Talking Engineering (8) with Jean de La Verpillière, founder of Echion Technologies
Echion Technologies was founded in 2017 as a spin-out from the University of Cambridge. The company supplies high-power Li-ion battery anode materials that enable superfast charging for a range of applications, from consumer electronics to electric vehicles. Batteries made using Echion’s advanced materials can charge 10x faster than most other batteries without any resulting safety problems. Jean de La Verpilliere, CEO explains to Max Hersov how Echion’s technology opens up many avenues to electrify the world faster and eventually to help mitigate climate change.
Max: Hi Jean, so how did it all start?
Jean: I started Echion in 2017 at the time I was finishing my PhD at Cambridge in advanced materials and nanotechnology, having previously done my undergrad and masters in mechanical engineering in France. I spun out the company with my two PhD supervisors who are professors in the Engineering department.
Max: Which industries do you think your batteries are most applicable to right now and what specific problems do you think those industries have which you think your batteries can solve?
Jean: The holy grail of battery technologies are applications that end up in the passenger car market – who wouldn’t like an electric car that can charge in 6 minutes, which is about how long it takes to refuel a normal car. This however is not our primary focus at the moment, because as a start-up company, penetrating this market is very difficult. To be relevant in the car industry you need extremely high volumes, extremely low costs, and you need years and years of testing of your technology in the field before a car maker would even consider putting it into their next generation of cars. And after that you have three years of product development in designing the car, so in start-up parlance, it is not a ‘viable entry market’. So, although that might be our final destination we focus now on other entry markets which are smaller, have more tolerance to premium pricing, and maybe a stronger need for our performance. These revolve around commercial or industrial heavy-duty mobility such as vehicle fleets that operate ideally 24/7 (e.g. robots in a warehouse, a fleet of mining trucks, a fleet of delivery vans, or a fleet of taxis). All of these industries have lots of incentives to electrify including because it can be cheaper to operate than a petrol-powered fleet. The problem they have with electrification is that you can’t have your vehicle spending 12 hours recharging, as that means your vehicle stays idle for 12 hours. For a super-optimised Amazon delivery fleet where every minute counts and costs, then that is too much down time. With our solution you can have very quick recharge, higher utilization of vehicles, and thus a higher fleet efficiency and lower cost, so there is strong demand for our technology from these types of applications.
Max: So you say that your ultimate vision would be for the integration of your batteries into multiple sectors, but in particular in all electric vehicles, for fast, safe charging. I assume that in electrifying the world, a major driver is sustainability. If that is so, what are the challenges to achieving that in production and lifecycle?
Jean: I think one needs to be very careful when talking about sustainability in a business context. The big danger, especially when you operate in the fields that we do, is to be guilty of ‘greenwashing’; of saying “Oh its Green, it’s saving the planet, who cares about performance or cost?” And you can get companies off the ground by talking about this, but ultimately I think the real way to enforce change for good is to combine your sustainability advantage with real business viability. The costs must make sense or else no-one will adopt your product at a large scale. But of course sustainability is a driver for our customers and a driver for us, and we make sure that we undertake lifecycle CO2 analyses of our products to ensure that the CO2 that is produced when building our materials/batteries is less than what you save by operating a vehicle with our technology. The answer is that we win by quite a lot. That is unless your electricity is generated by coal-fired power stations. However, in a country like the UK, where electricity is reasonably clean, that’s fine. Another consideration, especially important in the battery industry is how ethical your sources of raw materials are. For a battery, you mine metal ores, then refine and transform them into battery materials. Some other batteries’ materials, (not Echion’s) are mined in African countries where there is a strong probability of child labour or that money benefits a warlord or corrupt mine operator. This issue gained wide attention due to cobalt, a major component in some battery materials, which is mined in the DRC. There is a huge effort from the battery industry to decrease or even eliminate the amount of cobalt in batteries. So, when we started developing the Echion material we made sure that we were not going to use any such ‘compromised’ materials.
Max: Yes, you need to balance people, the planet and profit. In order to make a positive impact, you also have to be able to make a big economic impact, and thus it must be financially viable. Echion materials seems like a dream come true. You’ve talked about the economic and business challenges in building up your company. What are the main limitations of your technology which you are trying to solve?
Jean: It is very important to understand that the silver bullet that ticks all the boxes doesn’t exist, and batteries are very, very complicated things, Usually when you improve something, you almost always have to trade off something else. In our case, we have excellent charging speed, we have excellent safety characteristics, we have excellent cycle life, (how many times you can charge and discharge your battery before it breaks), but where we really have a trade-off is the energy density of the battery. This is a measure of, for a given weight/volume of battery, how much energy you can store. This is a very important metric as it is related to range in a vehicle, as you will only ever have limited space in which to fit your battery, and how energy dense the battery is determines how far the vehicle can go. Thus you want to be able to store as much energy as possible. In our case, the energy density is perhaps 30% lower than that of a conventional battery, and it’s another reason why we’re not targeting the passenger car market straight away.
Max: You touched on the fact that there are quite a few battery technologies out there, but are there any other particular businesses which are doing something very similar to you in focusing on these fast-charging applications?
Jean: We are not alone. I think it would be a bad sign if we were, as there is no one-size-fits- all battery technology. Every application will have slightly different needs, and there will be slightly different technologies to meet these needs perfectly.
Max: Just to go back a bit, how did you get interested in batteries?
Jean: When I chose my PhD topic, I was going to research a new class of materials, and we knew these materials were fundamentally interesting from a materials science point of view, but we didn’t know what application they would be best for, so I didn’t go into this thinking about batteries in particular. I got lucky when very early on someone suggested that I should test my material in a battery, and it worked really well. That was when I became really interested in batteries. I could have said: “You know it works really well in batteries, but let’s see if it works well in a different application.” Instead, when we realised that it was good for batteries, I said: “This is it”, as batteries are so interesting and they are at the heart of electrification – you can’t electrify anything without good storage technologies. It is an extremely important area, so I decided to focus exclusively on batteries even though I didn’t know very much about them then. I learnt by surrounding myself with experts who knew a lot more, and that’s eventually how I ended up starting Echion. Another factor that led me into doing this was that in 2017 the world was a bit different in terms of electrification and climate change. When I started Echion, I still had to convince people that they should care about batteries and my technology because electrification was going to happen and everyone was going to have an electric car. A lot of people at the time were disputing this it feeling it was still 50-50 as to whether this was going to happen or not, and at some point in 2019/2020 it changed, and I think we can thank Tesla for that. It quickly became very clear that this is an unstoppable movement in the industry and everything is switching to electric and I think that having started just before that, turned out to be the perfect timing because just before the movement took off we were already somewhat established.
Max: So would you agree that timing is one of the most important aspects of a start-up?
Jean: Yes, absolutely, and there are plenty of ‘clean-tech’ start-ups in wind power, solar panels and batteries, which launched in the early 2000s and enjoyed a lot of attention for a few years but then went bust in 2007 when the financial crisis hit. This was because although these were great technologies, they were just too early, the market wasn’t ready and there wasn’t enough demand, so at the first difficulty they all went bust. This is known as the ‘Clean-tech Bust’ of the early 2000s. But I think that this time is different and I think that electrification is a defining trend of the 21st century. Even Covid and the war in Ukraine haven’t changed that and won’t change that, and that timing is good for us. Timing is also important on a personal level. I started Echion when I was 27. I was still a PhD student and I started because I didn’t have much to lose. I didn’t have a big job, mortgage or kids in school, so it was never a big risk for me to embrace a start-up. There was only upside.
Max: Based on your experience what two things would you say to someone thinking about a tech start-up?
Jean: Have you heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? It is a graph of how much you think you know against how much you actually know:
This point here at the top is the ‘Peak of Mount stupid’, and the trough here is called the ‘valley of despair’, and finally the upwards curve here is called the ‘slope of enlightenment’. When I started Echion I was at the Peak of Mount Stupid. I didn’t know very much at all but I thought I knew quite a lot. I was quite confident and excited. If I had known how little I knew, I would never have started. Any rational person would not start a company like Echion when they know so little, because there are so many ways that this can all go wrong. I have been extremely lucky to have navigated to a point where it is successful today. As such I think that a good start-up founder is able to suspend reality. You somehow need to convince yourself and convince others that although what you’re trying to do is extremely difficult and extremely ambitious, you’re going to find a way, and sometimes, not knowing exactly how difficult and how ambitious it is, actually helps. Being at the Peak of Mount Stupid maybe was actually a good thing. That being said, surrounding yourself as early as possible with experts is a good thing, but again they need to have the right mindset, because if either they know too much or are too rational then they will talk you out of starting. I think it is a very special chemistry of finding people who know about the industry, who know all the bear traps but aren’t afraid to go into it. Investing time and effort into finding these people very early on is maybe something that I would have changed. Obviously there are always some technical choices that I wish we had made earlier, but there was no real way to know.
Max: Is there a closing message you would like to offer?
Jean: I really hope that your column will get people interested in batteries, interested in science and especially in entrepreneurship. I am convinced that technology start-ups like Echion have a big role to play to bring new products to market, and I also think that entrepreneurialism is a very rewarding career path for young people.