On Friday, November 18, I had the privilege of participating on a panel at the 2016 Bay Area Battery Summit: Energy Storage at Inflection Point. The one-day summit, organized by CalCharge and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, addressed fundamental questions about energy storage Research, Development, Demonstration and Deployment (RDD&D). I was a member of the “Innovation in Energy Storage Panel,” moderated by Brian J. Bartholomeusz, Executive Director Innovation Transfer at Stanford University TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy.
The panel included Colin Wessells (Alveo Energy), Christine Ho (Imprint Energy), Catherine Von Berg (SimpliPhi) and Richard Wang (Cuberg). Collectively, we represented a range of energy storage applications, including grid storage, print-based ultra-thin zinc batteries, solid-state batteries and, of course, our 3D Silicon Lithium-ion battery. Questions covered both business and technology topics.
Following is a summary of my answers to the questions I was asked.
Q: Does your technology avoid the electrode swelling/cracking issue that has hindered other silicon based approaches?
A: Yes. We utilize a patented porous silicon for our anode that, along with other proprietary methods, contains expansion within the structural voids and prevents external swelling. This maintains structural integrity of the connection between the anode and its external porous current collector during repeated charge-discharge cycles.
Q: In the long-term do you see a pathway and a market opportunity for integrating solar cells and batteries on the same substrate or in the same process flow?
A: Our initial focus is on commercializing a higher-energy, safer lithium-ion battery with our patented 3D cell architecture and porous silicon anode, using modern photolithography and solar-grade wafer production techniques. First, to address wearable device form factors, where poor battery life is impeding mass market adoption. Second, to scale to larger form factors for smartphones, tablets, notebooks and other mobile products. Because we produce our battery on solar-grade silicon using standard solar-cell production equipment, there is nothing, technically, that would prevent us from integrating solar cells and our battery cells. Given the large opportunity in our core mobile market, we have not examined, in detail, the market opportunity for integrating energy storage and solar at the cell level, in terms of cost, lifecycle and other relevant factors. Therefore, it is not presently on our product roadmap—although several audience members offered to help us justify this application.
Q: What has been one of the more interesting and unexpected challenges or opportunities you have encountered on your commercialization journey so far?
A: There are two very interesting challenges at different ends of the commercialization spectrum. On one end is the challenge of commercializing a manufactured, hardware product during a timeframe when technology development and funding is largely focused on software-driven, cloud-based internet services. On the other end is maintaining the appropriate public profile and perspective in the wake of advanced battery hype.
Many of today’s high-profile startups are code-based. A handful of programmers can develop a rudimentary internet application in a matter of months and launch it as a free, advertising-supported or subscription-based service using third-party cloud-based infrastructure within a year. Today, a 10-year product development to commercialization timeframe is an anomaly and outlier. This is the macro-environment for funding, publicity and many other important early-lifecycle activities of Enovix. When Don Clark, of The Wall Street Journal, visited Enovix early this year in preparation of an article, he noted that it was refreshing and unusual to see product manufacturing in a Bay Area tech startup.
Even within the advanced battery domain, Enovix is an anomaly. Over the past few years, there has been a parade of high-profile battery startups announced with great fanfare, often proclaiming a new battery technology “breakthrough.” Many of the initial claims have not materialized, and some of the companies have radically restructured from product production to technology development. These companies shared some common characteristics: The “breakthrough” technology was often developed at and licensed from an academic institution or government laboratory, and funding was often largely from government grants and loans.
By contrast, we stayed in stealth mode from our founding in 2007 until early 2016. During this time, we built strategic partnerships with industry leaders Intel, Qualcomm and Cypress Semiconductor, filed over 50 applications and secured over 20 patents, and raised over $100 million in private funding. We progressed from proof-of-concept research through development to pilot-production in relative obscurity. We emerged from stealth mode earlier this year as the hype cycle—made famous by Gartner—for advanced battery development was transitioning from a peak of inflated expectations to a trough of disillusionment. Although our message is much more restrained than that of our predecessors, the advanced battery environment, especially the media, is much more skeptical than a few years ago.
However, Lux Research recently published the results of a study on the $4 billion invested over the past decade for advanced battery commercialization. Next-generation batteries—such as solid-state, lithium-sulfur, etc.—are not expected to gain noteworthy market share until nearly 2030. While the biggest immediate growth in battery storage will come from evolving lithium-ion batteries through incremental innovations like higher-voltage cathodes and electrolytes, paired with higher-capacity active materials like silicon composites. So, despite the challenges, we are well positioned to reach commercialization as the hype cycle moves from the trough of disillusionment to the slope of enlightenment.