Launching a startup during an international pandemic


While renewable energy has been an especially hard-hit sector by the Covid-19 pandemic, certain companies have been able to weather the economic slowdown, with some even using it as an opportunity to adapt and thrive. Yet if operating a business during these unprecedented times presented unique challenges, launching a startup takes these challenges and magnifies them.

One such startup, EnerVenue, has not only been able to weather the challenges, but use these unique circumstances to gain a competitive edge.

“Covid has actually been a positive for us, in ways that might not be expected,” CEO of EnerVenue, Jorg Heinmann, told pv magazine. “We’re able to get talent from a better pool of people. Attracting talent here in Silicon Valley has been super hard. Thanks to Covid, things have slowed down and folks are available, so we were able to build up a team far quicker than under other circumstances.”

EnerVenue is using this newly-formed team to bet on the success of nickel-hydrogen batteries. The chemistry has proven to be an incredibly powerful energy storage technology for the aerospace industry for quite some time, but was always held back from greater commercial success due to its high price.

Thanks to a breakthrough in sourcing low-cost materials and some help from EEnotech, a startup that incubates and accelerates nanotechnology-driven solutions, the company was able to make its launch in late August, a decision influenced by the pandemic.

Finding the right market

Heinmann shares that the team at EnerVenue did not always intend to headquarter all of its research and development (R&D) and manufacturing in the United States and even considered launching in Asia.

“We had this tension of like ‘Alright, do we go big in Asia first? Do we go big in China first?’ With Covid and the geopolitics of China right now, it made it really simple. We decided we’re going to keep it here in Fremont, at least through the low-volume full-manufacturing line. We’ll perfect it there and then we’ll consider lower-cost geographies for expansion. That would have been an extended debate and a very controversial thing to work through. Covid simplified the decision process.”

This decision did not come without its own challenges, with Heinmann citing the inability to travel to all the considered locations as the most difficult factor in the decision.

Once the decision was made to stay in California, the team needed to secure some real estate to set up a research and development facility, another task that was made easier by the pandemic. With very few other companies looking working spaces to begin with, EnerVenue was able to come to terms on the company’s R&D facility for a much lower cost than would have been possible without the pandemic.

Scaling to market

In addition to cheap real estate, the EnerVenue team was able to readily secure the necessary, low-cost, materials for battery development with a consistency, thanks to the pandemic. Concerns about supply chain availability and demand at the onset of the pandemic allowed EnerVenue to make deals with suppliers that otherwise ‘Wouldn’t give us the time of day,” according to Heinmann.

With a location settled upon and a successful launch behind EnerVenue, the company now moved to manufacturing prototypes of the nickel-hydrogen storage systems, eventually looking to begin customer pilots, once the manufacturing process is ramped up a bit.

“Right now, we’re taking these prototypes and we’re establishing an R&D manufacturing line,” said Heinmann. “The rough timeline is small-scale customer pilots beginning next year, followed by megawatt-scale customer pilots the following year, and then a full commercial launch into our intended target segment a year after that.”

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