The US undoubtedly has incredible battery R&D. Dozens, if not hundreds, of battery startups are hard at work developing the next generation of battery tech. I genuinely wish that all of these startups succeed beyond their wildest dreams, creating a robust and diverse American battery industry. However, most of these startups will readily acknowledge the long road ahead before commericalization, let alone scale and, eventually, profit. The unfortunate reality is that we need the US battery industry to scale ASAP if we are to meet the demands of both fierce global competition and climate change.

My thoughts on this haven’t changed much, but I believe that the US overly incentivizes battery R&D and performance at the expense of battery production and scale. If I were in charge of some sort of battery X prize, a large climate-focused VC fund, or perhaps US battery policy, I would focus on one key metric: time-to-market, at scale (GWh at minimum). I believe this metric better aligns with US policy aspirations regarding domestic EV manufacturing and climate change than metrics from past initiatives focusing on improved battery performance (not to name names, but e.g., 500 Wh/kg). Perhaps any company that successfully reaches 10 GWh/year would receive a large subsidy on the next 50 GWh/year. (To be fair, I think the IRA does a great job overall of incentivizing domestic battery production.)

I think the startup landscape would look quite different if time-to-market were emphasized over next-generation performance. Here’s the battery startup I would start if I were optimizing for time-to-market, dramaticized for effect:

  1. Incorporate Boring Batteries, Inc. Mission: Make Batteries Boring Again, just like alkaline batteries or silicon solar cells.
  2. Pick a chemistry. Main criteria: Minimal supply chain concerns and good-enough performance. LFP would have been the only option a year ago, but sodium-ion would also have to be on the table today. Pick a maximum of one.
  3. Pick a form factor. Main criteria: Lowest-cost to make and good-enough performance. Probably prismatic, solely since that’s what large Chinese battery manufacturers have converged on. Possibly cylindrical. Probably not pouch.
  4. Lock a cell design. I would reverse engineer the top 5 cells of the chemistry<>form factor combination that was selected above (e.g., prismatic LFP).
  5. Pick a location. Somewhere in the Battery Belt seems right. I love California, but fire anyone who proposes production there.
  6. Build two identical 1 GWh lines next to each other: one for process development and one for production.
  7. Buy the production line equipment. Today, you can buy everything you need for a line from China, e.g. this.
  8. Hire an A+ production team. Past battery production experience would be awesome, but if not then look for people from the semiconductor industry or similar. Start a strong battery quality team.
  9. Hire a small R&D team. Only a few R&D efforts are allowed: abuse testing, simple reliability and echem testing, fleet analytics, and an electrolyte team (since the electrolyte can have an outsize effect on cell lifetime).
  10. Find a beachhead market. Not EVs yet. Maybe golf carts?
  11. Reach 1 GWh/year on the production line.
  12. Continue to improve the process. Be relentless about cost and time savings that will translate at larger scale.
  13. Design and build two 10 GWh/year lines with the learnings from the 1 GWh/year lines. Same as before: build one for process development and one for production. The cell design can change but only in the interest of faster production. Higher energy/cell can help, but don’t make dramatic improvements to the echem.
  14. Reach 10 GWh/year on the production line.
  15. Keep improving the process as future sites are scoped. Most of the R&D focus should be on process improvements, including cell design changes in the service of process improvements. At this stage, I’d start investing in more R&D.

This startup would be painful, not to mention expensive, but I think this playbook is about right. To be fair, it’s not at all creative: it’s essentially cloning what successful Chinese battery companies have already done.

I would seriously consider starting this if I wasn’t working on Glimpse (launching soon!). If you’re reading this post and feeling inspired, please do this! Drop me a line and I’ll help in any way I can.

Shameless plug, but Glimpse is eager to support anyone looking to scale their battery production today.

EDIT 2024-03-24: I hope they don’t take offense to being associated with “Boring Batteries Inc.”, but American Battery Factory appears to be the first company I’m aware of taking a very similar approach to what’s outlined here. Very cool!