Collapse of Battery Startup Envia: What Really Happened

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Envia Battery Technology

Envia Battery Technology

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The race to find battery technologies of the future is not one without casualties.

The trail left behind Envia, one of the most promising battery startups in recent years, has left something more akin to a warzone--and even huge companies like General Motors have taken shrapnel during their contribution.

Now, Steve LeVine at Quartz has pieced together Envia's full story for a comprehensive and well-researched look into just what went wrong at Envia--and why it's the subject of lawsuits from rivals and bemusement from GM executives.

Promising beginnings

Envia is the brainchild of Sujeet Kumar, an Indian who moved to the U.S. to study in 1990 and gifted in electrochemistry. Back in 2006, he was hired by NanoeXa, a battery startup formed by Pak, a South Korean-born entrepreneur.

During his time at NanoeXa, Kumar discovered a new nickel, manganese, cobalt (NMC) cathode technology developed by Argonne National Laboratory.

The technology allowed for faster charging and discharging of batteries, improving performance and energy density. The company liked it, and licensed it.

Just a year later though, Kumar resigned over "personal differences", leaving NanoeXa in chaos as Kumar had been the main engineer. Kumar decided to form his own company, called Envia, telling Pak he wouldn't compete--yet decided to use the same battery technology.

It's this that resulted in the first of Envia's lawsuits, though, the suit had no real strength--NanoeXa could provide no real evidence for exactly what technology Kumar had supposedly taken with him to Envia.

Kumar met with an old acquaintance, Atul Kapadia, who was able to arrange over $3 million in funding for the startup. By 2009, Kapadia had become CEO of the company.

GM pays attention

Shortly after, Kumar became aware of an ARPA-E competition to explore breakthrough battery technologies.

Using the NMC cathode, Kumar decided to pair it with a new silicon anode, also developed by Argonne, that didn't swell and damage the battery under charging. Combining the two could deliver 400 watt-hours per kg of energy density--enough for a 300 mile battery at half the current cost. A prototype of this battery was made and it returned the desired characteristics.

Such a high-profile breakthrough attracted the attention of some high-profile companies. General Motors was one to take note, well into development of the Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car and aiming to grant its next-generation Volt with high electric range.

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