VC land a coup & A123 loses its CFO

Black Coral Capital, Flybridge Capital Partners, Stata Venture Partners landed a coup when they announced that A123 CFO Michael Rubino was going to join their venture backed firm Digital Lumens.

A123 – The consequence
This move may be a blow to A123 but a great opportunity for Digital Lumens. We wrote about ‘The Past, the now and the future of A123‘ earlier this year. With Michael Rubino leaving we feel that A123 has a lot to answer for. A123’s share price is down some 40% since IPO and the future path is somewhat in limbo. Losing a senior executive certainly adds to the uncertainty. Thus it is not surprising that Wunderlich Securities downgraded the stock. The new target price stands at $6! Now, for a company that was never profitable $6 may be considered good (remember those dot.com valuations?) but it certainly does reflect that the growth trajectory and EV/PHEV adoption curve is likely to be slower than anticipated. Arguably, we could see the stock trade lighter than current levels. However, at some point we would think that some large automotive players East (SAIC) or West (VW, Daimler – Smart) may have an interest in looking at the company.

The hard facts are bleak: A123 posted a loss of some $44m, with revenues at $26m. A turnaround seems still some quarters away.  A $6 share price doesn’t sound too bad when compared to our dot.com friends who may have had similiar costs but nowhere near as interesting revenues.

How does A123 business success relate to the EV sector? One of the interesting electric vehicles we have looked at is Th!nk, the Norwegian EV producer. (A HBR case study can be found here; paid content.) In May 2010, Think  presented an update on its business. It essentially announced that another $40m of equity was provided by the existing shareholder base. Moreover, the company projects that it will be cash-flow positive by 2011. A123, Enerdel (promo video) and Zebra will provide batteries ranging from 18 Kwh to 28 Kwh.

Think and Deutsche Bank provide a chart (see above) that summarized EV model releases over the next few years. So is A123 depending on the speed up model ramp up or are EV manufacturere depending on battery capacity? The interdependence is obvious and securing battery supply has long been a key battle ground.

Digital Lumens – Opportunity in the LED & SSL space
Digital Lumens operates in the energy efficiency segment which we consider is more attractive in the near term than betting on technology backed companies alone. Rather, the opportunity to replace existing stock with better materials seems obvious and makes both commercial and ‘green’ sense. LED lighting in particular appears to be attractive for its energy savings potential. The Department of Energy (DoE) has set up the Solid-State Lightening initiative (SSL) that proposes that it can cut US energy lighting usage by 25%. In March 2010, the DoE published a Muli-Year Program Plan for SSL. The report states that ‘[t]he global lighting fixtures market is expected to reach $94 billion by 2010, and SSL is expected to play a substantial role in the market by that time. Sales of high-brightness LEDs (HB–LEDs), the technology associated with LEDs for lighting applications, were $5.3 billion in 2009.” Siemens‘ Osram’s Sylvania program notably focuses on SSL.

Khosla Venture and General Catalyst have both been active in the LED space: both funded LumenZ, a Boston based University start-up. Checking on Khosla’s website, we fail to find it in their Portfolio section. However, in a presentation delivered in 2009, it is still in the portfolio. Highland Capital Partners made an investment in QD Vision. QD’s pitch is interesting ‘QD Vision is developing quantum dot solutions for efficiently backlighting mobile phones and other mobile displays, as well as LCDs for desktop and notebook computers and LCD television screens. These initial applications alone represent an addressable market exceeding $2 billion by 2014 for quantum dot-based components’. According to some news sources, QD Vision has raised a total of US$33m to date.

Overall, as costs of LED is coming down the adoption curve is likely to increase significantly. For now, technology hurdles, costs, and general consumer/ commercial acceptance are issues that need to be addressed.

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Tresalia Capital makes Artega Investment: Fraunhofer’s EV platform/ Electromobility concept

What do BMW, Aston Martin and Artega have in common? Its designer: Klaus Dieter Frers. He was instrumental in designing BMW’s Z8 and Aston Martin’s Vantage. The Artega GT was his latest work. Now Artega has been sold to Mrs Maria Asunción Aramburuzabala. She heads Tresalia Capital.

Tresalia Capital is probably most famous for its interest in ‘Corona’ brewer Modelo Group. Tresalia essentially acts as a family office to the estimated $2bn net worth of Mrs Aramburuzabala. The office is relatively secretive and information is difficult to come by. Nonetheless, it appears an odd addition to the stable of deals the office has made recently or are electric vehicles only a ‘lifestyle’? We would disagree if that is what Mrs Aramburuzabala and her team think.

On a more serious note, Germany’s Fraunhofer institute uses the Artega GT to test its latest research in electric hub motor technology. The Fraunhofer Institute has been granted significant resources to pursue Germany’s thought leadership in electromobility. The institute secured €14m of the Stimulus I package and a further €44m are likely. The electromobility research is overseen Fraunhofer Institute for Structural Durability and System Reliability LBF. Recently, the Economist issued a critical piece on Germany’s research heritage. The paper cites that the nations research capabilities measured by researchers age 25-24 years is the smallest in the EU. For what it is worth, the fact that both the public and private sector appear to be working together to put resources into this paradigm shifting industry and technology may just be enough. Germany’s Mittelstand and corporates are likely to be among those firms that will drive the future of electromobility.

The electric hub engine research appears to gather momentum. Firms such as Continental, Protean Electric, Bosch, Michelin and other traditional tire manufacturers appear to make progress.

To echo the efforts made by the Fraunhofer’s Institute, the political debate surrounding Electric Vehicle’s (EV) and electromobility continues to get ever more attention not only among parliamentarians but with the general public also. The German government released a 2009-report (German Federal Government’s National Electromobility Development Plan) that set forth the neccessary investment that is needed ‘to speed up research and development in battery electric vehicles and their market preparation and introduction in Germany’.

The forecasts made by the Fraunhofer Institutes are exciting. As ever, execution will be key. We will monitor in which ways corporates engage. Thus far, Aral Petrol Company (in German) has published a study that shows that Germans are willing to pay a small premium for EV’s. That premium is between €2000-€3000. Thus the cost of new technology has to come down further or the price for fossil fuel to raise substantially before a significant change in consumer trend may be observed.

Collapse

Instead of Clean Technologies- let’s talk oil. Why? Because oil competes with clean technologies, affects government and consumer choices and in large part determines the success or lack thereof of much of what we discuss here. Consumers are much more willing to pay premiums for electric vehicles, biofuels or renewable energy if it does not have the burdensome variable cost of crude oil attached.

Many well qualified geologists and experts are claiming that the Earth has already given us her easy to find oil and that we have peaked.  See this video for a good summary. Probably the most famous detailed review of our Earth’s supplies can be found in Matt Simmons’ book “Twilight in the Desert” or also in Jared Diamond’s “Collapse.” Peak oil is a controversial idea to many that draws passionate disagreements from those in the oil industry. Let’s take a more reserved approach to this giant question with facts we can understand much easier than how much oil exists miles beneath the surface: Oil Demand.

Fact #1: If oil demand outpaces oil supply, more people bid for the less per capita supplies. Oil prices increase.
Fact #2: We all know the global population is increasing but that’s not the issue. What matters more is that the per capita oil consumption is increasing. Developing countries, are- developing.

Population projections

Fact #3: If oil supply is to continue to increase, it’s got a lot of work to do to replace maturing oil fields. If it can increase, good luck keeping pace with demand. The IEA has been warning about sluggish supply growth, and if Saudi Arabia has so much oil in reserves- why are they spending billions to drill off shore now?
Fact #4: Oil prices have remained constant, at relatively higher prices during one of the world’s worst recessions in memory. Imagine what price it would be if oil demand had not actually dipped two years in a row! Where do prices go when the economy recovers, never mind the other above issues? Demand down 4% in 2009 and 5.4% in 2008. We have no substantial reason to believe that demand won’t recover when the economy does.

Rebuttals: What about horizontal drilling, new discoveries and those Canadian Oil Sands? Those are accounted for in the both the IEA and all three studies linked to in the first paragraph of this blog. Secondly- if the Canadian Oil Sands are depended upon as a significant source of future, global oil supplies- then we’re still in very bullish oil pricing territory given the very high variable cost to procure a barrel’s worth of oil from Alberta.  And that ignores the logistical and environmental issues of the oil sands. See the Cambridge Energy Research Associates supply curve posted below. The easy oil has already been found. The expensive oil is now depended upon to take up the slack of a flat supply curve.

Projected Global Demand. Source: EIA

Conclusions: Oil prices are bound to increase significantly. The price of oil largely affects the economics (consumer choices and firm profitability) of many CleanTech related firms in areas of electric transportation, electricity generation and energy storage.

Chinese Consumption increasing faster than population

Think of oil consumption occurring by two different groups of people- those from developed countries (4.7 bbl/day) and those from developing. As countries develop, so do their consumption rates. Welcome China, India and Brazil to the developed world (slowly!). Again, while very few people have the information, expertise and experience to speculate on global oil supplies, it is much easier to grasp the demand side and consequently oil pricing and its impacts.

I strongly suggest the above two books by Matt Simmons and Jared Diamond for anyone with a relevant career in Clean Technologies or even just Energy.

Coincidentally, a documentary is being released today covering this exact topic and is receiving great reviews. It is called “Collapse” and is narrated by Michael Ruppert. See reviews here and here.

Courtesy of the Oil Drum

The easy, cheap oil has been found. (Courtesy of CERA)

The Great, Fake Lithium Supply Scare

“But there’s not enough lithium for all those batteries- and now you’ll switch dependency to a few lithium supplier countries!” That is the claim less informed journalists and hacks often make when they need a counter point to balance their first article on the emerging, electrified transportation sector. Why do we care? Because if true would significantly affect the battery, transportation, grid storage and electronic appliance sectors. Let’s try a fact check:

1) Claim: Dependency on 2-3 countries for lithium (similar to oil dependency)
Fact:
False. This table from the USGS best answers this claim:

Country Reserves (000’s ton Li) Reserves Base(000’s ton Li)
Argentina 2,000 2,000
Australia 170 220
Bolivia NA 5,400
Brazil 190 910
Canada 180 360
Chile 3,000 3,000
China 540 1,100
Portugal NA NA
USA 38 410
Zimbabwe 23 27

Plus, ore deposits in these plus other countries bring the total to over 17.1 million tons of reserves.

2) Claim: Lithium is the sole material these sectors must have to advance.
Fact:
Yes and no. Shorter term most known batteries for next gen autos and electronics will use lithium (bar the also popular nickel metal hydrides.) Longer term- let us not ignore 15 start ups that are readying ultracapacitor break throughs, 27 manufacturers and 29 other companies that have recently developed ultracapacitor technologies plus 52 research institutions working on advancing ultracapacitor technology. We do concede however that lithium will play by far the largest role for at least the next 15 years.

3) Claim: All of the suppliers in the world won’t be able to keep pace with demand & thus prices will skyrocket.
Fact:
There are an estimated 17.1 million tons of contained Li in reserves worldwide. In 2008, total global demand was 100,000 tons and of course projected to grow significantly. Lithium can be recycled. Do the math with your own assumptions and it appears we have a few years before supply concerns arise. One may even want to account for new, future reserves of Li to be discovered.

Additionally- advances in nanotechnology as noted here, here and here are making the current battery chemistries that do incorporate lithium much more powerful, economic and robust.

Let’s make money: 77% of lithium carbonate currently comes from 3 companies which are SQM of Chile, Germany’s Chemetall and FMC of the USA. Talison Minerals, a private Australian firm, is the largest spodumene producer and accounts for about 23% of global contained lithium. However, only 15% of this production is sold into the lithium chemical markets via Chinese lithium carbonate converters. (Special thanks to Dundee Capital Markets for the above research, “Lithium- Hype or Substance?” October, 2009. )

Conclusion: If you are bullish on the technology advancing, you likely believe the improved economics offered by advanced lithium batteries will enable stronger investments in the related sectors of grid storage, consumer electronics, military applications and of course transportation. The sky is falling claims should not play a role in any related investment decisions.

Path to Greener Flight – Part 1

An industry notorious for lacking the highly sought after “green badge”, commercial flight has been one of the guilty pleasures of the present required to rely on the questionable effectiveness of carbon credits to maintain face. The typical one-way transatlantic flight generates around 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide per passenger, the equivalent to 4,000 miles of driving in a 35 mpg car[i]. Despite this ugly figure, aviation makes up 12%[ii] of CO2 emissions for transport and only 2-3% of the total[iii]. Pressure is building up for a greener image based on greener credentials. There is no one golden ticket to this end, but improvements can be made with a combination of new and upcoming technologies.

In a world with physical limits, the miracle of modern flight is made possible with a delicate balance of capacity vs. mass, pressure vs. friction, speed vs. structural strength, and distance vs. energy storage. If we seek a greener form of air travel, we are in effect tilting the balance in favour of new materials combining greater strength, lower friction and density, with forms of higher energy storage with less waste products (at least while airborne). This combination will result in aircraft that can carry a greater number of passengers further, faster and with fewer pollutants.

Material science has been developing at a staggering rate in the last century and is only getting faster. The most noteworthy of recent discoveries is the fabled carbon nanotube. Nothing more than a rearrangement of the fourth most common element in our universe[iv] and chemically identical to graphite and diamond, this substance can offer much to aviation. The combination of very high electrical conductivity with strength of around 100 times that of steel[v], it offers a lot in weight reduction. If the 135 miles and two tons of copper wiring in a Boeing 747 were replaced by carbon nanotube cables (nanoribbons) an 80% weight reduction could be achieved[vi].

If nanotube composites are used for the structural components, even greater weight savings can be made. Bayer MaterialScience[vii] have developed an aluminium/carbon nanotube composite with tensile strength comparable to steel at less than half the weight. This would considerably lower the 200-300 ton weight[viii] of a Boeing 747, providing huge fuel savings. In seeking to increase the current hull strength of an aircraft we need look no further than MIT. Engineers there have pioneered a process now known as nanostiching[ix]which can create materials 10 times stronger than current aerospace materials with more than one million times their original electrical conductivity, thereby mitigating much of the danger from airborne lightning strikes.

A lighter, stronger hull will definitely improve efficiency of flight. The real problem however lies with how the aircraft is powered, namely the form of propulsion and energy storage. To date only chemical forms of energy storage have a high enough energy density to sustain commercial flight. This comes at the cost of emitting huge amounts of waste gases at cruising altitudes. This is a trend that will not be broken without some impressive breakthroughs in battery technology, nuclear energy generation or wireless energy transmission.

Path to Greener Flight – Part 2


[i] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/travel/holiday_type/green_travel/article673044.ece [ii] Stern Report Annex 7 [iii] Working Group III Report, IPCC May 2007 [iv] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon [v] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tensile_strength [vi] http://www.xconomy.com/boston/2008/03/26/nanocomp-wins-air-force-grant-to-make-carbon-nanotube-wiring-for-aircraft/ [vii] http://www.bayermaterialsciencenafta.com/news/index.cfm?mode=detail&id=ABE84C28-A44C-DF70-B3CC3344CC3CE224 [viii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_747-8 [ix] http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-03/miot-mc030409.php

China the New OPEC for Rare Earth Elements?

If it is a daunting thought that the OPEC controls 40% of the world’s crude oil supply, think again. China has 95% of the world’s rare earth elements (REE) leading the late Deng Xiaoping to presciently remark that “the Middle East has oil, but China has rare earths.”

While oil gets a lot of attention, what does REE have in relevance to consumers? REE, which include 17 hard-to-pronounce names of chemical elements (e.g. praseodymium, yttrium, europium, dysprosium, erbium), are important ingredients in many high-tech devices and clean technologies. You need them in iPod, laptop, cell phones, TV, hybrid cars, batteries, wind farm facilities, military applications etc.

Until the mid-1980s, a single US mine was the world’s main source of REE. It was shut down due to environment concerns and low prices and China cornered the market. Outside of China, there are 3 big potential sources of REE – in California, Canada and Australia. The California mine has not produced since 1998, the Australian mine was due to start production in 2011 but has just lost its financing and the Canadian mine is aiming at 2011. Together their annual production could amount to one third of China’s.

It is no surprise then that Chinese companies have bought stakes in the Australian and Canadian projects but were so far unsuccessful in buying the Californian project. China’s State Council, or Cabinet, recently was considering tightening export restriction or even banning the export of certain elements and closing mines. While this will increase prices, secure supply for its own needs and create jobs for its own people, this will cause fear among foreign companies and governments as they may not have access to the metals and this will lure more foreign companies to the country to set up manufacturing plants there.

But foreign and Chinese industry sources doubt Beijing’s dominant goal is to create an Opec-like price cartel as China has flooded the world market with cheap REE for more than a decade. Now, Beijing needs to ensure that it has enough materials to grow its own advanced and clean technology industries, especially in Inner Mongolia where it contains 75% of China’s REE deposits.

However, foreign companies and governments know that if the supply is suddenly stopped, production outside of China will be stopped as well. While the Pentagon has raised alarm over the US military’s vulnerability in the event of an armed conflict with China, the US has been slow in focusing on securing the supply of REE as compared to its supply of oil. Meanwhile, the Japanese firms such as Sumitomo Corp and Toyota Motor Corp have begun developing alternative sources of REE in Kazakhstan and Vietnam. The Japanese has great incentives to explore new sources and diversify its supply risks because it imports over 90% of REE from China. It would be interesting to see how these countries’ resource strategies will work out in this new century.

Sources:
Will China Tighten ‘Rare Earth’ Grip?
China predicts rare earths shortage
Beijing may tighten grip on rare earths

Cereplast

Strategy: To replace oil based plastics with bio-degradable replacements for global packaging needs by development and licensing of innovative products for packaging companies. Lessening dependence upon oil and capitalizing on consumer and government preferences for clean, organic packaging.

Product: At pricing that is 20-25% higher than comparable oil based products; Cereplast designs and manufactures proprietary bio-based, sustainable plastics used in all major converting processes – such as injection molding, thermoforming, blow molding and extrusions.

Market- On November 11, the company said it expects the U.S. bio-plastics market to reach $10 billion in sales by 2020.  The U.S. market accounted for approximately $1 billion in sales in 2007, with some estimates pointing to bio-plastics capturing 30% of the total plastics market by 2019. Cereplast has some products that are food based, with a focus on algae based products as well. Cereplast is an investment in their technology and the market.

Competition: Metabolix, Archer Daniels Midland, Alcoa, Synthetic Genomics, Martek

Funding: A private investor group led by a Swedish Bank has contributed funding in 2009, Cereplast has the right to sell $20MM of common stock to Cumorah Capital, and most significantly in 2007 the company announced it received $14.5 million in new capital through a private placement of common stock from a group of leading “green” institutional funds, including UBS Global Innovator Fund, Swisscanto Green Invest Fund, Fortis L Fund Equity Environmental Sustainability World, and Credit Suisse Future Energy Fund.

Stock Symbol (OTCBB:CERP)

In a related note, Exxon has invested $600 million in Synthetic Genomics and BP has a $10 million investment in Martek Biosciences that compete with Cereplast.

Management: Frederic Scheer, Founder, Chairman and CEO of Cereplast

Comment: This company is an investment in a growing sector, but is their technology superior to larger and better funded competitors? Will their food based products overcome the hurdles that corn based ethanol faced?

Sources:

http://www.cereplast.com/pressrealeasedetail_ir.php?newsid=118
http://cleantech.com/news/4597/cereplast-unveils-bio-based-compost

http://www.businesswire.com/portal/site/google/?ndmViewId=news_view&newsId=20091111005157&newsLang=en

http://www.tradingmarkets.com/.site/news/Stock%20News/2592242/
http://www.europeanplasticsnews.com/subscriber/headlines2.html?cat=1&id=1256200526