Andrew Lockley – Exponential Investor (United Kingdom) –
Let’s face it, your mobile phone battery is rubbish. If it lasts a day, you’re lucky. Even if it does get you to bedtime, it probably won’t be able to do that for long – as with frequent charging, batteries quickly fade. We’ve covered the problem before in Exponential Investor.
One way to deal with this issue is to ditch the lithium battery, altogether. By switching to an alternative technology – supercapacitors – performance can be revolutionised. Capacitors don’t hold as much energy as a battery, but they can charge far more quickly. That’s great, for applications where access to electricity isn’t a problem, but speed of charging is. There’s been one such example in the news just last week: Qualcomm announced that it’s experimenting with wireless charging for moving vehicles. This technology strategy could pair very well with capacitors’ fast-charging capability. You don’t need very high range in an electric car, if it can frequently charge while you drive.
What is a capacitor?
Crudely, a capacitor is just two conductive plates, held apart by an insulating material. They’re very commonly used – but are rarely optimised for energy storage. Several firms are now looking to change this, and there are good reasons to think that these devices could unleash an energy-storage revolution. They charge very quickly, have very long lifespans, and don’t typically suffer from the safety and environmental risks of batteries.
Today I’ll be interviewing Simon Harris. He’s investment director of Oxford-based Zap&Go – a technology firm working to optimise the supercapacitor, so it can ultimately replace the mobile phone battery.
AL: Simon, what’s your “big idea”?
SH: We have a solution to a problem encountered by the entire current generation of rechargeable appliances, devices and vehicles: slow-charging speeds. Our product is a supercap (supercapacitor) which can give rise to a new generation of ultrafast-charging devices. We’ll brand this as “powered by Zap&Go”. By ultrafast we mean five minutes, or less, to charge.
AL: There are quite a few firms working on this. What’s your “secret sauce”?
SH: The conventional supercapacitor comes in a cylinder the size of a Coke can. Ours is housed in a flat pouch, slim enough to fit inside a mobile or cordless device. The “secret sauce” is a recipe of highly conductive carbon nanomaterials – including a pinch of the “wonder material” graphene – and a novel ionic electrolyte. This substance is non-flammable and stable at higher temperatures and voltages. This is crucial because with higher voltages we can get higher energy densities – hence we can outperform the conventional type. Even at its current stage of development ours can capture and hold more energy than any supercapacitor of its size. Developments are in hand to double or triple its energy density.
Our approach is protected by a growing patent portfolio but the “sauce” recipe will remain a secret – just like Coke’s.
AL : How will you commercialise this technology?
SH: The market opportunities are numerous and vast. We have so far selected seven sectors – all of which are hungry for better batteries. Any one of them could generate almost endless demand for our cells. We will license the cell manufacture to others. That’s the path taken by ARM, Wolfson Microelectronics, Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR) or Dolby – four great British companies, whose success was built on licensing.
We also have several large Chinese electronics manufacturers that are hungry to be our partners – as China is where most rechargeable devices are made. We currently have several active Chinese investors, and two of our NED investors are technology figures in Silicon Valley.
AL: What stage is your technology at?
SH: Zap&Go is now at the capability stage, with several prototype demonstrators. In January we presented working products at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. This included: a power bank phone charger that charges in five minutes; an electric scooter, with the charge time reduced from four hours to five minutes; and a cordless drill that recharges in just one minute.
AL: What’s your future road map?
SH: Our first cell is due to enter production in late 2017, to meet advance orders from brands in the home appliances sector. It will power a leisure scooter, which will lead on to e-bikes – and ultimately to electric vehicles. As the size of the cell shrinks, and the energy stored increases with each generation, by the end of the decade the mobile phone market falls within our reach.
AL: Why do you see an opportunity in electric vehicles? Surely range is everything?
SH: One of the reasons that electric vehicles aren’t more widely adopted is the recharge time of the on-board lithium batteries. Yes, the energy density of a lithium pack is much greater than ours –which would not push a car along very far. However, Zap&Go cells can work in combination with lithium – in a hybrid power pack. That combination could lick the problem. The supercap can charge up fast, and get the car going. This takes the strain off the vulnerable lithium, and helps to extend the life of the car’s battery pack. Currently, the short life of lithium cells is another catch in the economics of EVs.
AL: What makes this new approach necessary? Can’t we just charge existing batteries faster?
SH: Fast charging is the “holy grail” of battery-powered devices, but the lithium must be charged slowly. It becomes explosive if charged quickly, and its safety is increasingly being called into question. Various attempts have been made to speed lithium charging up, but they shorten its life still further. Zap&Go’s cells are completely safe, and while lithium-powered devices are increasingly restricted on aircraft, ours are entirely safe – and are recognised as such. Finally, they can be charged and recharged many thousands of times – as no chemical change takes place in the process.
AL : Can you tell me a bit about the company, and its history?
SH: Zap&Go was founded in Oxford in 2013, with intellectual property originating in the Materials Science Department of Oxford University. Our team of PhD scientists have developed it further, in-house. We spend the majority of our cash on research and development. Innovation is our lifeblood.
AL : I’d like to hear more about your team.
SH: The CEO is an entrepreneurial engineer. He has assembled a team, which includes some of the UK’s leading materials scientists and electronics engineers. We have grown from a handful of people a year ago, to a team of 24. This now includes a presence on the ground in both the USA and China. We’re also allied to both Oxford and Cambridge universities in our research programmes, but we’re independent – and emphatically not a spin-out.
AL: R&D is pretty cash-hungry, and UK investors are notoriously stingy. Is this a problem for you?
SH: Cash is of course a constant challenge: we’re always hungry for more to maintain our momentum. But the battery and energy storage sector is a very hot one. This adds to our profile, and has already won us the attention of private investors: we now have a “fan club” of over 200 of them. The generous tax breaks of EIS (Enterprise Investment Scheme) are a big help of course. We’re now about to launch a campaign to raise a further £4-5 million in EIS-type funding.
AL: What sort of campaign is that?
SH: It kicks off today, when we exhibit our prototypes at the Rushlight Summer Showcase, held at the Royal Geographical Society. The following day we’re appearing at Venturefest, Oxford’s annual jamboree for investors in innovation. On 22 June we’ll present to an invited audience organised by Envestors, and hosted by law firm CMS in the City. On 29 June we’ll be at Capital On Stage, where venture investors pitch to disruptive tech companies for the chance to fund them, rather than the other way round. Hosts again are CMS. Finally we go to Paris in a few weeks for the Hello Tomorrow investment conference.
AL: Are you in this for the long run?
SH: A company like ours will struggle to crack these huge world markets on its own. We are most likely to partner with, or be acquired by, a multinational electronics business. This will be at the point where we can demonstrate a mobile phone application – say by 2020. Right now the paper uplift for our original EIS investors is 5x in two years. If we can multiply that before we get to an exit, they’ll be very happy to have had a slice of a 10- or even a 20-bagger.
Can Zap&Go win, in this hotly-contested space? Try and write in, before your battery dies – email@example.com.