Michael Feinstein, who led Venrock Associates’ investment in the company (the size of the first round of investment is not public), said that none of the design changes Lampe-Onnerud made were individually revolutionary. But sometimes a group of evolutionary changes are better than one dramatic innovation.
”I’ve seen a lot of battery startâ¿¿ups that do exotic things. And to commercialize them takes a brand-new factory, a huge amount of capital. Christina made a whole series of incremental changes involving the chemistry, the physical design, and the safety mechanisms. When you add them all up, they make a big difference in performance and safety,” Feinstein says. And, Feinstein points out, she was careful not to go so far that manufacturing would require a major modification of existing production lines or that the battery wouldn’t easily pass qualification tests by potential customers.
Scott Chou, who led the first investment round for Gabriel Venture Partners, said he’d been looking for a start-up doing batteries for several years when he heard about Boston-Power. He’d already rejected battery-technology proposals that increased energy density but sacrificed longevity, changed the form factor and therefore would have a tough time getting industry acceptance, or seemed to have safety issues. He passed on one battery that would vent sulfur dioxide gas when it failed. And then came Lampe-Onnerud.
”Christina offered safety first,” Chou said. ”Things were not too radically different, which meant that the product was safe and reliable and had a fast time to market. But they were radically improved.”
PHOTO: Chris Mueller
Lampe-Onnerud's family time involves play with children Anna-Maria and Mattias [left].Per Onnerud, Lampe-Onnerud’s husband, often puts the children to bed while she works in her home office; here [center] she meets with him to prepare for late-night conference calls with factories in China and Taiwan. At 11 p.m. she’s back in her home office [right]; this is when she can wrestle with scientific questions or think strategically about her company. She gets to bed around 1 a.m. most nights. Thursday evenings, however, are different. Lampe-Onnerud sings with and directs the Stardust Show Chorus, a 20-member women’s jazz chorus. Thursday is rehearsal night.
AT THIS POINT, a typical inventor might have taken this new design, built some prototypes, and tried to license the design to established battery manufacturers. As the winter of 2004 arrived, Lampe-Onnerud was thinking she might do that. But the Christmas holidays were approaching, and for Lampe-Onnerud, that meant family time. She and her family went to New Hampshire to ski.
Even on the slopes, she didn’t stop thinking about her design. Riding in a chairlift, she announced to her husband, ”I have decided to try to be part of the manufacturing process.” It would be easier for her to license the design, she reasoned, after proving that the battery was buildable and popular. She also figured that by doing it herself, she could commercialize it faster. And she thought it would be fun. Really. Waiting in lift lines, she began calling friends in China, trying to line up a factory that would let her set up a pilot production facility.
In January, she officially incorporated Boston-Power, with money from two angel investors. One was Anders Barsk, a Swedish investor; the other’s identity is not public. She went to China, talked to manufacturers, and signed a deal with Future Power, near Shanghai. By May 2005, the samples coming off the line met U.S. standards for safety and Underwriters’ Laboratory requirements. She built a laboratory in her carriage house to test the samples and hired Yanning Song, a recent Cornell engineering graduate, to work there. That lasted until September, when the company that insured her home realized that ”a little testing in her barn” actually meant reactive chemicals, heavy machinery, and hundreds of batteries and told her to get the battery operation out, immediately. She moved into a nearby business park. She began filing for patents—15 are in the works so far.
That month she also spoke with former Venrock partner Feinstein. ”She talked about the safety features of her design,” he recalls, ”that if these batteries failed they would just die, not explode. My reaction was, ’That’s nice, but you’d better have something else that differentiates you.’ She also told me then that safety issues were going to start causing problems for the industry, and my reaction was, ’Sony and Sanyo and the rest are going to build products that break? I don’t think so.’ ”
But they did. In June 2006, the famous Dell laptop had a flameout during a conference in Osaka. Then came reports of other battery fires. Sony, the manufacturer of the flaming Dell battery, recalled 10 million units that summer, and other battery recalls followed. And venture capitalists who had already been interested in Lampe-Onnerud’s little company were practically pounding at her door.
She took money from Venrock Associates, Gabriel Venture Partners, and Granite Global Ventures as her first investors; more investment firms contributed later for a total to date of $68 million.
Once she got her new company funded, her husband left Arthur D. Little. The plan was for him to care for the children and the household while she focused on her business. ”That lasted five months,” Lampe-Onnerud recalls. She then told him that if he really wanted to help her, he should contribute his technical talents. Now he’s chief technical officer of the company.
TODAY BOSTON-POWER has 40 employees, many of whom have had a decade or more of experience at places like Duracell, Eveready, Dell, and IBM’s ThinkPad division. Boston-Power is no Facebook, staffed by 20-somethings and their dogs; these are people with gray hair and long track records. They don’t play foosball all day and pull all-nighters. It’s the kind of company where people know their jobs inside and out, they do them quietly, and then they go home to their families for dinner.
But it’s no sleepy little tech shop, either. The corporate culture reflects Lampe-Onnerud’s vibrant personality and love of music. She selected Sonata as the name for Boston-Power’s first battery—which is bright blue, by the way, because that’s her favorite color. The conference rooms at the company are labeled Harmony and Symphony; she plans to name the company’s next battery Salsa. Employees are a little more dressed up than those at typical start-ups; jeans and T-shirts are not the norm here. Lampe-Onnerud usually wears a suit, always with heels, often with pearls. For her, dressing down is a denim skirt. People are polite to one another and to outsiders. They send thank-you notes whenever someone does something for them. Handwritten thank-you notes. Even to reporters.