CalCharge aims to unite battery makers and bring new tech to market sooner

CalCharge, which sets out to pool together technical and go-to-market expertise for California battery developers, is finally getting underway. It plans to announce some major companies as its inaugural members over the next month or so and put to practice its mission to accelerate battery technology development.

It was around this time last year when I first spoke with folks at CalCharge, a brainchild of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the California Clean Energy  Fund (CalCEF). The idea is to offer testing and performance verification of battery cells and systems from Berkeley lab and possibly other research institutions in the San Francisco Bay Area and help companies identify shortcomings that they could overcome with the help of other members. As Venkat Srinivasan, head of the Berkeley lab’s energy storage research said then, “We recognize that battery companies want an ecosystem to work together.”

I caught up with Srinivasan last Friday at the lab, which hosted kickoff event with a tour of its battery lab, a legal session about signing research and development agreements with CalCharge and a poster session. Proctor & Gamble, which makes Duracell batteries and electric shavers, is the only company that publicly said it’d join CalCharge. A few others said they’d join but need to sign that research and development agreement to formalize their membership, said Jeff Anderson, managing director of CalCEF. CalCharge already has teamed up with San Jose State University to launch battery-focused curriculum starting this summer.

The creation of a battery accelerator is an interesting if not necessary model for a field that is experimenting with all sorts of new materials and cell designs to create more energy-dense and long-lasting batteries. The drive to create a market for electric vehicles and energy storage for the grid — and ultimately to reduce our carbon footprint — has prompted this flurry of developments, which have attracted billions of dollars in venture capital and government funding in recent years.

The road to bring innovative batteries to the market has been bumpy. As I noted in yesterday’s post about LG Chem’s slow progress to build its first lithium-ion cell factory in the United States, several prominent battery and electric car startups have crashed or made significant strategy changes since the U.S. Department of Energy announced in the summer of 2009 the first batch of winners for its $2.4 billion program to support cutting-edge electric vehicle battery manufacturing. A123 Systems filed for bankruptcy last fall after securing a big federal grant, pulled off a big IPO, built a factory in Michigan and took a financial hit for having to replace defective cells in batteries for some of Fisker Automotive’s inaugural Karma cars.

Fisker, which has raised at least $1.2 billion in capital, is in deep trouble of its own (see our analysis of the Fisker debacle, subscription required). Coda Automotive said last week it had filed for bankruptcy. Aptera Motors closed shop at the end of 2011. GM didn’t meet the sales goal it set out for its Chevy Volt for the first year. Tesla Motors, which has struggled through financial hardship and launch delays, finally made it through the “valley of death” late last year, its CEO, Elon Musk, said last November.

Some lithium-ion battery makers have stepped up efforts to court consumer electronics makers now that the electric car and energy grid markets aren’t taking off as quickly as they have anticipated. Smart phones, with their ever-growing apps to manage our lives and entertain us, could sure use batteries that can hold more energy and charge faster. Verizon Wireless has even started rating apps based partly on their impact on battery life.

And that brings us back to CalCharge, which aims to shorten the amount of time it takes to bring a battery technology to the market and to make it affordable for the masses. A battery technology generally takes about 10 years from concept to market, Shrinivasan noted. One of CalCharge’s goals is to create in five years batteries with five times the energy density at one-fifth of the cost of the advanced batteries that have recently hit the market.

Berkeley Lab offers equipment and expertise that some battery startups can’t afford to have, yet they bridge the gap between lab research and pilot line production. CalCharge has set a big mandate for itself, at a time when venture capital investors are shying away from putting money in cleantech manufacturing. It can succeed if it manages to convince enough players to join its quest.