Boston Power's Lampe-Onnerud Is Charged up
Not many in business will look back on the last quarter of 2008 and see positive milestones, but Christina Lampe-Onnerud, CEO and founder of startup Boston Power, is coming off a great year.
In December, Hewlett-Packard agreed to use her innovative batteries in its laptops. The deal was a tangible validation of the vision on which the Swedish scientist founded the company in January 2004: to design a new kind of lithium ion cell that charges quickly, delivers power for longer sessions, and has a useful life at least as long as the device it powers. On Wednesday, the company announced an additional US$55 million in funding, bringing its total raised to $125 million.
Now, Lampe-Onnerud is juggling the challenges of scaling up production to meet her heavyweight customer's demands while also working with other electronics and transportation manufacturers on more applications for the battery technology. In addition, she's angling to make her small, environmentally focused startup a player in U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's promised programs to nurture green technology companies.
As she recently led a reporter on a tour of Boston Power's Westborough, Massachusetts, headquarters, Lampe-Onnerud showed off labs where the Sonata battery packs are tested with a range of laptops from manufacturers including Lenovo. "We're working with everyone," she said, but it's clear that HP has her attention. "Needless to say when HP says jump we have a hundred people and we're jumping really high," she laughs.
Lampe-Onnerud will talk as an inventor about what makes the Sonata battery special, but her conversation is peppered with observations that show she's interested in more than building the proverbial better mousetrap. She is focused on leading a collaborative team, building business relationships with integrity and delivering environmentally friendly products.
The fundamental value proposition Boston Power offers is simple: to make your laptop's (or other portable devices') batteries work the way you want them to work. The Sonata battery -- to be branded by HP as the Enviro -- is designed to reach 80 percent capacity after 30 minutes of charging, and to last for 1,000 charge cycles without degrading. That's triple the lifetime of current laptop batteries, which start to degrade after about 300 charge cycles and usually need to be replaced annually by mobile business users.
What's important to Lampe-Onnerud as an environmentalist is that a long-lived battery can change consumers' perceptions that batteries are disposable. "I knew, because I had been part of designing batteries that sat in space for 30,000 cycles at extraordinarily cold and high vacuum conditions, that did not need to be the paradigm," she said. "I said to myself, I can do this for a couple of years. If this idea proves to be right, this could make a lot of good things. Basically, throw away less stuff, which bothers me greatly."
The other market need that Lampe-Onnerud saw was batteries that are tailored to the application.
"As I sit here today, it's so obvious that that was an unmet need in the industry, that there was no real partnership between the battery expertise and the electronics expertise. And I'm not saying that we have an outstanding innovation power in both, I just think that this particular team is extremely easy to work with, and it's very good at saying what we know. So, we earned seats at the design table," she said.
One set of design discussions that Boston Power is particularly excited to be part of involves netbooks, Lampe-Onnerud said. "The battery today predicates the thickness of the device and the weight of the device, and I think it's an interesting business opportunity for people who want to innovate. The electronics industry has been responsible for almost all progress in the last ten years, in development, and the batteries have basically been the same. I think that's going to change."
"We've been to many conferences in the past where the opening line would be, 'Okay, batteries really stink so what are we going to do?' ... Now, when the battery actually outperforms the longevity of the device, the game has changed." A battery that is reliable and doesn't need to be changed during the lifetime of the device can be embedded into the product design, Lampe-Onnerud said.
Before founding Boston Power, Lampe-Onnerud spent six years as a partner at consultant Arthur D. Little, where she ran the battery labs. That experience left her with a wealth of contacts in industry, so that when she was ready to look for a production line she simply "hooked up with my network in China, and they said, oh yeah, come on over," as she put it. "I felt that I had helped a lot of people in the industry and they would possibly consider helping me. And that has worked really well."
In addition to its 60 employees in Massachusetts, the company has staff and contractors in Shenzhen, where it has outgrown two production facilities in its lifetime. It is now working with GP Batteries to ramp up production in Taiwan. GP had avoided lithium ion technology in the past due to safety problems, but the emphasis that Boston Power has placed on designing a safer battery encouraged GP to team with the startup.
The need to increase volume of production is not without dilemmas for Boston Power. On one hand, ramping up the production line too quickly would impact quality, as well as stress the supply chain and staff. "On the other side, if you don't grow these production lines quickly, nobody will bet on you," Lampe-Onnerud said.
"There's a fine balance of basically staying with prudent production growth, and we have a lot of experience in that, and yet outlining plans to become a big enough player." She added that the company is putting together plans to manufacture several million cells monthly this year.
Lampe-Onnerud keeps a sense of humor about the stresses of courting new customers, all of whom want a certain percentage of her company's manufacturing output. "I go from meeting to meeting thinking, this is like high school dating! I can dance with all of you, but not at the same time," she laughed.
Toward the end of 2009, Boston Power will probably announce a next-generation product, Lampe-Onnerud said. "I work in this beautiful group of people, that is very, very creative, so there is no shortage on the technology roadmap. Part of my job is to say you know guys, we have to make money on this first, turn the company profitable, and then....there's a lot we can do. We have a few choices where we need to decide what we can do. We can give you even longer runtime, we can basically give you the same innovation in a thin package, which there is a lot of interest in. At the same time, there's the whole transportation industry. I feel as citizens of the earth, maybe there's a little obligation to put our efforts there, because we can really make a difference."
Lampe-Onnerud is upbeat about the incoming Obama administration. Asked what she thinks of the political change as a scientist who is concerned about climate change, she said "I think it's going to present opportunities to become more data driven. I think there will be some very difficult discussions inside the federal government around who should they support from the established paradigm, and who should they support in the new paradigm."
"And I believe if Boston Power is elected to be one of those that they support, we can offer a new style of leadership that is much more collaborative, much more focused, with, frankly, almost no overhead. So all the funding goes immediately to creating jobs, gets invested in creating better technology for the environment, and demonstrates it's possible."
Manufacturing her company's products in the U.S. is certainly feasible, and can be cost-competitive especially for shipping into U.S. markets. "If you look at sustainability in general, we should produce locally, we should employ people locally," she said.
While Lampe-Onnerud sees herself as more of a citizen of the world than a Swede or an American, she seems comfortable settled in the U.S. She and her husband, Boston Power CTO Per Onnerud, came to the U.S. to do post-doctoral work at MIT, and fell in love with Boston's music scene (she's a classically trained musician who directs a women's a cappella jazz choir), skiing and cultural milieu.
"What the U.S. offers in general is still I think the best place in the world to live and kind of hang out -- on the investor side, on staff, and in management -- on a vision. In Asia, you are not real until you can touch this battery. And in Europe it would be perhaps a little more difficult to access capital. People here [in the U.S.] are remarkably trained in allowing people both the opportunity to bet on a big idea, and actually to fail. So the pressure to succeed is not the pressure that you will destroy your entire career. But I think perhaps in Europe sometimes it's a little more like that actually. You have one chance. I'll bet on you now," she said.
Although in some ways Lampe-Onnerud seems to fit the profile of the high-tech founder-inventor, she's cordially dismissive of the stereotype, and the accompanying assumption that venture capitalists usually want to replace the passionate founder with a "professional" CEO at some point.
"I know quite a bit about batteries," she said drily. "But I think I have created this company more on insights on where the market moves and what has to be done first. But the fact is that the first invention is my basic invention and it worked."
"I created this company. It has been a four-year journey for me. It has been extremely satisfying and an enormous amount of work. I am doing this -- and it's hard for some of the investors to believe this -- but I am not as motivated by money as I am by the greater good, by the fact that people come singing and dancing into this office every day. ... You know, I get energy from that."