In the prior post, I outlined the Enovix co-founders’ vision for building a better battery. It’s differs from that of many other battery startups in several aspects. First, rather than pursue a novel chemistry, Enovix sought to unlock the full capacity of lithium-ion (Li-ion) chemistry through major changes in battery design and production. Second, Enovix began research and development with a clear vision of its production destination-the same reliable, high-volume photolithography and wafer processes that had produced ICs, LEDs and LCDs to help enable modern mobility.
Initial Funding and Proof-of-Concept Research
Another area where Enovix differed from other battery startups was early-phase funding. Rather than seek government grants or loans, Enovix carefully evaluated a number of venture capital (VC) firms for private financing. It selected those that not only met its initial financial goals, but that also had industry-specific expertise and understood the complexities and magnitude of developing and producing a new Li-ion battery, while also being able to benefit from services similar to that of Early Growth, for accounting services to ensure the privately-backed finance was once again handled by experts in accounting. Initial VC funding in 2008 was used through 2011 to conduct basic, proof-of-concept (POC) research on 3D architecture and a silicon anode for Li-ion battery design. When the concept was proven, Enovix was confident the design could be produced through photolithography and wafer production.
Strategic Partnerships and Additional Funding
Enovix leadership looked for strategic partners that could help meet critical capabilities in technology, product design and production, and business operations, as well as provide significant funding for development and production. Enovix secured partnerships and investments with leading companies that met this criteria: Cypress Semiconductor, Intel, and Qualcomm.
Intel is the world’s leading producer of advanced semiconductors and the largest global developer of sophisticated platforms for microelectronic production. Its engineers have worked closely with Enovix to employ a modern hi-tech process for fabricating its 3D silicon lithium-ion battery. These are critical skills that would be extremely difficult for a startup to acquire in a timely manner without such a partnership.
Qualcomm is a leader in the design and production of chipsets for global wireless telecommunications and the leading patent holder in advanced 3G mobile technologies, including HSPA. It is also an early pioneer in mobile wearables with its Toq smartwatch, released in December 2013 as a concept watch to showcase several of its mobile technologies, which have been incorporated into over a dozen smart watches. Qualcomm provides Enovix with a conduit into the mobile market and engineered integration with mobile chipsets and devices.
Cypress Semiconductor has institutionalized an approach that assists technology-based startups. The results of this approach are exemplified by SunPower, a former subsidiary that Cypress helped pioneer modern solar cell manufacturing by adapting semiconductor processes and decreasing production costs by an order of magnitude. Cypress engineers have been at Enovix since the partnership began in 2012 applying a similar low-cost wafer fabrication process to help Enovix achieve high-volume, affordable battery production.
Development and Pilot Production
Through its relationship with Cypress (and its former subsidiary, SunPower), Enovix has been able to leverage the substantial investments and improvements made over the years in solar cell supply chains, production equipment technology, and process knowledge for its low-cost battery production. For example, according to Polysilicon and Wafer Supply Chain Quarterly the average cost of solar photovoltaic wafer processing (excluding polysilicon cost) for top tier manufacturers declined an average of 20% per year between 2008 and 2013.
Enovix has adopted the Cypress/SunPower methodology for process development, scale-up and quality control in order to ensure production ramps expediently with the highest quality and lowest risk. Since 2014, Enovix has conducted round-the-clock pilot production at its headquarters in Fremont, CA to refine battery design and performance and to prepare for production scale-up.
In the final post of this series, I’ll describe how and when we plan to reach commercialization.