(Chris Devlin) #1

0


500


$1,000


$1,500 per kwh


2010 2018 2020


DECLINE IN BATTERY PRICES BATTERY MARKET VALUE


2010 2020


$155


2015 2015 2018 2017 2020 (proj.) 2024 (proj.)
SOURCE: WOOD MACKENZIE

PROJ.


GRID BATTERY* VEHICLE BATTERY**


GRID STORAGE


ELECTRIC


VEHICLES


0 PORTABLE ELECTRONICS


10


20


30


40


$50 billion

* INCLUDES BATTERIES, RACKS, AND OTHER SUPPORTING EQUIPMENT ** FOR BATTERY PACKS


PROJECTED


$189


210


FORTUNE.COM // JUNE.1.19


Chastened by the A123 implosion, Vieau
figured he’d had enough of the battery
business. Then he changed his mind. Today,
he is again steering a battery startup that’s
fighting a crowded field. This time, though,
he isn’t trying to perfect lithium-ion tech-
nology. He’s trying to beat it.
Vieau is a director and former CEO of
Vionx Energy, a startup based in the Boston
suburb of Woburn, Mass. Investors, primar-
ily venture capital firms, have so far poured
about $130 million into Vionx and a prede-
cessor company. Vionx—“stupid name, but
they always are,” Vieau tells me of the moni-
ker, which is pronounced “Vy-on-ix”—seeks
to scale up a wholly different kind of battery,
one that can profitably store vast quantities
of renewable energy for many hours. Vionx
is one of a gathering stampede of companies
developing grid-storage technologies that
look less like batteries and more, in both
function and size, like power plants.
Rather than tweaking space-age materi-
als at nanoscale, as lithium-ion contenders
are doing, grid-storage hopefuls work with
slabs of metal, industrial pumps and pipes,
and chemical brews dumped thousands of
gallons at a time into massive tanks.
Vionx’s specific contraption is called a

That hints at the sensitivities facing many battery companies
with footprints in both the U.S. and China. Amid tensions between
the two countries, Sun says, Amprius has to be careful about whom
it accepts as investors and customers. He’s a U.S. citizen and says
he prefers American living. But commerce is commerce: Amprius
is just finishing a $30 million fundraising round, and all of that
money is coming from Chinese investors. The market for batteries,
Sun explains, “is a Chinese business.” His adopted country, he tells
me, “needs to wake up.”


L


IKE SUN, DAVID VIEAU is a tech-industry veteran with
decade spent trying to build a battery company. Unlike
Sun, Vieau (he pronounces it “View”) has experienced
the bitterness of defeat.
In 2012, A123 Systems, the lithium-ion company Vieau helped
create, filed for bankruptcy, a stunning fall. Since its founding a de-
cade earlier, A123 had raised $350 million in private capital, spent
$129 million in matching-grant funds from U.S. taxpayers, and
earned about $390 million in a much-ballyhooed 2009 IPO.
A123 had built factories on the assumption it would win contracts
to supply batteries for electric cars from GM and other automakers,
only to see those companies drastically dial back production plans.
An A123 recall of certain batteries didn’t help. In the wake of the
bankruptcy, critics pilloried A123 as a poster child for what they
deemed the folly of the United States subsidizing a domestic clean-
energy industry. Most of A123’s battery business was sold in 2013
to Wanxiang Group, an auto-parts company from China, a country
that by then had initiated a national push to build up a globally
dominant battery sector.


RENEWABLE ENERGY THE RACE TO BUILD A BETTER BATTERY


FALLING PRICES RESHAPE THE MARKET


The costs of both vehicle and grid batteries have dropped, thanks to technical advances and economies of scale. At the same time,
rising demand for big batteries is creating a bigger potential prize for innovators.