University-based battery startup finds success new partnership

Thursday, October 13, 2016 - 6:49pm

As the industry moves from lead-acid batteries to efficient, rechargeable lithium-ion ones, a University of Michigan startup is entering into a $1.5 million partnership with two Michigan manufacturers to improve productions of the latter.

Lithium-ion batteries are lighter and more energy efficient alternatives to common lead-acid batteries, though may sometimes explode, as was the case with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 recall this month. The startup, Elegus Technologies, is aiming to working to make the necessary improvements to lithium-ion batteries to avoid this outcome.

Elegus has teamed up with Midland-based XALT Energy and Troy-based Energy Power Systems, both battery-making companies. While the Michigan-based nature of this partnership was not planned initially, Elegus CEO John Hennessy said in an interview with Michigan News earlier this year that he was pleased to remain in a state he regards as conducive to startup growth.

In our industry, it's a bit rare for a startup like us to pair up with large manufacturers,” Hennessy said. “Lithium-ion battery safety issues still persist, but instead of accepting those issues as inherent to battery technology, we're working together to find a better solution.

Long Qian, Elegus co-founder and chief financial officer, said hardware innovation for batteries has been lagging behind in development for several decades now, in part due to the complex nature of material science and government regulation on battery developers.

“Some of the higher profile cases like the Samsung S7, the Dreamliner 787, battery issues with the Tesla car fires show that batteries are behind,” Qian said. “Traditionally, they’re more sensitive, and more prone to safety issues, so it takes longer to develop innovative technologies to become a commercial products.”

Qian said consumer demands for “longer lasting, smaller and thinner” batteries are leading to tech companies condensing potentially too much energy into small devices, which could be a reason for the performance uncertainty.

Dennis Townsend, chairman of the XALT Energy board said in an interview with Crain’s Detroit Business that it was uncommon to find a startup ambitious enough to take on such a seemingly ubiquitous tenant of the tech industry, and noted the partnership was attractive because Elegus’s innovative new separator places a premium on safety.

Battery separators consist of sheets of membranes that are designed to prevent batteries from short-circuiting during the passage of electrochemical cells, said Nicholas Kotov, a professor of materials science in the School of Engineering. Kotov said it can be difficult to create separators for superior performance batteries, especially those that have a variety of technological applications.

With the experience of Kotov and other University researchers, Elegus has been able to develop an advanced battery separator that allows for greater energy density while optimizing the limited real estate within electronic devices. Since then, the team has continued trying to reinvent the battery with new materials, in hopes of offering the consumer increased battery life and superior safety.

“As the battery landscape continues to change, and next-generation materials continue their evolution, we believe our separator material will continue solving the problems facing multiple chemistries and applications,” a statement on the Elegus website reads.

The team expects the technology to be available for consumer use in about two years. Currently, the final stages of product development are taking place, according to Qian.

Kotov said a partnership of this nature — between a recently created, smaller-budget startup company and more established corporations — is an uncommon affair in the tech industry. Often, larger companies are wary to commit large sums of money to recently established startups.

“The partnership with this company is very essential because they are the user and the direct customer for our battery separators,” he said. “This group offers us milestones that are exact and achievable.”

Kotov also noted how difficult it can be for a team of hardware engineers to excel with limited funding. At a tech conference earlier this year, his team realized just how challenging it would be to compete with others in the tech industry, given recent trends within the industry.

“The funding is going to support us until the finalization of our product development,” he said. “We received a lot of technical support and casting services from our developers. We are also going to use this relationship to commercialize and market our product into the battery industry with their connections and their industry experience."