Christina Lampe-Onnerud lives in motion. Whether she’s whisking visitors through her beige offices and “dry room” laboratories, scribbling an impromptu industry analysis on a whiteboard, or just grabbing the nearest can of Coke to help a visitor visualize her company’s technology, the founder and CEO of Cadenza Innovation exudes energy, even in the most prosaic settings.
Which is entirely appropriate for someone in the business of power–lithium-ion battery power, in her case. “I feel really passionate about being part of the solution for future generations,” says Lampe-Onnerud, a bubbly, musical Swede with sunglasses often perched atop her auburn-blond curls–and two decades of starting and running battery companies under her stylish belt. “Energy is something I know something about.”
So the companies that can figure out how to boost power stand to turbocharge their own fortunes. The global lithium-ion battery market is nearing $60 billion, according to Global Market Insights, and demand for rechargeable batteries will grow as industries from personal electronics to automaking become increasingly reliant on their power.
The electric-vehicle market demonstrates some of the problems that battery makers have yet to solve. Today, most EVs still can’t go as far on a single battery charge as a traditional vehicle can on a tank of gas. But that EV is more expensive to make and to buy–in part because the batteries that power it are big, inefficient, and expensive. They’re the same, after all, as the batteries in your fast-draining iPhone, except that “there are about 10,000 times more cells in a car than in a smartphone,” says Carnegie Mellon mechanical engineering professor Venkat Viswanathan. “What we need for the mass-market electric car is some more reduction in battery cost and some increase in energy density.” Fewer than one million vehicles sold in 2016 were powered solely by batteries; but by 2025, that number will increase to eight million and another 25 million hybrids will be on the road, which combined will account for 31 percent of the global automotive market, according to JPMorgan predictions.
All of this is dependent on making exponential improvements in a technology that has mostly been inching along. Each lithium-ion battery has an anode and a cathode, and creates an electrical current by sending electrolytes containing the ions between the two. As the anode collects lithium ions, the battery charges; then, when called into action, it starts sending the ions back to the cathode, discharging electricity into whatever device it’s powering.
Today, traditional electronics makers, car companies, and tech giants including Panasonic, Samsung, LG Chem, Toshiba, Google, BMW, and Dyson are just a few of the household names working to make lithium-ion batteries store more energy and discharge it more quickly–and safely. “It’s the right technology; we just need to make it do a little bit more,” says Rick Fioravanti, an energy-industry consultant with Quanta Technology. “To get a battery to be denser, it introduces new challenges.”
Cadenza is one of a slew of startups, including Fisker, QuantumScape, Solid Power, and Romeo Power, that are attacking various aspects of battery tech. BMW supplier Sila Nanotechnologies is another, and one of several companies tinkering with the materials within battery cells to increase energy storage by 20 percent or more.
Lampe-Onnerud is addressing the heat issue by focusing on the outside of the power cell. In 2013, after selling her previous battery company, she filed a patent for a safer and more energy-efficient packaging for lithium-ion cells, one that can theoretically increase a battery’s energy output by 30 to 100 percent. “If you want to have an impact on energy markets globally, you have to be on par with fossil fuels or cheaper,” Lampe-Onnerud explains. “But you don’t have to solve all the problems at the same time.”
The aluminum casing and fire-insulated ceramic are supposed to help contain the heat from discharging or dysfunctional lithium-ion power cells and prevent them from exploding. This means the cells can be safely stacked more closely, thus increasing the energy output and decreasing the space needed for the power source of any large vehicle or commercial grid using this system. “We basically say that Cadenza delivers a box of all the safety and everything inside,” Lampe-Onnerud says. “I will always be smaller and cheaper–and I will never explode.”
It’s a technology that Lampe-Onnerud has spent more than two decades working toward–and one that she’s still trying to bring broadly to market–without trying to take on manufacturing at scale herself. “We’re tiny,” she readily acknowledges of her 30-person outfit headquartered in sleepy offices below Duracell’s Bethel, Connecticut, headquarters, where she has access to lab space. “If we cannot inspire some really big players, we’ll have no impact.”
It’s a tough challenge for almost any founder, even one with decades of experience. The battery market is huge and somewhat fragmented. Lampe-Onnerud is a perfect example. She’s spent more than 20 years working on lithium-ion batteries, has started two companies, and is a regular on the World Economic Forum, MIT, and EY speaking circuits; some people interviewed for this article praised her to the skies, while others knew little about Cadenza.
Born in Sweden to a schoolteacher and a power engineer who worked for construction engineering conglomerate ABB, Lampe-Onnerud grew up torn between her desire to study opera and her interest in the sciences. Her parents persuaded her to choose the latter, though music left its mark; Lampe-Onnerud still regularly performs with a 45-member women’s a cappella group and named her company after a term for a musical passage designed to highlight a soloist’s virtuosity. “I think I have the best life ever,” she reflects. “I do music on the side, but I don’t have to put myself and my kids through the life of a musician.”
After getting her PhD in inorganic chemistry at Sweden’s Uppsala University (and marrying her high school sweetheart, who’s also Cadenza’s chief technology officer), Lampe-Onnerud was invited to do a post-doctoral fellowship at MIT. She fell in love with both the university and the country: “What a cool environment,” she raves, calling MIT much more welcoming than the sometimes “conformist society” she left behind in Sweden: “I like dresses and I like earrings and I have longer hair than most science girls” in Sweden, “so growing up, I heard it all the time.”
Lampe-Onnerud was hired by management consulting firm Arthur D. Little, where she started advising large battery companies–and was first exposed to some of the consumer-safety battery issues that became so prevalent in the laptop-and-cellphone age. (Think exploding computers and overheated phones.) After years of helping big companies deal with their battery issues, Lampe-Onnerud quit in 2004 to tackle the problem directly.
In 2005, she launched her first battery startup, Boston-Power, focused on designing a safer and more energy-efficient laptop power source. Within five years, Lampe-Onnerud had lined up several rounds of funding and was selling much-hyped batteries for HP and Asus computers. But her efforts to expand into early EVs faltered, along with the fortunes of her partner, Saab, the now-defunct Swedish auto company. Meanwhile, after the U.S. Department of Energy rejected Boston-Power’s request for a $100 million chunk of the post-financial crisis economic stimulus package, China’s government put together a $125 million financing offer if the company opened up a factory there.
“We are entrepreneurs first. We will go where the market is,” Lampe-Onnerud told the MIT Technology Review at the time. “China really needs this clean technology, and they are innovating around it.”
But, she says now, she didn’t want to move her young children to China and bring them up in a sheltered expat lifestyle there. Instead, Lampe-Onnerud sold her interest in Boston-Power and spent a couple of years at hedge fund Bridgewater Associates to do “a little bit of soul-searching” about her next battery-related project.
Gradually she started working on a patent proposal to organize her thoughts. The result is not dissimilar to what she designed at Boston-Power–a product that played with design to be safer, cheaper, and more energy-efficient, if fundamentally wedded to the incumbent lithium-ion battery technology.
“Lithium-ion is where everybody is focusing, and Cadenza is looking to overcome some of the shortcomings that this tech brings with it,” says Fioravanti, who got to know Cadenza when a client asked him to evaluate the company for a potential investment. (The investment didn’t happen, but Lampe-Onnerud has since asked Fioravanti to write the occasional white paper and grant proposal for her.) Cadenza is “hitting all the areas: longer duration, better cost, higher safety,” Fioravanti adds, but “they have one more challenge that most people don’t, in that they do licensing and not manufacturing.”
She can claim one in Chinese battery maker Shenzhen BAK. In a deal announced in September, BAK will be manufacturing Cadenza-designed battery packs, most likely for Chinese EVs, by the middle of this year. (In February, Cadenza announced another licensing deal, with Australia’s Energy Renaissance.) Lampe-Onnerud’s company has also landed pilot projects with federal and state government agencies as well as Fiat Chrysler (which was late to the EV market). There are other markers of early success: Cadenza has raised $14 million in funding from investors, including female-focused Golden Seeds, and landed a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2014; it’s also collected money from the states of New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Lampe-Onnerud won’t disclose revenue, though she says Cadenza is on track to break even this year.
Yet her six years running her second company have involved a slog familiar to hardware founders. “Historically, one of the challenges that hardware companies have, as opposed to software companies, is that it does take a bit longer, and the cycle time in the battery industry also comes in years,” says William Acker, head of New York State energy trade group NY-BEST, where Lampe-Onnerud sits on the board.
Since our first interview in November 2017, Lampe-Onnerud has repeatedly said she’s also negotiating to license Cadenza patents to partners in Europe and the U.S., though little else has yet been announced. “I want a seat at the table,” Lampe-Onnerud says of the battery industry, but “we’re good at being backstage.”
The future of Cadenza–and the next big step for the battery industry, once it sorts out EVs–might be best represented by a barren concrete slab in White Plains, New York. The empty surface, fenced in by industrial iron and partially sheltered by the overhang of the bland office tower next to it, is awaiting a Cadenza unit to help store energy for the building, which happens to be the headquarters of the New York Power Authority, the country’s largest state utility. “Storage is one of the killer applications in the energy space because of increasing demand for renewable energy. You need to store a lot of excess energy” for these grid systems, says Gil Quiniones, the head of the Authority. “If customers want to put this sort of storage close to a building or even [under it], safety is paramount, so being able to test and prove out this tech is important.”
The energy grid market for storing renewable energy for residential and commercial uses is ramping up. In the U.S., 18 percent of all electricity produced in 2017 came from solar, wind, hydroelectric, or other renewable power sources, up from 15 percent in 2016, according to estimates from the Business Council for Sustainable Energy and Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
The storage project for New York is tied to goals set by Governor Andrew Cuomo to get 70 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2030. (California, not to be outdone, has set a goal of 100 percent renewable by 2045.) Yet these state goals, and their timelines, also demonstrate the incremental process most battery companies confront in trying to prove new technology. Cadenza’s grant paperwork was signed in May 2018; it will be several months before the company and the agency have finished designing and installing a large block full of battery cells to fill the empty space, and the middle of 2020 before the pilot project is completed. All for an end product that will store, maybe, four hours’ worth of daily energy for the 17-story building.
“We are engineers and product developers, so we know it’s not going to be perfect,” Lampe-Onnerud acknowledges.
Who’s Also in the Battery Pack
Some of the other key players trying to crack the code of making denser, more efficient batteries.
Fisker (Los Angeles)
EV designer Henrik Fisker hired Sakti3’s co-founder to develop solid-state batteries with faster recharge times and lower resistance than those with the wet chemistry of traditional lithium-ion cells.
The Japanese consumer electronics firm is currently the world’s largest supplier of lithium-ion batteries. It operates Gigafactories in a joint venture with Tesla.
Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL) (Ningde, China)
Another industry powerhouse, and supplier to many carmakers, the company is on track to overtake Panasonic.
Dyson (Malmesbury, England)
The appliance maker has lots of experience in batteries. Sir James Dyson now wants to produce an EV. He bought Sakti3 to help that effort–but recently wrote off the investment.
QuantumScape (San Jose, California)
Another entrant in the solid-state sweepstakes, the company recently got a $100 million investment from Volkswagen.
Co-founded by a former SpaceX energy storage engineer, the firm is designing packaging that it says can achieve 25 percent more energy density than existing lithium-ion battery packs.