2017 was a milestone year for the energy market. It was the year that renewables become the cheapest energy source, following decades of falling prices for wind and solar power. And as economies around the world look to replace coal, gas and oil with green alternatives, batteries have become big business. It’s batteries that enable energy to be stored, and they play a crucial role by backing up grids as they transition towards renewables. But while Tesla CEO Elon Musk dominates the headlines with his Powerpack farm in South Australia, in a corner of Plexal entrepreneur James Kong is more quietly perfecting his battery technology that he believes could change the world.
Kong is the founder of Alp Technologies: a renewable engineering energy that’s perfecting a smart and low-cost li-ion (lithium-ion) battery storage system. It’s HQ is Eagle Labs’ flagship makerspace at Plexal.
But that wasn’t plan A: before starting Alp Technologies, Kong followed the path his parents carved out for him, turning “to the dark side” as he describes it by working as a financier on Wall Street before breaking away to join the startup world when he was “a little bit too old to do what they wanted”.
But it wasn’t until he cut his teeth as chief financial officer at Agnion, a Germany based renewable energy engineering company with a presence in Africa, that a lightbulb went off in Kong’s mind and the building blocks for Alp Technologies started to form. Power outages cost African countries up to 2% of their GDP each year and 600 million people across the continent have no access to electricity. But when Kong saw first-hand the infrastructure challenges the country was facing, he realised that a centralised solution wouldn’t be capable of reaching everyone. “A small, local renewable power plant isn’t enough because they’re missing the roads on which you build power lines. This meant that people weren’t getting access to a clean, reliable source of energy to do the basics like cooking.”
With James at the helm Agnion enjoyed considerable success, getting listed and commercialising its technology. But that period also showed Kong the impact that accepting venture capital can have on a startup. “We were making an impact in lots of areas but having external investors really affected the mission,” he says. The entrepreneur found himself spending more time dealing with shareholders rather than his true passion: engineering, making things and deploying solutions where they’ll have an impact on people’s lives.
So in 2015, Kong decided to do things his own way by founding Alp Technologies. And his career so far meant he had a clear idea of how he didn’t want to fund the venture. “By this stage I was a little bit older and a little bit wiser,” he says. “I knew I didn’t want to be controlled by any third party, whether it’s a bank or VC. They will inevitably tamper with your mission. VCs have a funding view of six or seven years; we’re in our fifth year and are only starting to commercialise. Science can’t adhere to timelines like that.”
Kong developed a plan that would give the startup enough runway to get stuck into heavy research and development – at first by bootstrapping the business himself and then by winning a series of government grants via Innovate UK, the innovation agency. The plan came off: Alp Technologies won its 17th round of innovation funding in 2020, has remained wholly independent and has been making a profit since 2018. Despite offers from VCs, Kong has refused to let the company get blown off course.
This has enabled him to keep his eye on the prize he really cares about: bringing affordable energy to the developing world. What’s also made this possible is that the cost of energy storage (and the supporting technology) has dropped dramatically in the last 5-10 years. Kong has capitalised on this fall by focusing his research and development efforts into making the most affordable, safe and efficient energy storage system possible.
At the core of Alp Technologies’ offering is the Power BRIC: a smart battery system that can handle different (and inexpensive) battery cells – including end of life batteries. This reduces one of the main costs associated with batteries: the raw materials they’re made of.
The battery management system is powered by AI while the hardware is made up of microelectronics (which Kong likens to the very small electronic designs and components found in mobile phones).
The Power BRIC is made up of a series of batteries, which Alp Technologies treats as small computers that can be placed together like pieces of Lego. And one of the earliest product development milestones Alp Technologies celebrated was being able to get each battery to function on its own as well as communicate with other batteries in the same system.
AI is what determines the way the battery behaves, and it optimises the management of energy storage. “Imagine you have a batch of apples and one bad apple spoils the whole bunch – it’s the same with a batch of batteries,” Kong explains. “If you’re using a battery for something demanding like powering an electric vehicle, it will heat up and can cause a chain reaction that ruins the others. But what if we can stop that battery before it has a chance to ruin the rest of the batch?”
To do this, the Power BRIC contains sensors nearer to the individual battery cell level – as opposed to the large pack or group level. And the use of sensors, together with the underlying AI, enables the batteries to recognise when something is wrong, alert other batteries in the system and even repair themselves. “They can work completely autonomously and cooperate with each other, so when one battery is not doing well the others can pick up the slack,” Kong says. Kong says no other startups have so far developed an architecture around a battery capable of doing this.
The name Power BRIC was chosen because the system is shaped like a brick, and when you put lots of bricks together it can provide power in a range of settings, such as providing energy for commercial properties. In fact, Plexal is looking at workin g with Alp Technologies to create a backup energy system for our workspace by taking advantage of the solar energy generated on our roof.
In the developing world, Kong says battery solutions like BRIC will be a gamechanger. “We have energy everywhere, more than we can store, so we just dump it,” he says. And in Africa you can generate more solar energy than is needed for one person using just one cubic metre of space.” But while Africa has a natural potential for renewable energy production thanks to its climate, it hasn’t had widespread access to battery technology that can store that energy. And that’s what Kong wants to change.
He says that if everyone in Africa had a solar panel and the right battery, they could be lifted out of energy poverty in three years. Not only that, you don’t need infrastructure like power lines, roads or centralised power plants: individuals or businesses can generate, store and distribute energy on a more local scale.
What frustrates Kong, though, is that this application of battery technology is being overshadowed by demand for electric vehicles (EV) in the developed world. “The world’s choosing to focus its energy storage efforts in the wrong place,” he says. We can choose to relieve energy poverty for about two billion people using battery technology, or make it cheaper for a few hundred million well-off people to buy electric vehicles. All this mining of minerals, all this technology development is going into moving a car from zero to 60 in three seconds. That same battery can serve an entire town of 100 people. EV is the least impactful place to use batteries.”
But while Kong refuses to be distracted by EV or hurried by investors, the pandemic has been a frustrating blocker. He’s a sponsor for an orphanage in Uganda where the startup is itching to replace diesel generators with Power BRIC battery systems. But the project is on hold because of the health and safety risks.
In the meantime, Kong’s side hustle sees him provide engineering consultancy services to other startups (including several members of Plexal). This not only serves as a revenue stream, but allows Kong to give back to the community around him. “We help them build hardware and software prototypes, take products to market and win grants. It’s important to be part of a community and share what we learned. Innovation should be open source if it can help more people.”
He is also continuing to find commercial opportunities in markets like the UK. The entrepreneur envisages batteries becoming smaller and smaller, and his medium-term goal is using them in conjunction with large-scale sources of renewable energy like wind farms. “I want to demonstrate that the Power BRIC exceeds everything else.”
And with the Power BRIC ready to move from lab to real life, the market conditions are just right as interest in both renewables and battery technology hearts up. The World Bank Group launched a $1bn global battery storage programme in 2018 to drive down prices for batteries and global demand for battery storage is expected to reach 2,800 gigawatt hours by 2040: the equivalent of storing almost half of all the energy generated in the world in a day.
As Kong reflects on Alp Technologies’ journey so far he admits he could have gone down a far easier route by developing smartphone technology that has a simple route to market, but that was never a real option for the founder. And his patience and persistence is about to pay off.