Disruptive CEOs hit the pedal to jumpstart EV market

Eco-Leadership

Disruptive CEOs hit the pedal to jumpstart EV market

EV fuel socket image by Blaz Kure via Shutterstock.

Turning a profit is tough enough for new tech companies, but it seems impossible when it involves a technology that customers still don't know they want. The pursuit of the impossible, however, comes naturally to visionaries bent on commercializing electric vehicles and the charging infrastructure supporting them.

Range anxiety -- the fear that your EV will run out of its charge before you reach your destination -- is the most common concern of would-be EV owners. In reality, 90 percent of drivers commute less than 50 miles per day, and electric car models, such as the Nissan Leaf, have the capacity to go 75 miles on a single charge. The Chevy Volt can go up to 380 miles on a single charge and tank of gas.

Nevertheless, the irrational fear of stalling is a very real behavioral hurdle to cross before mass adoption of EVs can occur. Installing widespread charging infrastructure is imperative to get drivers to give up the internal combustion engine for good.

Last year I did a Q&A with Arun Banskota, CEO of eVgo, the nation's first privately funded, comprehensive electric vehicle charging ecosystem. Owned by NRG Energy, eVgo offers a nationwide network of "Freedom Stations" through partnerships with retailers, giving drivers ease with charging EVs across the country. Here's how two more CEOs are gaining traction in this rapidly accelerating market:  

Rebecca Hough, CEO, Evatran

I met Hough in 2009 when she hired my company to help Evatran's wireless EV charging system, Plugless Power. Since her company's debut at the Plug-in 2010 conference in San Jose, I've witnessed Evatran go from being an unknown startup based in Wytheville, Va., to a major national player in wireless charging. I asked Hough for an update on her journey into pioneering wireless charging when drivers are just getting used to the idea of plugging in these cars.

"It's been a wild ride," Hough says. "We've been feverishly developing this technology through three generations. Every time we roll out a new version, we collect feedback and then go back to the drawing board. We continue to make improvements."

Plugless Power relies on inductive power transfer between a vehicle adapter and parking pad, giving EV drivers a safe and convenient way to "cut the cord." By offering drivers a way to charge their cars without plugging in, this technology may help speed the adoption of EVs by mainstream consumers.

"Every international large-scale manufacturer is looking at integrating this over the next five years," Hough says. "This is really being defined more commonly as the future of EV charging and could eventually replace the plug. Even though it's taken us longer than we would have liked, the market has far exceeded our expectations."

Spotting a trend is a good start, but how do you stay in the game long enough to win?

"A lot of players have jumped in," Hough says. "Some of them were gobbled up. We've set ourselves up uniquely by offering customer integration programs with auto manufacturers. Instead of doing a standard design, we'll go in and do customized solutions. This customization is how we differentiate ourselves."  

She called the space very competitive.

"For us, commercial trial partners and confidential development OEM partners provide a substantial amount of funding," Hough says.

Earlier this year, Evatran also was approved for $4 million in funding from Department of Energy, but the company also caught a few breaks that made a big impact on its success.

"Some early high-profile partners came on board, including Google and SAP. This has made all the difference," says Hough. "It's getting the first big partner on board. Once we had Google, we were lucky enough to get more attention from other companies. Once you get that natural recognition, the rest falls into place."  

Evatran worked hard to seal the deal with Google.

"For us it was making it impossible for them to say no," Hough says. "We gave it our all, gave them free product, gave them other benefits and offered to pay for everything. We signed a contract so that it would be risk-free for them."

Hough's company is also forging a strategic path for aftermarket strategies to help jumpstart the industry through standalone Plugless Power chargers, which will generate brand recognition.

"Through our Apollo Launch Program, we took Gen 1 back to drawing board and developed Gen 2 to improve," says Hough. "All of the first-generation users opted to stay in our trial program and then we expanded it to include about 10 more partners, such as SAP, Argonne Laboratories and the City of Raleigh."

Gen 2 is Evatran's own labeled product, Hough says. The company plans to move onto Leaf and Volt owners once it finishes with partner installations.

"This early-adopter technology is a great fit into residential space and then commercial venues," Hough says. "As we get more OEM penetration we can go into public charging space, but it's not a key focus."

Maceo Ward, CEO, EV Tech

EV Tech is a electric drive systems integrator that produces motors, controllers, batteries and charging systems for EVs and light electric vehicles. It is based in Frisco, Texas, part of the Dallas-Fort Worth region which owns 32 percent of the state's EV population, Ward says.

"There are already 169 charging stations in the region, but there are only a few in this immediate vicinity," Ward tells me. "We see tremendous growth potential here."

EV Tech is embarking on a new strategy by entering a region that is primed for EVs but with little market penetration thus far.  

"There are a lot of public attractions in this area," Ward says. "The ballpark, the Jimmy Buffett concerts and the Dallas Cowboys' new corporate headquarters will draw large crowds. Light electric vehicles are ideal for navigating such high-density situations. Charging stations will become a necessity, too."

EV Tech has the flexibility of a startup, but it actually was founded in 1996 to fill the need for EV infrastructure solutions ahead of the pre-market launch of EVs throughout the United States.

But how exactly do you recover from a warehouse full of charging equipment and no cars?

"We have had to constantly adapt," says president Doug Canfield. "We cut a deal with Budget Rent A Car to handle some of our inventory backlog. We've since found creative ways to enter markets in L.A., Houston, Atlanta and Dallas. Between 2003 and 2012, this was almost a dead business, but we kept going. Now we have high-profile organizations, such as Trammel Crow Residential, on board."

Nobody is a competitor, Ward says.

"We all complement each other," he says. "Even Tesla has helped build up the market and demand for us."

Ward echoes Hough's key to competing in this game.

"I would recommend to other startups to put all your efforts into getting a big fish on board as soon as you can," Ward says. "After that, the rest will follow."

To learn more about electric vehicles and the convergence of sustainability and technology, be sure to check out VERGE SF Oct. 14-17.

EV fuel socket image by Blaz Kure via Shutterstock.