Conversations with Svenska Handelsbanken: The Battery Queen

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A powerhouse from the County of Dalarna, Sweden, living in the New York metropolitan area and involved in solving the earth’s energy problems, for Christina Lampe–Önnerud everything is about packing as much energy as possible into a small package.

Christina Lampe–Önnerud usually known as Sweden’s “Battery Queen”, works with an electric car that will reach out to the big crowd. The solution to the energy problems, according to her, is packing as much energy as possible into a small package.

It’s lunchtime rush hour at Grand Central Terminal, the beautiful and magnificent railway station in midtown Manhattan.  The crowds are as intense as the Indian summer heat outside and all the clichés about New York’s high energy level suddenly become real.  But for the entrepreneur Christina Lampe–Önnerud it seems undeniable that she ended up in the right place. She exudes a contagious energy and intellectual curiosity.

Christina Lampe–Önnerud has during the 2000s established herself as one of the world’s most innovative entrepreneurs in the fields of renewable energy.  Now she is at the forefront of a global battery revolution that could have major implications for the world’s energy consumption, not to mention the planet’s climatic changes. She is also developing a new electric car model that could become the first electric car sold to the masses.

Just over a year ago she abandoned a lucrative job at the hedge fund Bridgewater, and instead began to spend long hours launching her latest start–up, Cadenza, which will develop an intelligent system for electric vehicle batteries.

When we meet in a cafe next to Grand Central Terminal, she had just finished a series of meetings in Manhattan.  She regularly commutes here from her home and office in Connecticut, an hour away by train, the vehicle she prefers ahead of the car.  When Christina Lampe–Önnerud talks there are plenty of exclamation, superlatives, enthusiastic core values and a dialect that makes no attempt to conceal growing up in the County of Dalarna, Sweden.

“Right now I am trying to activate my network here in the northeastern United States, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut.  But I also travel to Detroit and Silicon Valley a lot,” says Christina Lampe–Önnerud.

She has an unpretentious appearance and seems to have embraced the American business world’s forthright jargon, where you can happily sum up your vision in brief, popular slogans – Up with energy, down with costs!  “That is the goal.  While it is environmental thinking I’m passionate about, it’ll be both environmentally friendly and cost effective…”

A year ago she started Cadenza.  As a real boost the company received a grant of 3.5 million dollars from the US Department of Energy.  That’s how interesting they judged the goal of creating a smarter system for electric vehicle batteries.

In the Swedish business press Christina Lampe Önnerud tends to be called “The Swedish battery Queen,” which she smiles a little at.  “I’m trying to come up with solutions that help the major problems of energy and I think the only way to do that is to give as much energy as possible in a small package.  To drive down costs and remove anything unnecessary,” she says.

When she started her first company Boston–Power in 2004, the aim was to “solve the problems of sustainability, energy density and charging speed”.  She developed a “green” battery that became the only battery with the Nordic Ecolabel “Svanen” in the world and is based on thirty changes in a lithium ion cell.

Soon, Christina Lampe–Önnerud established herself among the absolute spearhead of the group of 400–500 entrepreneurs, researchers and inventors that constitute the global battery production elite.  There are both lesser knowns from research institutes and universities and engineers from Silicon Valley as well as world famous entrepreneurs.  She has become a key figure in a group of people that is turning modern energy upside down, including, for example, batteries that can store electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind power.

She grew up in the town of Ludvika, where her father was a distinguished engineer at ABB.  Her interest in engineering and environmental matters was awakened as a child. For her, they are areas that have always been connected.  “To work with energy seemed to offer a chance to let our children inherit a slightly better world,” she says.  Her childhood home was a perfect nursery for the future energy entrepreneur.  Her father was working on high–voltage transformers, and the family traveled around the world and he could point to a powerline and say, “Ah, that’s my invention!”  The family had people from all over the world at home at the dinner table.  She heard discussions on energy and the environment from the time she was little.  “Moreover, I grew up in a very natural romantic setting and then you naturally become environmentally conscious,” she says.

Christina Lampe–Önnerud earned a doctorate in inorganic chemistry from Uppsala University, Sweden. She worked at the battery company Duracell and the Danish company Danionics, a legendary company in the battery industry.  Then she applied for a research fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, one of the world’s leading institute for technological research.  “[MIT] is a Mecca for innovation and creativity and is characterized by the American culture through optimism for the good of mankind,” she says.

Today she has more than 80 patents, including patents for Lithium–ion batteries.  After seven years at the consulting firm Arthur D Little in Boston, she started Boston–Power with the goal of creating batteries that reduced the number of harmful explosions.  When she left Boston–Power in 2011 the company had more than 500 employees.  The company is expected to report sales exceeding $200 million this year.

She has also been an adviser to the Wall Street Journal economists; served on the jury for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, and spoken at conferences like TED, the Consumer Electronics Show and the World Economic Forum in Davos.  Her energy stems from growing up in Dalarna.  “I was taught that there are no luxurious days without hard work, so it has probably been with me from there.  One should not talk so very much but do things instead!”

The road to success has been marked by a dogged pursuit that has not always been painless. Her first job, at the battery company Duracell, was short–lived, when they closed the department where she just started working.  For two years she struggled to get the Boston–Power battery factory to be located in Ludvika, instead of in Beijing.  The attempt failed because it did not get enough support from either the Ministry of Industry and Trade or the Development Board.

During her business trips around the world, she has heard condescending remarks from directors and colleagues who are unused to female business leaders.  Her upbeat personality and disarming energy have helped her to overcome all these obstacles.

Cadenza is focused on developing batteries for electric cars, which so far represent only one percent of the total car market.  She commutes to Detroit, where she started a collaboration with FCA Fiat Chrysler Automobiles which builds both sports and family cars.  She believes that people really want electric cars, it’s just that they have not been able to afford them before.

Interest in electric cars is growing, especially on the US coastline.  Christina Lampe–Önnerud believes we are close to a turning point where government subsidies are no longer needed.

How far in the future will we have a self–sufficient electric car market?  “Pretty soon I think. Within five years,” she says.

And look at BMW who have said that 50 percent of their new cars to be electric cars within ten years.  When the big brands and trend leaders say such things, they are almost more powerful than the political stage.  But it is also necessary to challenge the industry and make demands.

A key figure in the growing electric vehicle industry is Elon Musk who started the electric car company Tesla.  It recently launched a major initiative for a “super battery” to store electricity in households and factories.  It will, according Musk “change the entire world’s energy infrastructure.”

Musk and Lampe–Önnerud came close to working cooperatively, but the plan faltered because of the geographical distance between East and West Coast USA.  Now they are competitors.

“He is a great entrepreneur who tells inspiring stories, and makes a cool and luxury car that is real fun.  He has shown that it is indeed possible to take the electric car to the most skeptical, exclusive market, rather than to the broader mass market.”

When Tesla and Elon Musk launched their battery venture last spring it became world news.  At technology conferences in the United States throughout the year, there have been a number of start–up companies claiming that they are going to create a revolution in batteries, whether it be charging times or storage capacity.  So why is so much happening in the battery industry right now?

“Firstly, it’s because performance has increased so much over the past ten years.  Secondly, the cost has come down.  If you can buy an electric car for $35 000 dollars, which is what the middle class are paying for new cars today, then one begins to reach the point where the middle class can afford electric cars and that will change things a lot,” says Christina Lampe–Önnerud.

Christina Lampe–Önnerud is a member of the UN organization “The Club de Madrid”, and was on the board that prepared the UN Climate Change Conference COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009.

New York was hit by Super Storm Sandy, two years ago, which created immense flooding in lower Manhattan, and power outages that lasted several days.  “After Sandy, the environment became a much bigger issue.  Unfortunately, it will take something similar to happen in Shanghai, or Beijing, Washington, Bonn, London, Brussels, close to the people with power, before something substantial it will change.

In Cadenza Innovation’s small office in Connecticut Christina Lampe–Önnerud is working with her husband, Per Önnerud.  He is a graduate in Engineering Physics and their career paths have continually followed one another. Previously he worked as CTO, Technical Director, at Boston–Power.  They have two children together.  For many years the family commuted to Asia, mainly Japan and China.  At one time, they were considering the move there, but they finally realized that the family probably would be happier on the US East Coast.

“It is a luxury to only be 45 minutes from New York City.  The more fast meetings you can schedule during a fairly short time, the better, and all the intellectual energy that is here in the northeast corner of the United States – from Boston to New York, is pretty cool.

We walk on 42nd Street and Christina Lampe–Önnerud will go on to her next meeting.

“Life teaches you a lot.  I have become both more eager to do things and more humble about how hard it is to do things.  Above all, I am also more aware of how incredibly interconnected various problems are.  We have energy issues, human rights issues, sustainability issues, and they are linked in so many ways.  It is perhaps a very Swedish way of thinking that one would solve all of this at once.”

“For there’s no shortage of problems,” she says and laughs enthusiastically, as if all these global challenges would be a buffet that is served and just waiting for her to solve them.

Christina Lampe–Önnerud

Age: 48 years.

Family: Husband Per, children Anna–Maria and Mattias.

Lives: In Connecticut, outside of New York City.

Does: CEO, Cadenza Innovation, developing battery technology for electric cars. Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences

Career: Worked at the hedge fund Bridgewater and consulting firm Arthur D. Little. Founded Boston–Power, which developed the world’s first Swan–labeled battery. Employed by Duracell and Danionics. Research Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ph.D. in Inorganic Chemistry, University of Uppsala.

Batteries: Holds more than 80 patents, including on lithium–ion batteries

Lecturer: Has spoken at conferences like TED, the Consumer Electronics Show and the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Facts about Electric cars

  • By 2020 it is estimated that 4–8 percent of all cars will be electric cars.
  • By 2025 many car companies expect that electric vehicles will be 50 percent of their business.
  • Here are the five best–selling electric car models on the US market in 2014:

1. Nissan Leaf
2. Tesla Model S
3. BMW i3
4. Smart ED
5. Ford Focus Electric
Other popular models: General Motors Chevrolet Volt, Toyota Prius Plug–In Hybrid, the Ford C–Max Energi

Translated from the original Swedish.  For the full Swedish text of the Conversations article, see pages 12 through 17 here Conversations Winter 2015.