Christina Lampe–Önnerud, founder of the battery company Boston–Power, has already been dubbed as one of Sweden’s most successful entrepreneurs. Now she’s starting a new company with the ambition to move the world from fossil to renewable.
She lifts the handset and dials a familiar number. One of her old colleagues from HP responds.
“Hey. It’s Christina Lampe–Önnerud. I have formed a new company.” “Well, we’ll have to take a look. Can you come over here and tell me about it,” replies the friend.
“Tomorrow?” “No, but the day after tomorrow.” Two days later, she finds herself at the HP office in Boston to show her battery and talk about her company Boston–Power.
“How would the laptop industry change? With this battery, you would finally be able to say that you are wireless.” One of the old guard in the audience, a true skeptic, raises his voice and says:
“We’ve heard this tale so many times before. Come up with something new.” Before she could comment, a different audience member replies
“We may have heard it before, but you know that she was in Danionics?” Then the talking was over, computer manufacturer Hewlett Packard became the first customer for Boston–Power, the successful battery company that Christina Lampe–Önnerud started at her kitchen table a few months earlier.
Danish company, Danionics, was legendary in the industry and she had become a part of the company while still a student.
“My professor at Uppsala University, Josh Thomas, one of the founders of Danionics. With my focus on energy storage and lithium ion batteries, I was one of the first who received patents in the field. I went by boat and flew back and forth to Odense, where I got to drive the night shift, got to see the real batteries and became an expert on the Danish “red hot dogs.” It was Compaq with its early smart phone iPAQ that was the first to launch Danionics’ flat lithium foil batteries, batteries that now sit in all the mobile phones. Christina Lampe–Önnerud could add to their meager student fund with royalties from the patents on the new energetic materials for the cathode, i.e. the positive terminal of the battery.
“I got to see how 20 people could change an entire industry. It was amazing.”Today, Danionics has dissolved but the people behind the company are all well–known experts in the battery industry, an industry worth $500 billion, but with a small band of knowledge carriers – perhaps only 400–500 people worldwide – who all know each other. Christina Lampe–Önnerud is definitely one of them. Her bright blue dress fits well in the castle–like Governor House on Åsgatan where we meet in the middle of summer. Upstairs I meet Christina, her husband Per, their two children, Anna–Maria and Mattias, and Christina’s mother, Eva. After some canapés and champagne is the time. Christina Lampe–Önnerud has been appointed 2013 Honorary Ambassador of Dalarna. She beams when she receives the blue wooden horse, although she probably already has a number of shelves at home.
It is not the first time she’s been recognized. Uppsala Culture Queen and Swedish Woman of the Year 2011 are two other examples. Four years ago she was elected as a member of IVA, for several years she has been engaged as an expert at the World Economic Forum in Davos and engaged in inter–academies, the UN organization for global education. Two years ago, she was the summer speaker in P1 and one of the speakers in the much–hyped speaking community TED. Exclusively for Veckans Affärer, she reveals that she had just resigned from the prestigious US hedge fund Bridgewater, where she was a year and a half, and instead become an entrepreneur with her husband back full time.
“My next chapter is more about the action. You can actually have a big idea, implement it and make money on it,” she says emphatically, and to inspire others to do the same journey as she did.
Those who wanted to crush her last time are now her friends. Success begets respect and that makes the momentum for her new company Cloteam, the company with the ambition to become a domino in the game to move the world from fossil to renewable, much smoother than Boston–Power. Now she can additionally be her own business angel investing and equity. How much her fortune amounts to she did not wish to reveal.
“I’ve always lived pretty far over my assets to invest in new ideas.” Cloteam has also received a loan of $3.5 million dollars from the US Department of Energy, DOE, to develop a battery storage system by putting together electric car batteries in a smarter way than previously. The next year will determine whether the idea behind Cloteam, born during her last time on Boston–Power, agrees.
“If it goes as we believe it will I’ll get on the train fairly quickly. Otherwise, I have a lot of other things I want to do,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.
Among other things, she wants to use her ability to form teams, to see an individual’s strengths and weaknesses and make them aware of them, to get people to act on their ideas and not just talk about them. She wants to be a catalyst that gets the most promising ideas to flourish, and the bad to be scrapped early.
“My wish for the next five years is to launch a couple of small companies or a large one.”
The interest in science at an early age came from “my dad, who was an innovator at ABB, and had a huge influence on my choice. His interest in mathematics and physics was contagious and we got up early to go on Aseadagarna to see robots who drew Mickey Mouse Pictures. I also got to meet daddy’s international guests at home on dinners and held a summer job as a programmer.”
But she was also proficient in literature and a woman of great human interest.
“For me it was important to be good at as much as possible and I dreamed of starting a company with a heart.” But at that time in Ludvika she was expected like any other high school graduate to apply for medical school. She received a one–year scholarship to the United States where she studied anatomy, but quickly lost interest.
In the chemistry course, however, she came in contact with an amazing professor who got her to love chemistry and gave her an invaluable insight into a researcher’s world.
She wanted to emigrate but felt she was too young With her husband, Per Önnerud – the two have been together both personally and professionally ever since they met through the local music school at home in Ludvika – she began instead to study at Uppsala University, she chemistry and he technical physics.
Two years before, both PhD – she in inorganic chemistry with a focus on energy storage and lithium ion batteries – she was called by Duracell, the battery company on everyone’s lips. I smile at the thought. The similarity is striking. It is only the pink rabbit ears missing.
“Yes, I know. I eat lithium,” she says and laughs out loud.
After interviews Duracell Boston was her job. The apartment in Uppsala and many of their belongings were sold, especially the beloved piano that she had received as a poor student from the owner of one of the old piano manufacturers in Uppsala when she was appointed to Uppsala’s culture queen.
Per Önnerud had received a research position at MIT, and everything was ready when Christina Lampe–Önnerud learned that Duracell’s CEO had been let go and the company would be cutting back on the pace.
“It did not feel good. So I called MIT and two days later it had fixed a research appointment for me with the help of money from NASA. Such things can almost only happen in America.” She very much enjoyed and felt that contacts with the students was really funny. But she also saw the prestige of the university’s back.
“Professors only be 35–40 years had heart attacks and depression. All the help I received, all the contacts as people passed by professors, Nobel Prize winner and guest speakers seemed to disappear when you became a professor. And it was a tough race and it is not my strongest branch. I like working in teams and attracting the best out of people. “When she, despite the high ranking points turned down a professorship eyebrows were raised. Instead, she and her husband to start working for a small startup company that developed the cleaner fuels, bluer displays and batteries, of course.
Then Bell Labs called, the US telecom operator’s development department was created in 1925 as a joint venture between AT & T and Western Electric and became one of the largest research organizations.
It was her first meeting with the business community.
But she was missing Boston. A year later, she gave in to pressure with fruit baskets, chocolates and promises to become the firm’s youngest partner ever and moved back. When she stepped over the threshold of the consulting firm Arthur D Little’s office she was made aware of the rules.
“Welcome. Here’s your stationery with your name, your office and your premises. If you are not a profit within a year you must go.” They did not have to be disappointed.
She remained six and a half years. The perspective widened.
“It could be a matter of a country that wanted help to draw up its sustainability strategy for the next forty years. Or was it a business that went on its knees to the promised product to the market about a year they could not deliver and now appealed to us to invent something a little fast.” The consultancy Arthur D. Little also meant an incredible amount of traveling, often to customers in Japan. To meet customers face to face was a key part of the firm’s strategy. With baby Anna Maria and a nanny in tow, they set off, always one day before the meeting in order to have time to install properly. Customers were informed in advance of the requirement that she needed to go home and breastfeed at lunch and bring along Anna Maria on the obligatory evening activities.
The concept worked smoothly. But when negotiations with new clients would be opened and closed, she had to have a male parliamentarian.
“I had both my children during my time at Arthur D. Little and saw how equality worked in practice. They put up with everything I needed. I was back at work two weeks after birth – I was all alone and I did it myself.”
As a woman in a male–dominated world, she is usually treated with respect but sometimes she is still astonished by comments in the boardroom:
“We would like this project that you lead to be more than a pretty face, is one example. For there is nothing to say, but then one simply goes ahead and starts talking about the project plan. I’ve decided not to challenge the establishment at all levels. Often I stand for the revolutionary ideas and it’s hard already as it is. “For example, she has decided not to challenge in their dress and does not hesitate to give the younger female colleagues just this advice. She follows the men’s example and does not replace the suit when it is time for evening activities.
“But sometimes I cannot stand with the jokes, take the person aside and air my views.” With all the knowledge and experience she acquired it was time to do something for the world, and realize the dream she had been nurturing already for six years. A separate company with heart.
Halloween weekend of 2004, she drove home her cartons from Arthur D. Little and started working from her home in Boston.
She set up a test laboratory in her barn and filled in the numbers in the blank Excel sheet on the computer at the kitchen table. After a series of severe explosions caused by batteries and batteries were replaced too often was a need to fill, both for consumers and for the environment. It was the start of Boston–Power.
“Even though I passed on some of the world’s finest institutions, I feel at heart that I belong to the people. I did not know from the beginning what the solution would look like but I knew that I could solve the problems.” Boston–Power’s green battery, which is the only Swan labeled in the world, based on thirty changes in a lithium ion cell.
A kind of second–generation battery.
“I contacted the major electronics companies and made it clear to them that they could either run with me or laugh at me and my 25 employees in a barn. Unfortunately, it appeared that those who turned their backs on me the first time were difficult to turn around even when the company has become larger.” The first year she managed on family savings and money from two angel investors. Eventually the company managed to bring in over $ 400 million in venture capital, employ 400 people, of which the majority of the factory in China and reach a sizable production rate before 2012 when she handed over the company to a Chinese president.
She is deeply disappointed at the lack of courage among Swedish politicians after over two years fighting for Boston–Power’s plant to be built in Ludvika, instead of in one of the suburbs of Beijing.
In addition to private capital, including from the Wallenberg family, needed a further 400 million in state venture capital. Boston–Power turned to the United States, Germany and Sweden.
While Ludvika’s councilor, S–politician Maria Strömkvist, was completely on board it was more difficult at the national level.
The package included that Sweden could become a hub for cutting–edge production of batteries, creating 300 jobs in three years, get Christina Lampe–Önnerud as an advisor and guest lecturer at Swedish colleges KTH and Chalmers.
“We were in contact with Maud Olofsvson and Industry Ministry, Vinnova and Growth Board. Nobody said no right away but on the other hand, no one dared to go first. If only someone on the Growth Board could say that this was a priority project that would have been enough, but the fear of investing in the wrong project was greater than the fear of not investing at all.” It cannot, however, blame Victor Müller. In six months, they took together produce an electric sedan that could run 200 miles on one charge. Inconceivably quickly felt the traditional industry. But the financial crisis and Saab’s own crisis intervened.
“I do not know him particularly well but I love people with the attitude that what can go wrong.” In the race to develop a new efficient lithium–ion battery is self–evident even Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind the hyped electric car Tesla.
“Relatively soon after the start of Boston–Power, I called him and told him about my plans to set up a battery factory and wondered if he was interested. Great fun, he replied, and asked if I could put it next to his. But I live in Boston , I replied.
When we cannot work together, he meant.”Their paths have met many times since then and will probably continue to do so.
Christina Lampe–Önnerud looking at even intervals on how they together can take ideas of energy storage to the West.
The Chinese saw on the other hand the possibility of Boston–Power’s factory and took it.
And it was in Asia that Boston–Power came to grow strongly and that is where the batteries are available in a number of electric cars today. The need to have the lead in China grew but the idea of a life with the family in China with private drivers, isolation, and degradation of the environment was not attractive. She handed over the responsibility, but still remains as a partner.
The job at Bridgewater attracted the family to Connecticut and a charming villa built in the early 1900s. This is also Cloteam’s headquarters.
“The lesson from Boston–Power, we await with hiring, have less aggressive timelines and run it efficient. The industry must catch up.” But again defying her many management consultants worst “no–no” – working together with her husband, her friends and have company at the kitchen table.
Why change a winning concept?
From a conversation with Jill Bederoff for Veckans Affärer.