From start-up to a cleantech company of the decade – and one very cold canal swim
ABB’s e-mobility business named one of Europe’s “Cleantech Companies of the Decade,” the latest milestone for a textbook case of start-up success.
From its origins as a university spin-out in 2006, Epyon, as the business was known at the time, was purchased by ABB in 2011. More than just the brainchild of innovators who recognized sustainable transportation’s promise, Epyon illustrates how ABB successfully identifies and integrates businesses to expand into promising markets.
That 2011 acquisition marked a turning point for the team surrounding Hans Streng (pictured in the middle above), Epyon’s chief executive officer, now head of ABB’s electric vehicle (EV) charging business, and Epyon founder Crijn Bouman, now head of ABB’s EV business development.
Buttressed by ABB’s global presence, they took their fast-charging technology to EV’s future markets, starting in Europe and advancing to China where ABB is now supplying Shenzhen BYD Daimler New Technology Co.’s DENZA electric vehicles with direct current fast chargers.
For his part, Streng is among the select few who pushed electric mobility’s technology frontiers. In an interview, he shares his experience of developing a vision into something real – and on working with a small startup team that’s become an important part of a big corporation.
As in any startup, a bit of quirkiness helps. Take, for instance, when Streng and his colleagues celebrated the occasion of shipping 50 chargers in October 2011: He and 10 others swam in 12-degree (53 degrees Fahrenheit) water in the canal in front of the company’s building in Rijswijk, Netherlands.
When ABB Chief Executive Officer Ulrich Spiesshofer learned of their icy plunge, he wondered “How could any ABB employee be motivated by the prospect of a 12-degree swim?”
Read on for more about what gets an EV pioneer’s blood flowing in this Q&A with ABB’s Hans Streng.
- How did the idea for your business come about? What problem did you want to solve?
Epyon was established by a couple of guys who understood that in the energy revolution there would be an increasing need for battery fast-charging. Batteries would appear everywhere and battery technology would advance such that new batteries could be charged ever faster.
- Can you outline your vision?
The vision is based on the energy revolution. The dream was to create a company that understands the impact of this global ‘’EnergieWende’’ and that would position itself as the company that understands best how, where and when to quickly charge batteries with electric energy. The fast charging would be a key enabler in the overall energy revolution.
- What were the main challenges you had to overcome?
The main challenge was focus. Opportunities are everywhere when it comes to charging. After an initial period of really ‘’trying everything’’ we went for a rigorous focus on EV fast charging and skipped all the rest.
- What were your highlights in developing your idea?
The installation of the first European fast charger in the Netherlands in early 2010. After that, the group really worked day and night to realize the first standards-based products by the end of 2010, basically the same charger that went into the Estonian nationwide rollout later in 2011 and 2012.
- Why was ABB the right partner at the right time?
Early in 2011, the EV charging market started to scale up as envisioned. Epyon faced a basic choice: further private financing, an initial public offering or exit. The business required a significant intensification of the industrial activities and we figured that it would be unwise to invest in a business expansion where large industrial players already existed. We would be fighting an uphill battle in a domain that was essentially not the core of Epyon. We had discussions with three large industrial companies and ABB clearly stood out. The choice was basically made for ABB on basis of Ulrich’s personal statement to me: ‘’You will be part of my team and I will be part of your team.” This statement was so fundamentally different from the other companies who basically said this: ‘’You will report to me and receive instructions in that way.’’ The choice for ABB was absolutely natural.
- How did Epyon develop under ABB?
Epyon was set up as a product group within the Power Conversion unit of ABB’s Discrete Automation and Motion division. This boiled down to a fully operational continuation of the activities, but now with access to the global base of ABB, so opportunities – again – went through the roof. So again we found ourselves in a situation where we had to stay focused and only work on those opportunities that made perfect sense.
- What is the future of the EV business at ABB?
The Chinese market is growing very rapidly, as is the emerging electric bus market. ABB has made the right choice to bet on this side of the renewables market and a similar good choice was the acquisition of solar-inverter maker PowerOne. The business model of PowerOne has such an overlap with the EV Charging business that a tight cooperation is generating a 1+1=3 situation right now. The combination will boost the ABB position in all regions, again provided we keep the ship on course.
- What does the Cleantech Group award mean?
It is an objective external recognition for making the right choices over the years. People have chosen to devote their time to their dream and it pays off. Investors have chosen to invest in people who believe in their dream and it pays off. ABB has decided to acquire and grow a business it believes in and which is driven by a bunch of believers, and it pays off. Every now and then, you need to look around and say, ‘’Damn, it is worth what it takes.’’