Catching up With Shai Agassi

Shai Agassi isn't easy to track down these days. Since his abrupt departure from SAP in 2007 -- right before SAP's annual Sapphire show -- the former president of SAP's products and technology group has been on a personal mission that has global aspirations: to get the world's population off of its reliance on oil.

Agassi is working toward that goal through the company he founded, Better Place, which is in the process of developing a highly scalable transportation system for fleets of electric cars as well as the charging stations that power the vehicles. If all goes according to plan, Better Place will operate and manage the electric infrastructure that these vehicles will run on.

These days, Agassi is busy navigating the automobile and energy industries -- what he refers to as a $10 trillion ecosystem -- and meeting with government officials, automakers and strategic partners. (In September alone, Agassi says he was going to be on the road 23 days. "You don't want to have my life," he says.)

"There's nothing like this [ecosystem] in the world," Agassi says. "The two biggest fundamental industries in any economy are cars and energy, and when you touch cars and energy at the same time, you're sort of at the heart of the economy."

Agassi's efforts have earned plenty of notice. This summer, Agassi landed profiles in Wired and The New York Times (columnist Thomas Friedman called him the "Jewish Henry Ford").

What's amazing is that with all the high-profile connections Agassi has made, Better Place has only one electric car, no charging stations and not a single customer, as the Wired article notes. But what physical components Agassi may lack right now, the 40-year-old makes up for in ambition, government connections and deep-pocketed backers: the Israeli and Danish governments have bought into Agassi's vision, and Better Place has received an impressive $200 million in venture backing in just a year.

Few who meet Agassi end up doubting him or his plan. He joined SAP when it bought his TopTier Software company in 2001. His ascent in SAP's ranks was much ballyhooed and he appeared poised for the CEO role when he suddenly quit in March 2007.

CIO.com Senior Editor Thomas Wailgum caught up with Agassi earlier this month, while Agassi was waiting for his next flight. The activist talked about what he learned from his five years at SAP, why he left, the technology behind an electric car network, and whether he could get a "good deal" on SAP software for Better Place.

CIO.com: How did you get started with Better Place?

Shai Agassi: I worked on the framework behind Better Place, with the thinking of "How do you get off oil?", as a social project within the World Economic Forum. I was a member of the Forum for Young Global Leaders. Every one of us got a task to think about, and this idea got into my mind: If we can get rid of [our oil dependence]. I was actually trying to get a country convinced to do this, as sort of a government effort. That was the original approach, but I couldn't get a government to do something as risky and big as this. The request and advice I got from [Israeli] President Peres was to do this as a company.

Did you feel like your skills at creating and developing business software would work for this new project?

Agassi: SAP is a fantastic company, and it's an amazing place to grow and I got under the mentorship of Hasso [Plattner, SAP's cofounder]. I really learned a lot during those five years on how to scale and think big, how to apply things globally, how to replicate successful processes. You don't think about it when you're a startup entrepreneur; it's not part of what you do on a daily basis. And then when you get to SAP, you realize how to get to scale, and a lot of it is what I apply here today. We apply a lot of the processes that we grew accustomed to at SAP during those days.

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