Boston-Power Vets Take New Approach With Battery Startup Cadenza

Christina Lampe-Onnerud has found it much easier to get a foot in the door with partners and potential customers for her second lithium-ion battery startup, Cadenza Innovation, than for her first, Boston-Power.

Maybe that’s because the advanced battery market has matured since she started Boston-Power in 2005. The industry has grown to about 100 lithium-ion battery manufacturers worldwide, she says, as the technology has moved beyond powering personal computing devices and is gaining wider adoption in products like cars and other electric vehicles (think Tesla).

Or maybe it’s because of the reputation of Cadenza’s team, several of whom previously helped build Boston-Power into a global supplier of lithium-ion batteries.

It’s probably a bit of both.

“We’re finding it very straightforward to partner,” Lampe-Onnerud says of Cadenza, which has early deals with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, ABB, Alcoa, and other companies. “We really know batteries. We are attracting discussions with the end customer as well as the entire supply chain.”

Lampe-Onnerud founded Cadenza, initially called Cloteam, in 2012 after leaving Boston-Power, which she founded and ran for about six years. She says Cadenza has developed a new way to design lithium-ion battery packs so that they’re more compact, are simpler and less expensive to manufacture, and have improved safeguards against possible fires. The approach entails, in part, tighter packing of the cylindrical “jelly rolls” (see above photo) that contain the battery’s anode and cathode materials. For increased safety, the structure that houses those cylinders is made of proprietary non-combustible ceramic fiber imbued with fire-retardant materials, Cadenza says.

Lampe-Onnerud

Lampe-Onnerud

“I basically came up with this new idea of packaging energy in a different way that drives down cost,” says Lampe-Onnerud, Cadenza’s CEO. “If we can drive down costs to, on a systems level, be on par with the fossil fuel paradigm, we have a real chance for adoption as a global industry.”

Making advanced batteries competitive on price with systems powered by legacy energy sources (like gasoline) is something the cleantech industry has struggled to achieve for years, and Cadenza probably can’t solve that problem by itself. But Lampe-Onnerud thinks the startup could play an important role.

“While we’re super excited about this technology, by no means are we saying this is the only technology that will succeed,” she says.

What’s interesting about Cadenza is its business approach. Unlike Boston-Power, Cadenza isn’t manufacturing and selling batteries. Instead, it’s licensing its technology to companies that would produce their own batteries, specifically for use in electric vehicles and the power grid.

That decision has tradeoffs. It means Cadenza won’t need to raise heaps of venture capital to build up a manufacturing and supply chain operation, like Boston-Power did in securing over $346 million. So far, Cadenza has raised more than $5 million from Golden Seeds and other investors, plus another $5.5 million in government funding, according to its website.

On the other hand, a licensing model means Cadenza is limiting how much money it could make—it only gets a cut of each sale that its licensees make.

Lampe-Onnerud is OK with that. Cadenza “will do well enough,” she says, and at the same time “we will do enormous good with this technology”—meaning, if things go as planned, her company will help society rely less on fossil fuels.

“The impact to society is recognizing both the desire to renew the way we think about energy, but also really embrace solutions for climate change,” she says.

The decision not to manufacture batteries on a large scale has another ancillary benefit for Cadenza: it will avoid the political drama that unfolded at Boston-Power. The latter company’s request for $100 million in federal stimulus funds to build a manufacturing plant in Massachusetts was snubbed in 2009, leaving Lampe-Onnerud to suggest at the time that the company’s focus might shift to Asia.

Two years later, Boston-Power raised $125 million from Beijing-based GSR Ventures and others, a round that included grants, tax incentives, and other funds from the Chinese government. The company shifted most of its operations to China, where it was already building a factory. In announcing the 2011 round and China plans, Boston-Power also said it would cut 35 percent of its 80-person staff in Massachusetts. (The company still has an office in the state.)

Lampe-Onnerud stepped down as CEO in 2011 and left the company’s board the following year, according to her LinkedIn profile.

She stands by the decision to move most of Boston-Power’s operations to China.

“We had no choice when we didn’t get” the stimulus funds, she says. Boston-Power had already established customers and a supply chain in China, plus it was planning a factory there and had already built one in Taiwan.

While government officials in the U.S. and Europe were “ambivalent” toward Boston-Power’s technology, Lampe-Onnerud says, the Chinese government said “we need this technology, we want this technology, we will help you.”

“We could’ve been potentially very stubborn and [said], ‘we need to remain a U.S. and Europe-focused company,’” she says. But “as a CEO, you have to go where the market conditions are most favorable.”

Cadenza has set up shop in … Next Page »

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Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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