If CalBattery accomplishes its current goal of changing the battery game by commercializing the silicon-based battery anode - specifically, its patent-pending silicon-graphene (SiGr) composite anode material - it will be partially because of a US Department of Energy (DOE) technology transfer program. In 2011, the DOE held its first “America’s Next Top Energy Innovator Challenge.” Realityshow reject name aside, the program specifically targets small American startup companies and gives them a chance to license unused patents from the DOE’s national laboratories at bargain-basement prices. In 2009, CalBattery co-founder and CEO Phillip Roberts was leading Ionex Energy Storage Systems, working on grid-scale energy storage systems for renewable-energy integration in California, when he was approached by Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), the oldest of the DOE’s national research labs. “I was speaking at an energy storage conference,” Roberts said, “and one of the Argonne reps came up to me and asked ‘how would you like to lower the cost of your lithium battery by 70 percent?’ I started laughing. I said, ‘Yeah, sure, where do I sign up?’” While it may have sounded too good to be true at first, the Argonne team, led by the new material’s inventor Dr. Junbing Yang, later convinced Roberts that its SiGr composite anode material had great promise. In ANL tests, it showed the potential to dramatically improve Li-ion battery performance, as well as lowering the average cost per kWh. Within two years, Roberts and his business partner Wei Cui had spun off CalBattery as a joint venture and, through the DOE’s America’s Next Top Innovator/Startup America initiative, begun working with Argonne to fasttrack the development and commercialization of this new
Photo courtesy of Argonne National Lab (Flickr)
When you get a license, unfortunately they don’t give you an instruction manual. It’s just kind of a general idea in which direction to head. The real work to get to a product, that’s a whole new challenge.
high-capacity SiGr battery technology. During that time, CalBattery settled down in the newly-opened LA Cleantech Incubator (LACI) in the “Cleantech Corridor” near downtown Los Angeles - ironically, not in Silicon Valley. LACI began in 2011 with major funding from the City of LA and the LA Department of Water and Power. The facility offers deeply discounted office and lab space, executive mentorship, and a network of potential customers and financiers. Thanks in part to the slow-burn environment that LACI provides, CalBattery spent a quiet 2011-2012 working behind the scenes with Argonne under a Work for Others agreement, eventually leading up to CalBattery’s official licensing of the SiGr composite anode from ANL in November 2012. The company’s plan was to rapidly commercialize the material, but even with the license secured, not all the pieces were in place yet.