From the ashes of nearly a billion dollars, Ample resurrects Better Place’s battery swapping business model

A little over 13 years ago, Shai Agassi, a promising software executive who was in line to succeed the chief executive at SAP, then one of the world’s mightiest software companies, left the company he’d devoted the bulk of his professional career to and started a business called Better Place.

That startup promised to revolutionize the nascent electric vehicle market and make range anxiety a thing of the past. The company’s pitch? A network of automated battery swapping stations that would replace spent batteries with freshly charged ones.

Agassi’s company would go on to raise nearly $1 billion (back when that was considered a large sum of money) from some of the world’s top venture capital and growth equity firms. By 2013 it would be bankrupt and one of the many casualties of the first wave of cleantech investing.

Now serial entrepreneurs John de Souza and Khaled Hassounah are reviving the battery swapping business model with a startup called Ample and an approach that they say solves some of the problems that Better Place could never address at a time when the adoption of electric vehicles is creating a far larger addressable market.

In 2013, there were 220,000 electric vehicles on roads, according to data from Statista, a number which had grown to 4.8 million by 2019.

Ample has actually raised approximately $70 million from investors, including Shell Ventures, the Spanish energy company Repsol and the Moore Strategic Ventures, a venture firm that is the privately held investment firm of Louis M. Bacon, founder of the multibillion-dollar hedge fund, Moore Capital Management. That includes a $34 million investment first reported back in 2018, and a later round from investors including Japan’s energy and metals company, Eneos Holdings that closed recently.

“We had a lot of people that either said, I somehow was involved in that and was suffering from PTSD,” said de Souza, of the similarities between his business and Better Place. “The people who weren’t involved read up about it and then ran away.”

For Ample, the difference is in the modularization of the battery pack and how that changes the relationship with the automakers that would use the technology.

“The approach we’ve taken… is to modularize the battery and then we have an adapter plate that is the structural element of the battery that has the same shape of the battery, same bolt pattern and same software interface. Even though we provide the same battery system… it’s the same as replacing the tire,” said Hassounah, Ample’s co-founder and chief executive. “Effectively we’re giving them the plate. We don’t modify the car whatsoever. You either put a fixed battery system or an Ample battery plate. We’re able to work with the OEMS where you can make the battery swappable for the use cases where this makes a lot of sense. Without really changing the same vehicle.”

Ample’s currently working with five different OEMs and has validated its approach to battery swapping with nine different car models. One of those OEMs also brings back memories of Better Place.

It’s clear that the company has a deal with Nissan for the Leaf thanks to the other partnership that Ample has announced with Uber. Ample’s founders declined to comment on any OEM relationships.

It’s clear that Ample is working with Nissan because Nissan is the company that inked a deal with Uber earlier this year on zero-emission mobility. And Uber is the first company to use Ample’s robotic charging stations at a few locations in the Bay Area, the company said. This work with Nissan echoes Better Place’s one partnership with Renault, another arm of the automaker, which proved to be the biggest deal for the older, doomed, battery swapping startup.

Ample says it only takes weeks to set up one of its charging pods at a facility and that the company’s charging drivers on energy delivered per mile. “We achieve economics that are 10% to 20% cheaper than gas. We are profitable on day one,” said Hassounah.

Uber is the first step. Ample is focused on fleets first and is in talks with multiple, undisclosed municipalities to get their cars added to the system. So far, Ample has done thousands of swaps, according to Hassounah, with just Uber drivers alone.

The cars can also be charged at traditional charging facilities, Hassounah said, and the company’s billing system knows the split between the amount of energy it delivers versus another charging outlet, Hassounah said.

“So far, in the use cases that we have, for ridesharing it’s individual drivers who pay,” said de Souza. With the five fleets that Ample expects to deploy with later this year the company expects to have the fleet managers and owners pay for charging.

Some of the inspiration for Ample came from Hassounah’s earlier experience working at One Laptop per Child, where he was forced to rethink assumptions about how the laptops would be used, the founder said.

“Initially I worked on the keyboard display and then quickly realized the challenge was in the field and developed a framework for creating infrastructure,” Hassounah said.

The problem was the initial design of the system did not take into account lack of access to power for laptops at children’s homes. So the initiative developed a charging unit for swapping batteries. Children would use their laptops over the course of the day and take them home, and when they needed a fresh charge, they would swap out the batteries.

“There are fleets that need this exact solution,” said de Souza. But there are advantages for individual car owners as well, he said. “The experience for the owner of a vehicle is after time the battery degrades. With ours as we put new batteries in the car can go further and further over time.” 

Right now, OEMs are sending cars without batteries and Ample is just installing their charging system, said Hassounah, but as the number of vehicles using the system rises above 1,000, the company expects to send their plates to manufacturers, who can then have Ample install their own packs.

Currently, Ample only supports level one and level two charging, but won’t offer fast charging options for the car makers it works with — likely because that option would cannibalize the company’s business and potentially obviate the need for its swapping technology.

At issue is the time it takes to charge a car. Fast chargers still take between 20 and 30 minutes to charge up, but advances in technologies should drive that figure down. Even if fast charging ultimately becomes a better option, Ample’s founders say they view their business as an additive step to faster electric vehicle adoption.

“When you’re moving 1 billion cars, you need everything… We have so many cars we need to put on the road,” Hassounah said. “We think we need all solutions to solve the problem. As you think of fleet applications you need a solution that can match gas in charge and not speed. Fast charging is not available in mass. The challenge will not be can the battery be charged in five minutes. The cost of building chargers that can deliver that amount of power is prohibitive.”

Looking beyond charging, Ample sees opportunities in the grid power market as well, the two founders said.

“Time shift is built into our economics… that’s another way we can help,” said de Souza. “We use that as grid storage… we can do demand charge and now that the federal mandate is there to feed into the grid we can help stabilize the grid by feeding back energy. We don’t have a lot of stations to make a significant impact. As we scale up this year we will.”

Currently the company is operating at a storage capacity of tens of megawatts per hour, according to Hassounah.

“We can use the side storage to accelerate the development of swapping stations,” de Souza said. “You don’t have to invest an insane amount of money to put them in. We can finance the batteries in multiple ways as well as utilize other sources of financing.” 

Ample co-founders John de Souza and Khaled Hassounah. Image Credit: Ample


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Firms backed by Robert Downey Jr. and Bill Gates have funded an electric motor company that slashes energy consumption

Sometimes the smallest innovations can have the biggest impacts on the world’s efforts to stop global climate change. Arguably, one of the biggest contributors in the fight against climate change to date has been the switch to the humble LED light, which has slashed hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions simply by reducing energy consumption in buildings.

And now firms backed by Robert Downey Jr. and Bill Gates are joining investors like Amazon and iPod inventor Tony Fadell to pour money into a company called Turntide Technologies that believes it has the next great innovation in the world’s efforts to slow global climate change — a better electric motor.

It’s not as flashy as an arc reactor, but like light bulbs, motors are a ubiquitous and wholly unglamorous technology that have been operating basically the same way since the nineteenth century. And, like the light bulb, they’re due for an upgrade.

“Turntide’s technology and approach to restoring  our planet will directly reduce energy consumption,” said Steve Levin, the co-founder (along with Downey Jr. ) of FootPrint Coalition Ventures

The operation of buildings is responsible for 40% of CO2 emissions worldwide, Turntide noted in a statement. And, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), one-third of energy used in commercial buildings is wasted. Smart building technology adds an intelligent layer to eliminate this waste and inefficiency by automatically controlling lighting, air conditioning, heating, ventilation and other essential systems and Turntide’s electric motors can add additional savings.

That’s why investors have put over $100 million into Turntide in just the last six months.

PARIS, FRANCE – JUNE 16: Tony Fadell Inventor of the iPod and Founder and former CEO of Nest attends a conference during Viva Technology at Parc des Expositions Porte de Versailles on June 16, 2017 in Paris, France. Viva Technology is a fair that brings together, for the second year, major groups and startups around all the themes of innovation. (Photo by Christophe Morin/IP3/Getty Images)

The company, led by chief executive and chairman Ryan Morris is commercializing technology that was developed initially at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Turntide’s basic innovation is a software controlled motor, or switch reluctance motor, that uses precise pulses of energy instead of a constant flow of electricity. “In a conventional motor you are continuously driving current into the motor whatever speed you want to run it at,” Morris said. “We’re pulsing in precise amounts of current just at the times when you need the torque… It’s software defined hardware.” 

The technology spent eleven years under development, in part because the computing power didn’t exist to make the system work, according to Morris.

Morris was initially part of an investment firm called Meson Capital that acquired the technology back in 2013, and it was another four years of development before the motors were actually able to function in pilots, he said. The company spent the last three years developing the commercialization strategy and proving the value in its initial market — retrofitting the heating ventilation and cooling systems in buildings that are the main factor in the built environment’s 28% contribution to carbon dioxide emissions that are leading to global climate change.

“Our mission is to replace all of the motors in the world,” Morris said.

He estimates that the technology is applicable to 95% of where electric motors are used today, but the initial focus will be on smart buildings because it’s the easiest place to start and can have some of the largest immediate impact on energy usage. 

The carbon impact of what we’re doing is pretty massive,” Morris told me last year. “The average energy reduction [in buildings] has been a 64% reduction. If we can replace all the motors in buildings in the US that’s the carbon equivalent of adding over 300 million tons of carbon sequestration per year.”

That’s why Downey Jr.’s Footprint Coalition, and Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures and the real estate and construction focused venture firm Fifth Wall Ventures have joined the Amazon Climate Fund, Tony Fadell’s Future Shape, BMW’s iVentures fund and a host of other investors in backing the company.

The company has raised roughly $180 million in financing including the disclosure today of an $80 million investment round, which closed in October.

Buildings are clearly the current focus for Turntide, which only yesterday announced the acquisition of a small Santa Barbara, Calif.-based building management software developer called Riptide IO. But there’s also an application in another massive industry — electric vehicles.

“Two years from now we will definitely be in electric vehicles,” Morris said. 

“Our technology has huge advantages for the electric vehicle industry. There’s no rare earth minerals. Every EV uses rare earth minerals to get better performance of their electric motors,” he continued. “They’re expensive, destructive to mine and China controls 95 percent of the global supply chain for them. We do not use any exotic materials, rare earth minerals or magnets.. We’re replacing that with very advanced software and computation. It’s the first time Moore’s law applies to the motor.”

Volvo to sell only all-electric vehicles by 2030

Volvo Cars said it will only make and sell all-electric vehicles by 2030 as part of a broader transformation of the automaker that will include shifting sales online.

“The key to sustainability is electrification, said Volvo Cars CEO Håkan Samuelsson during a presentation Tuesday. “Together with investments in charging infrastructure that is the right way to go and the course we have chosen at Volvo.”

The announcement was tied to the launch of the C40 Recharge, a low-slung crossover based on the company’s CMA vehicle platform. While the C40 is the second vehicle under Volvo’s EV-focused Recharge brand, it is the first model designed from the beginning as a battery-electric only vehicle. All Volvo vehicles with fully electric and plug-in hybrid powertrains are housed under the Recharge brand. Like the XC40 Recharge, the C40 will have an infotainment system powered by Google’s Android operating system and the ability to handle over-the-air software updates.

volvo c40 recharge

Image Credits: Screenshot/Volvo

“It’s a car of firsts and it’s a car of the future,” CTO Henrik Green said, adding that the C40 will have two motors, a 78 kilowatt-hour battery and an estimated range of 420 km (260 miles) that will improve over time via software updates. C40 will go in production this fall and will be built alongside the XC40 Recharge at the Volvo Cars manufacturing plant in Ghent, Belgium, the company said.

Volvo, which is owned by China’s Geely Holdings, aims for 50% of its global sales to consist of fully electric cars, with the rest hybrids. By 2030, every car it sells should be fully electric, the company said.

The company is well on its way to its electrification goal, according to Samuelsson, noting that last year one car out of three sold in Europe was a Recharge model, a chargeable plug-in hybrid.

Volvo’s evolution isn’t just pinned to the powertrain.

“The future customer offer cannot just consist of an electric car,” Samuelsson said. “We also need to listen to our consumers, and they expect transparency and a seamless experience getting and having a car.”

Volvo will only sell its all-electric vehicles online and at preset prices. Customers will be able to subscribe or buy the vehicles, which will come with a customer care package. The vehicles will also have pre-selected configurations to shorten the time between ordering and receiving a vehicle.

Volvo’s move to become an all-electric brand is in sync with a growing number of automakers, including GM and Jaguar. Last month, GM committed to selling only electric vehicles by 2035 and becoming a carbon neutral operation globally by 2040. GM said in November it will spend $27 billion over the next five years on the development of electric vehicles and automated technology, a 35% increase that exceeds the automaker’s investment in gas and diesel and is an effort to bring products to market faster.

Is EV charging the next gig for the gig economy? SparkCharge thinks so

Last week the mobile charging battery company SparkCharge announced a partnership agreement with AllState that expands the company’s reach into vehicle services, driving the company further down the road toward its goal of making electric vehicle charging the next gig economy job.

The company, which has developed, designed and is commercializing a mobile vehicle charger, is also in the process of closing a $5 million round led by Shark Tank investor Mark Cuban and others as it brings its new mobile charging device, called the Roadie, to market.

SparkCharge’s 120 kilowatt fast charger can be delivered on-demand through a network of partners that now includes AllState and the Durham, North Carolina vehicle services startup, Spiffy. Customers can choose to top up with between 50 miles and 100 miles of charge using the Roadie, which is the lynchpin in a broader charging network that SparkCharge’s founder, Joshua Aviv, envisions.

“You can say I want a charge at this point in time at this location and this much range,” Aviv said. “You pay and have the charge delivered all on one app.”

So far, the agreement between AllState and SparkCharge covers four cities: Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, and the insurance and roadside assistance provider has ordered roughly 20 portable chargers.

Working through companies like Spiffy and AllState is one way to get to market, but SparkCharge’s chief executive thinks that independent workers could start up their own businesses offering on-demand charging to customers.

On-demand charges cost roughly 50 cents per mile and a customer can get a significant enough charge for as little as $10, according to Aviv.

“We’re basically creating a whole new [charging] network,” said Aviv. “This isn’t a network meant to be a stopgap. It’s a network that’s always on, always available and better and faster than [traditional chargers]… we don’t need permits, we don’t need construction. With our unit, you take it out of the box, you plug it into the car, you push a button and begin charging. With us, every parking spot, every location — that’s now a charging station. That’s a much better network than the legacy.”

Folks who wanted to offer the charging services would pay roughly $450 per month for the equipment and that would give them the battery and the equipment they would need to start their own on-demand EV charging business.

“It’s a business designed to allow people to service EV owners,” said Aviv. 

The Somerville, Massachusetts-based company was born from Aviv’s own fascination and frustration with the current state of electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

As The Wall Street Journal noted, the lack of charging infrastructure is one of the major obstacles that electric vehicles have to overcome for them to achieve mass adoption.

In a survey of 3,500 electric vehicle drivers, cited by the Journal, which was conducted in September and October of last year by the advocacy group Plug In America, over half of respondents reported having problems with public charging. Those problems are worse for drivers who don’t own Teslas.

Whatever else may be true about the EV that Elon built (along with thousands of workers and a slew of additional innovators and company founders), Tesla’s emphasis on having mostly adequate charging infrastructure to support its customers has paid huge dividends. And other carmakers, retailers and standalone charging service providers are only beginning to catch up.

Companies ranging from oil majors like Shell to automakers like Volkswagen, who spent $2 billion to build out an electric vehicle charging network as part of the settlement from its diesel emissions chicanery, have networks built out or in the pipeline.

For Aviv, who has owned an electric vehicle since 2013 when he bought a Chevrolet Volt, the problem was clear. He began working on the company in 2014 while still a student at Syracuse University. A professor and advisor at the university had previously served on the board of the Environmental Protection Agency and was a huge proponent of electric vehicles.

After college Aviv continued to work on the business developing a portable charging station and then creating a platform for distribution and sales and a network of service providers on top of it. That’s how SparkCharge was built.

In the early days, the company received assistance from groups like the Los Angeles Clean Technology Incubator and investors like Techstars Boston, Techstars, Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest fund and his Revolution investment firm, PEAK6 Investments and the Buffalo, New York-based accelerator 46North, along with investors like Cuban.

I saw that the current [charging] infrastructure that we have has a lot of flaws,” Aviv said. They include the downtime between charging infrastructure upkeep, the time it takes to grow the charging network and the lack of maintenance and support for chargers. 

“There’s a huge push to move these chargers,” he said. “You don’t want these EV drivers to drive around a city with no guarantee of infrastructure. It’s an interesting tug of war that’s going on that we’re going to see unfold and consumers might be more persuaded to drive an EV [with SparkCharge] because not only can you deliver range but you can request it on demand.”


Early Stage is the premiere “how-to” event for startup entrepreneurs and investors. You’ll hear firsthand how some of the most successful founders and VCs build their businesses, raise money and manage their portfolios. We’ll cover every aspect of company-building: Fundraising, recruiting, sales, legal, PR, marketing and brand building. Each session also has audience participation built-in — there’s ample time included in each for audience questions and discussion.


Corporate sustainability initiatives may open doors for carbon offset startups

Commitments to carbon neutrality keep coming from all corners of the business world — over the past few weeks, companies ranging from the fast-casual restaurant chain Sweetgreen to the security-focused networking IT company Palo Alto Networks to the online craft retailer Etsy committed to net-zero carbon emission plans.

As the companies look for ways to reduce their energy consumption, they’re turning to carbon offset programs as a stopgap measure until the energy grid decarbonizes, they implement technologies to reduce their energy consumption, or both.

This push toward corporate sustainability is creating all kinds of strange bedfellows and startup opportunities, with major corporate offset programs and the establishment of new startups focused on offsets creating channels for sustainable technologies to get to market.

The latest example of a company leveraging a sustainability angle to tie a corporate partner even closer to their business is the agreement between Delta and Deloitte, which involves the accounting and consulting firm paying Delta for renewable jet fuel to offset the emissions of its corporate travel.

To be clear, a better policy for Deloitte would be to cut back on non-essential travel significantly and focus on doing as much remote work as possible to reduce the need for flights. But in some cases business travel is unavoidable, and most folks want to get back to a pre-pandemic normal, which — at least in the U.S. and other countries — will include significantly ramping up air travel for a percentage of the population.

As the BBC noted, air travel accounts for roughly 5 percent of the emissions that contribute to global climate change, but only a small percentage of the world actually uses air transport. According to one analysis from the International Council on Clean Transport, just 3 percent of the world’s population flies regularly. And if everyone in the world did fly, aircraft emissions would top the CO2 emissions of the entire U.S.

Which brings us back to Deloitte and Delta and startups.

Delta’s deal to buy sustainable aviation fuel that would offset a portion of the carbon emissions associated with Deloitte’s business travel is one small step toward greening the airline industry, but the question is whether it’s a significant first step or just an attempt to greenwash the unsustainable travel habits of a consulting industry that prides itself on such perks.