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Qnovo: Not your average battery startup

Josh Gould

In energy storage, most start ups either focus on building a better battery (see A123 Systems or Boston Power), or innovating on the materials themselves (see Nanosys).  Yet Newark, CA-based start up Qnovo is taking a different approach.

Instead of building batteries or creating new materials, Qnovo intends to help customers get the most out of batteries through electronics.  Though the company is a bit hesitant to discuss the product and technology in great detail, co-founder and CEO Nadim Maluf described the product as focusing solely on electronics.  It fits between the materials science approach to batteries (e.g., new/better materials) and the traditional electrical engineering approach, which focuses on the voltage source and power management.  In short, though Qnovo claims to understand the chemistry of a battery cell very well, it targets the electrochemistry using only electronic controls.  The result is battery operational improvements.

The market trends and needs Qnovo are addressing are almost as interesting as the company itself.  Lithium-ion batteries are ubiquitous in the fast-growing mobile computing segment (think smart PDA, laptops, tablets).  But as the market for batteries is growing, it’s also changing.  Consumers increasingly demand longer battery life, but also want devices that are sleeker, thinner, and lighter.  I’m sure many others can sympathize with my own personal desire to have a lighter laptop given the time and energy expended lugging it around airports and in transit.

But a longer lasting battery in a lighter and thinner device is a big challenge.  It requires some combination of a significantly more efficient battery, lighter-weight materials for the rest of the device, and a higher price in an industry where – Apple aside – margins are tight and declining.  Indeed, Apple itself has focused on light weight materials, a better battery, and a higher price for its recent MacBook Air, which is reportedly a whopping 80% battery by surface area. 

Batteries are becoming a bigger portion of devices because it is notoriously difficult to improve the batteries themselves.  While electronics are closer to following Moore’s law (performance doubling almost every two years), battery capacity historically has doubled every 15 years.  Therefore, electronics are putting increasing demands on batteries.  Building better batteries is expensive, time consuming, and often results in only incremental improvements.  New chemistries make take time to come to market, and even longer to be incorporated into production lines.

So many companies, including Apple in its recent MacBook Air, are making batteries ultra thin and sealing them to save extra weight in packaging.  However, once a manufacturer seals a battery, it’s difficult and costly to replace and the battery life arguably has to equal the product’s life.  Qnovo’s idea is to bypass new production lines and chemistries and improve battery efficiency in existing lines through electronics (allowing manufacturers to make similarly light, thin, sleek products at a lower cost – and price – than Apple). 

The company raised an initial round of funds in 2009 from RockPort and US Venture Partners.  It’s currently in the midst of raising another round of undisclosed size.

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