KTT Insight: Portrait of the Fuel Cell Manufacturer SOLIDpower
Researchers at EPFL found a way to produce the core component of a Solid Oxide Fuel Cell cheaper and more efficient than existing solutions. Following the start-up textbook they spun off a company to supply exactly this component to the Fuel Cell manufacturers – as lean as possible. But the Fuel Cell manufacturers collapsed and with them the only market for the innovation. Read more on how the start-up survived the seven meagre years and is on his way to prosper today in a highly integrated group on the reviving Fuel Cell market.
In the year 2000 the world looked very promising for fuel cells (FC). Mobile as well as stationary applications seemed to be desperate for the efficient technology, which generates electricity and heat out of gas. The gas industry sensed the chance to increase sales and heavily promoted fuel cells. Public institutions allocated huge funds on research and development (R&D) in the area. It looked like the perfect setting for an innovation, which reduces the production cost of the very heart of a Solid Oxid FC (SOFC) – the membrane inside the stack – while at the same time provides a top efficiency of the cell.
So, when researchers at the EPFL discovered such a process, they decided to industrialize their idea by themselves. This was the birth of HTceramix SA. The initial idea was simple and convincing: develop and upscale the innovative membrane production process to industrial level, produce the membrane in large volumes and sell it to stack and FC manufacturers; leaving integration, product design, marketing and all the other risky and expansive downstream activities to the allegedly financially strong companies. Why should a value chain that worked for Goretex and other special layer suppliers not work for FC? Well, the young entrepreneurs had to learn why, when the FC-bubble imploded soon after. Public funding dried while markets refused to adapt the FC story. From 2001 to 2004 the biggest FC-manufacturer of the time lost 80% of its stock value. Business cases of the envisaged customers failed and so did the one of HTceramix.
To survive in this rather common phase in a start-up evolution, it takes strong belief in the basic innovation and creativity to raise money. Both were provided in the person of Olivier Bucheli, the driver behind HTceramix, who had already done his master thesis on the proprietary technology. He managed not only to keep the company alive but also to advance with the technology. After seven years with prototype sales, engineering and public supported projects SOFCpower acquired HTceramix. The Italy-based SOFCpower had just been spun off from the multi-national United Coatings Group to undertake a new approach to FC applications and markets. The vision was and still is to commercialize clean, highly efficient and affordable energy systems with Solid Oxide Fuel Cells. The new owners brought their entrepreneurial experience, a long-term perspective and the staying power to pursue such a perspective.
Compared to the original idea of HTceramix, the new approach of SOFCpower means a 180° turn. Instead of selling the very core of the FC to a few highly specialized manufacturers the company now offers fully integrated plug&play solutions to the mass market of residential house owners and SME. Step by step the new investors acquired the competences and capacities to pursue this business model. SOLIDpower, as the group is branded now, comprises a manufacturing site for the stacks in Italy and an integration and systems factory in Germany. The former HTceramix in Yverdon works as the development centre for the group. As Antonello Nesci, the General Manager in Yverdon, describes it: we are still doing prototyping and engineering; we keep up our strong ties with EPFL and engage in international research projects. So, it is not much different from what we did before but with a very focused strategy and funds behind it. According to Nesci, many start-ups in FC market failed because they dissipated their resources on too many applications. Research in SOLIDpower is dedicated to the existing portfolio and market. Major target is to reduce further the costs per unit by technical innovation and by upscaling production. As Nesci explains, SOLIDpower technology – inherited from HTceramix – allows specific costs savings when production numbers go up. An effect which might not be available to alternative technologies to the same extent. SOLIDpower is going to leverage this advantage with a new stack production in Italy. The factory with an annual stack capacity of 50MW will be opened by the end of the year. It is addressing, with the new coming BlueGEN BG-15, the growing FC markets, especially in Germany.
A 6kW-module from SOLIDpower will take part in the European Horizon2020 research project “Waste2Watts”. The project, which is also connected to the SCCER BIOSWEET, shall design a biogas SOFC-system with minimal gas pre-processing in order to shrink system costs also with renewable fuel. Besides, the 18 experts in Yverdon expand the power range of SOLIDpower’s portfolio. Very recently a new 25kW module prototype has left the workshop for testing at an academic partner in Germany. Talks are underway to test the module in electrolyser mode at a SCCER BIOSWEET partner in Switzerland.