August is supposed to be the doldrums in VC land, a time when everyone goes on vacation and companies shouldn’t expect to see any new term sheets. So it was a welcome surprise to see a cleantech funding round announced — and a big one at that: Ample raised a $31 million Series A round. That’s a lot of money! Wait. Who are they? What do they do?
According to Fortune’s Term Sheet, the company makes “a platform that delivers a full charge to electric cars.” Neat! A full charge is way better than not-a-full-charge. Axios’ Pro Rata says Ample is “solving the energy delivery challenge for electric cars.” What are we talking about here? Supercapacitors? Ultracapacitors? Ultra-fast charging? Wireless charging? Ultrasonic charging? The suspense is killing me!
Off to their website. A picture of a cold day in Chicago and a simple tag line: “Electric Cars for Everyone.”
To get some real answers, we need to head to the press release. The company offers an “alternative to traditional charging” using proprietary “autonomous robotics.”
If you’re using robots, delivering a full charge all at once, and calling it an alternative to traditional charging, in my mind there’s only one thing this could be: battery swapping. Drive your EV up to the station and a robot pops out the dead battery, then switches it for a fresh one. In a few minutes, you’re off to the races again.
Battery switching might sound familiar
Back in 2013, Tesla built a battery-swapping station before ultimately shuttering the program in 2016. Tesla’s pilot implementation was a little kludgy — it was designed as a temporary fix where car owners were required to come back and get their original battery back later (and pay $80 for the privilege).
Well before that, Shai Agassi launched Better Place in 2005 to build a network of swapping stations in Israel before expanding worldwide. There’s little question that the technology works. Here it is in action:
Better Place has gotten plenty of ink through the years, both as it was growing, as it imploded, and in a recent book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup That Took on Big Auto, by Brian Blum. Brian was recently a featured guest on Greentech Media’s Energy Gang Podcast where he recounted his own experience as the owner of a Better Place-compatible Renault. Regular listeners of the podcast know that Stephen, Katherine and Jigar don’t pull punches, so it’s interesting to go back and listen to that episode with fresh ears.
Can this be a business? Can Ample succeed where Tesla and Better Place stumbled?
First, let’s take a look at the backers. This round was led by Shell Ventures and Moore Strategic Ventures, with Repsol Energy Ventures, Hemi Ventures, and Trirec also participating.
Shell has a long history of making investments in cleantech and transportation deals and has lots of experience with early-stage venture investments. It’s easy to imagine Shell seeing battery-swapping stations as the natural future of the filling station.
The other corporate strategic investor is Repsol, a major Spanish oil and gas company. Repsol has increased its VC activity over the last few years. This is its second electric mobility investment this summer, following Silence, an electric scooter company.
Moore Strategic Ventures is an arm of Moore Capital Management, a hedge fund that makes some direct early-stage investments, including several in energy, electricity, and agriculture.
Hemi Ventures, a relatively new firm, has been very active in early stage deals across robotics, artificial intelligence, and automation.
Trirec is a relatively new cleantech-focused firm based in Singapore that doesn’t shy away from infrastructure-heavy deals.
What about the founding team?
Ample founders John de Souza and Khaled Hassounah are experienced executives, and both have undergraduate degrees in electrical engineering. According to their LinkedIn profiles, they founded and led MedHelp, an online portal and community for medical advice. The details here aren’t exactly clear: MedHelp was founded in 1994, long before the duo joined, and sometime around 2006, de Souza became CEO and led the company to an acquisition by a unit of Merck in 2014.
Back to the business at hand: The business
First, we can’t ignore the similarities. Better Place founder Shai Agassi made a fortune when he sold his previous company, and then decided to enter the electric vehicles space. (And, for what it’s worth, that sounds a lot like Elon Musk too.)
The initial pitch for Better Place was “an inexpensive car that anyone could buy.” It would be so cheap, it might even be free. (Of course, not actually free, but at least zero-money-down and a monthly subscription after that.) When Better Place was conceived, the best technology in the market was a Nissan Leaf that could get roughly 70 miles before recharging, so you couldn’t take a long road trip.
Better Place had huge issues with its swapping stations — it couldn’t co-locate them with service stations in Israel, they ended up being way more expensive ($3 million each) than originally planned, and required huge cooling infrastructure to charge the batteries without degrading them. The company also grew much more quickly than any revenues could support — it had around 1,000 customers but was burning $1 million per day on salaries.
At the very least, with Shell and Repsol on board, Ample should be able to secure locations at filling stations.
Better Place also had a hard time getting manufacturing partners on board. Renault joined because it didn’t have any plans for a hybrid vehicle and saw this as a path toward an EV.
This excerpt from the podcast says it all:
Brian Blum: “When he [Agassi] went to GM and tried to convince them to make a battery-swappable version of the Chevy Volt, they said ‘No, we’re not doing that; we’ve already got our version of the vehicle and we’re well along the way, but we would be interested if Better Place would be the infrastructure provider for the electricity [presumably referring to the traditional charging infrastructure] here in the United States and then we’ll see what happens. [...] Maybe if there was more money, and the company hadn’t spent so much, and the company hadn’t gone out of business, maybe other manufacturers would have come on board.”
Jigar: “But they would have never come on board. This is what people don’t understand, even today — no one has used Tesla’s charging infrastructure and protocol. Car companies don’t work together, and the reason they don’t work together is because they believe they’re the smartest people in their industry. Every one of them believes they’re in the hardware industry. They don’t all want to make the same thing. They don’t want to follow a standard. They love being different from everyone else...so the fact that everyone would have adopted the same battery-swapping technology was ludicrous. For him to think otherwise was equally ludicrous.”
Is Jigar right here? If he is, Ample must be doing something else — it must have a business model that doesn’t require signing up a bunch of manufacturers to conform to a new swapping standard.
What does the future hold for battery swapping?
Brian Blum has certainly made up his mind: “[Switching] big batteries...consumers switching them out in expensive infrastructure — that’s not going to happen, we’re not going to see that again.”
And my guess is Ample won’t be getting project finance from Jigar for a Better Place clone any time soon. As he put it in the podcast, “The thing that I always found so fascinating is how awful [Shai and team] were as entrepreneurs. The thing I want to make sure people understand is that these things are entirely avoidable through due diligence. Like, it’s not a foregone conclusion that people have to make these ridiculous mistakes. I want to make sure that it's clear that...as we try to change the world and the infrastructure that powers us because we want to decarbonize the world, there are good ideas and bad ideas, and this was a really bad idea.”
Is this the next cleantech success story?
Of course, only time will tell. With limited information on a stealth-mode startup, it’s hard to predict what will happen.
We don’t know what the proprietary technology is, but Ample definitely isn’t building its own EV. Frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me if it licensed the Better Place patent portfolio, which is now largely owned by Renault.
I hope I’m safe in saying that Shell and Repsol wouldn’t invest in a new Better Place. If they wanted to do that, they could have bought the assets back in 2014 at fire-sale prices.
So, maybe it’s the business model that’s different. Is Ample promising individually owned cars on a monthly payment plan? Or offering a battery-swapped electric taxi fleet? Buses? Or an on-demand electric car network like Car2Go?
We don’t see $30 million Series A rounds in this space all that often, so there’s reason to be excited. Until it comes out of stealth, here’s hoping Ample has figured out a better way to make the Better Place dream of cheap electric cars for everyone come true.
Listen to the The Energy Gang episode on Better Place.