It was an idea so ambitious, it could only be admired. In 2007, Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi launched Better Place, a start-up that aimed to rid the world of gas-guzzling cars with an international network of electric vehicle charging stations. The company raised $850 million and Agassi was hailed as a clean tech visionary around the world, even featured on Time's "Most Influential People" list in 2009.
Then, as they often do, things fell apart. The economics of researching, developing, and deploying such a sophisticated network of stations before there was sufficient demand from car owners never added up. In October 2012, Agassi resigned as CEO. In May of 2013, Better Place filed for bankruptcy, a move that rattled the clean tech world.
"It was such a fantastic dream for those of us who believed business can be a catalyst to stop global warming," says Yosef Abramowitz, co-founder of two major Israeli solar companies, Arava Power and Energiya Global. "When the company died, I felt like I couldn't let the dream die, too."
So, this month, Abramowitz, along with a Canadian investment banker named Henry Shiner and a non-profit organization made up of 900 Better Place customers, acquired Better Place's assets for the bargain basement price of $12 million.
"I loved the dream so much, I bought the company," says Abramowitz, the company's new president. "It was probably as close to an impulse buy of a major company that has ever been."
Now, Abramowitz and his co-owners are tasked with turning the failed company around, an endeavor some have referred to recently as "mission impossible." But Abramowitz, whose work in the solar industry has earned him the nickname "Captain Sunshine," is unfazed by the public's pessimism.
"We have the benefit of not having any debt, and having hundreds of millions of dollars worth of world-class, working technology," he says. "Now there's more than a 50/50 chance that if we can get through the first few months, we can declare a victory."
What Went Wrong
One major problem facing the electric vehicle industry has always been that electric vehicle batteries take hours to charge. That's why Agassi's vision was to build both a network of plug-in charging stations, as well as a network of battery swap stations, which would automatically switch a car's depleted battery with a fully charged one in a matter of minutes. In theory, the idea was brilliant, and Better Place devoted years to developing and protecting the technology with patents. In practice, however, battery swapping technology would require electric vehicle manufacturers to standardize their batteries to implement Better Place's technology.
"Car companies don't like to normalize their technology," says Thilo Koslowski, an electric vehicle analyst with Gartner Research. "It makes them all the same, and that's not in the interest of the companies."
As a result, Better Place was only able to convince one manufacturer, Renault, to incorporate its battery swap technology. That put pressure on Better Place to sell Renault's electric vehicle, and only Renault's electric vehicle, directly to consumers. So, Better Place proceeded to build 38 battery swap stations and 2,200 plug-in charging stations across Israel. Though the plug-in stations would have worked on any electric vehicle, Better Place locked them to work exclusively on Renault cars in hopes of laying the pressure on consumers.
"I understand why they locked the charge points, because they needed the benefit of being a near monopoly to recuperate their costs, but the Israeli public didn't want to be offered just one car," Abramowitz says. And so Better Place was bleeding money, at a rate of $25 million a month, according to Abramowitz.
"I don't think there's any business model in the world that could have recuperated those costs without a liquidation," he says. "We're coming in without having to invest in research and development. We have no debt. We're just running like a lean and very hungry start-up."
The most pressing task, Abramowitz says, is to cut the company's expenses to $1 million a month. That means cutting staff, shuttering 23 battery swap stations, and unlocking the plug-in charging spots so any electric vehicle driver can use them. Abramowitz says if the company can get just 5,000 electric vehicles on the road using its services, Better Place will break even. "That's a lot more manageable than the 100,000 cars the company needed initially," he says.
As to where those additional 4,100 customers will come from, Abramowitz is working on getting the Israeli government to buy more electric vehicles for its fleets and provide tax breaks to electric vehicle owners. "Better Place always had a very strong, rich, and powerful image, and the government didn't want to strengthen a monopoly," Abramowitz says. "Now that we're not monopolistic, we're finding a very warm reception from the Israeli government."
Unlike Agassi, who wanted to blanket the globe in Better Place stations, Abramowitz says he has no interest in building a network outside of Israel. That doesn't mean, however, that he's naive to opportunities abroad. Among the assets that the new owners acquired are 134 patents, which Abramowitz says are worth "multiples" of what we paid for the company. Going forward, the plan is to license that technology to other cities and countries around the world and charge them for consulting services.
Meanwhile, there may be money to be made directly from manufacturers, who are increasingly interested in battery swap technology. The irony of Better Place's near demise, Abramowitz says, is that just a month after the company's bankruptcy filing, Elon Musk made a very public debut of Tesla's new battery swapping technology. "He really is the Steve Jobs of this generation," Abramowitz says. "If he's betting on battery swap, then that matters."
That also means, given the broad scope of Better Place's patents, that Tesla may have no choice but to license its intellectual property or face a patent war. Abramowitz won't say whether or not he's spoken with Tesla's leadership yet, but, he says, "We look forward to having a relationship with Elon Musk and hope we can bring together the two leading pioneering electric vehicle companies in the world."
This new model is giving some industry analysts hope. "I think Better Place absolutely stands a chance now," says Gartner's Koslowski. "This is a more modest business model, but it's also a more realistic one. It'll support the growth of electric vehicles going forward, without forcing itself between the customer and the manufacturer."
Abramowitz is optimistic about the task in front of him, but he acknowledges it's not going to be an easy few months. "Being an entrepreneur means you have to accept risk differently, but you also have to be prepared to fail," he says. "If heaven forbid we do fail, I don't think anyone would blame us for trying."