"We cannot raise the kind of money we need for manufacturing in the US as quickly as we can in China."
We are all on, all of the time," says Christina Lampe-Önnerud.
Cellphones, laptops, tablets, game consoles, cameras and music players — they're with us constantly, and we don't like it when they fail. Or, worse still, when they blow up.
It's been more than 12 years since Lampe-Önnerud stood in front of a symposium in Kyoto, Japan, and announced that the energy density of a typical lithium-ion battery (increasingly used in all our mobile devices) was approaching that of a hand grenade.
Since then, she's been proven correct as in incidents around the world, laptops and MP3 players have burst into flames. Batteries, she observed, have been designed inefficiently and deteriorate rapidly, leading to safety concerns and less reliability.
In a world where planned obsolescence generates revenue, Lampe-Önnerud saw an opportunity not only to improve functionality for consumers, but also to create a highly profitable business.
As a scientist, the Sweden-born Lampe-Önnerud had made a series of incremental changes to the chemistry, physical design and safety mechanisms of the lithium-ion battery. Working for firms such as Arthur D. Little in Cambridge, Mass., she had looked at solving big, long-term problems in all aspects of the energy business.
She believes this gave her the confidence to start her own company.
In 2005, she took the battery technology she had developed during her doctoral work in inorganic chemistry, and the knowledge she had gleaned as a consultant to the battery industry, and founded Boston-Power out of her home in Framingham, Massachusetts.
Nobody in the industry wanted to address problems such as a laptop battery life that went from four hours to 20 minutes within a year. Then there was the issue of the unpredictable explosions.
"The industry decided to sweep them under the rug and say, 'That's fine,' but I thought that was absolutely not fine," she says. "Corporations are lying to people."
She also saw a huge lack of innovation. "I wanted to revolutionize storage, as it's one of the solutions for a sustainable future. Nobody cared, but this to me was so [clear]. If you have a battery that works, that's like giving an engineer a new Lego piece. I think this is what tipped me into starting Boston-Power."
Lampe-Önnerud quit her day job and gave herself a year to get the business off the ground.
"It worked," she laughs. "It was a good year!"
Six years later, Boston-Power is manufacturing next-generation lithium-ion batteries that run for longer, charge faster and are safer and greener than their predecessors. These batteries can be used in laptops, cellphones and even cars.
Like Lego, the individual batteries can be linked together to generate more power as needed — say, three in a laptop and 2,000 in an electric car.
For the past three years, Chinese companies have been courting Boston-Power. Its applications for US Government loans had failed, but far from seeing this as a blow, Lampe-Önnerud once again saw an opportunity.
In 2011, she closed a deal that would take the bulk of the company's infrastructure and all its manufacturing to China. In the US, she believes the company would be "limping along," whereas in China, opportunities are enormous.
"China is the number one market in the world," she says, visibly excited, "and it has the most aligned long-term policy, with so much money available to spend, a mix of private equity and government incentive.
"Today, we cannot raise the kind of money we need for manufacturing [in the US] as quickly as we can in China," she adds. "The one resource that we don't have a lot of is time. We are a small player, but we want to be a global player. The US is not supporting market development in the sustainable energy field."
Expansion plans for Boston-Power involve a technology center in Beijing with 100 to 200 employees, a large factory outside Shanghai with 400 to 600 workers, and a partnership with Taiwanese manufacturer Gold Peak Batteries. Boston-Power's customer base will be in China, but Lampe-Önnerud and an R&D team will remain in the US, overseeing an international patent portfolio with 158 patents in various stages of filing.
Lampe-Önnerud has no reservations about pursuing the deal with China. "I'm pretty pragmatic," she explains.
"The US is a wonderful country, and I admire American entrepreneurship. I have elected to stay here, but I'm part of a global economy. I'm sending off one company to do good in the world. I feel like I've launched a sailboat." She has decided to step down as CEO, making room for a local executive to take over.
"I think it should be a Chinese national, a Mandarin speaker," she explains, "and it should be somebody who has a lot of respect in the society already and knows the people, the academic institutions, the customers and the government."
She will spend the first few months overseeing Boston-Power's transition. After that, she'll remain on its board. Then, for Lampe-Önnerud, it's all change. "I worked 20 hours a day for many, many years, with a lot of travel," she says.
"Every day was a joy, but now I have a chance to sit back and think about what I learned. I will hang out with people I love and admire, inventors and philosophers, people who inspire the world."
Thanks to her success with Boston-Power, she's been offered positions on the boards of large and small companies, and within academic institutions.
In addition, she says she has plenty of "nuggets" that could become new businesses.
One thing is for sure: she will work in water and energy, fields she sees as critical to a sustainable future but riddled with problems.
She'll also spend more time with her family: husband Per Önnerud, CTO at Boston-Power, and her two young children, Anna-Maria and Mattias. Then there is her other passion.
The first batteries in Boston-Power's stable are named the Swing and the Sonata, inspired by Lampe-Önnerud's love for music. An accomplished pianist and jazz singer, she has dedicated much of her spare time to the performing arts.
In fact, she credits her experience in music with teaching her how to create an effective, collaborative work culture — something she values highly.
"I've put together a lot of shows," she explains. "You get your singers and musicians, you show up at 7 p.m. after a full day of work and you demand them to be present. You ask them to dump all their problems at the door. Presence is such a powerful dynamo. Ultimately, it doesn't matter if you play first violin or tenth — it's about teamwork."
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