Increasing interest in the plug-in hybrid electric (PHEVs) and full electric vehicle (EVs) industry is breeding attention for another industry, too: batteries. A glut of start-ups have popped up in recent years to take advantage of the market–Boston Power, A123 and ZPower, to name a few–and put their own spin on the traditional lithium-ion battery. I recently had the chance to talk to the CEO and VP of Business Development of Imara, one of the up-and-coming li-ion battery manufacturers, to find out what makes the company different from its competitors.
CEO Jeff Depew and VP Neil Maguire explained to me right off the bat that Menlo Park-based Imara, founded as Lion Cells in 2006, brings a battery to the table with significantly longer run time and a faster charge time than its competitors. Compared to A123, for example, Imara’s batteries offer 20% more power and 60% more energy density (range between charges). The company compares itself to Sanyo and Sony, but claims to have more power, energy, and a longer life cycle for its batteries.
Unlike many other battery start-ups, Imara isn’t focusing on EVs at its 50,000 square foot R&D facility in the short term. “Pure EVs are expensive–$20,000 to $30,000 for a batter pack”, explained Neil. That means there isn’t a big enough market for li-ion car batteries quite yet. So the company is focusing instead on batteries for power tools and outdoor equipment like lawn mowers and weed whackers in the short term, with a plan to move into car batteries once prices decrease. Imara is banking on big price decreases over the next decade.
“We have the technology developed for vehicles, but we’re building a solid economic base,” said Neil. “Everything we’re doing to increase run time now will translate into future applications for vehicles. If we can use the battery to drill 60% more holes (with power tools), it can be used to drive 60% further.” In the meantime, Imara has a chance to cut carbon emissions for outdoor equipment–one weedwhacker spews the same amount of CO2 as 12 SUVs.
Next up for Imara: stimulus funds, hopefully. “We applied for funding to build a plant in Portland, Oregon that can manufacture enough cells for 50,000 plug-in hybrids,” Jeff said. “We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to win one of the lottery tickets.” If built, the plant will provide 350 jobs upfront, with the potential for many more in the future. Regardless, Imara has gained the trust of investors like Nth Power and Battery Ventures to the tune of $20 million. With so many things going for it, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Imara land at the top of the lithion-ion start-up heap.