said that this was something CalCharge had done a lot of thinking about, but he didn’t name any specific programs the organization was working on to keep manufacturing in the Silicon Valley. He said that it wasn’t really an issue of encouraging companies to keep manufacturing local, because companies already want to do that if they can help it.
“Nobody wants a seven-hour plane trip every time they have to check on their production line,” he said.
And there are some encouraging signs among CalCharge’s membership. Enovix, a stealth-stage startup working on a new 3-D cell architecture for batteries, just opened a 1,100 square-foot manufacturing facility in Fremont. Enovix VP of Operations G. Cameron Dales said that the decision came because with new technologies like theirs it is critical to have manufacturing close to engineering.
“Silicon Valley has a lot of advantages for company like us,” he said. “In the future we will be a global manufacturer, but we want to have production capability, real production capability, here always. Because I think what we’ve seen, time and time again, is industries that move process-heavy manufacturing overseas, the engineering follows, and then the innovation follows. And then you die.”