For Linda Maepa, electricity means food, education and the ability to make a dream come true. But energy isn't available to everyone in the world, and even in some places where it is available, it's not very reliable.
Enter ElectronVault. Maepa and her partner Rob Ferber, whose early work included the Tesla Roadster battery, launched the company with less than $1 million self funding and a battery system platform that can be deployed in several applications, ranging from powering electric vehicles to whole villages.
"Most people have focused mainly on building a better battery or building a better battery management system," Maepa said this morning at the State of Green Business Forum in San Francisco. "Very few have focused on the critical need to design a system so when you use those cells, you are doing it most efficiently, for the lowest cost of production, as well as for maintainability over time, so you can preserve the performance that you bought initially out of the system."
During a 10-minute One Great Idea segment, Maepa described how the company took a Henry Ford approach to its business, inspired by his low capital costs on assembly, ease of repair and modularity and standard parts. To date, the company has deployed its battery systems in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa, with more products on tap for 2012. At the same time, the company does not rely on subsidies to survive.
"(The company is) able to live off our revenue because it was focused on entering markets at a cost being demanded by them," she said.
Maepa described three keys used to leverage the company's success:
1. Be Obsessed with Your Customer
Get into your customers' shoes, even if it means living as they do. Ultimately, the goal is build "a product that makes them happy and meets their price targets and performance targets," Maepa said.
2. Engage in Rapid Cycles of Innovation
ElectronVault has been able to accelerate its innovation cycle from 18 months to two months, largely by having the right tools in place. ElectronVault also relies on cloud computing to stay connected, critical to a company with a presence in locales as far flung as California, Africa, China, Malaysia and Europe.
3. Leverage Existing Markets and Distribution Networks
"It's exciting to have a disruptive technology but if you can't operate with the distribution and supply channels that exist today, with all the parties benefiting from the existing market, then adoption is going to be a long haul," Maepa said. "As a company depending on revenue to bring our growth, we needed to go on the fast track, with folks already in this business."
One of the company's greatest learnings was the power of public-private partnerships.
"We've partnered with the Development Bank of Southern Africa, which is funding the deployment of rural electricity infrastructure," Maepa said. "This allows us to get our technology into the field, and the development bank gets to meet its mandate for infrastructure development."