Oklahoma City startup works on electric car batteries
By Paul Monies
Copyright © 2015 The Oklahoma Publishing Co.
Electric cars are few and far between in Oklahoma, but that isn’t stopping a startup company from charging ahead to find uses for the large advanced batteries once their driving life is over.
Spiers New Technologies began in late 2014 in a spartan warehouse in Oklahoma City. Dusty, discarded equipment from the previous tenant littered the floor, and there wasn’t a bathroom or office in sight.
But founder and President Dirk Spiers had a shipment of batteries coming from General Motors Co., and the auto giant needed to know if he was ready.
“That was the beginning of the most stressful period of my life,” Spiers said. “We only had a few weeks to find a warehouse with enough electricity, loading docks and HVAC, because it needs to be climate-controlled.
“We did everything upside down. We had a building, but we didn’t even have bathrooms. We had no heating. It was filthy. So in parallel with beginning production, you had to build and clean the place. It was a riot. It was an adventure.”
Almost a year later, Spiers New Technologies has about 15 employees and boasts contracts with GM, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., mobile charging station company FreeWire Technologies Inc. and Dorman Products Inc., an aftermarket supplier of batteries for the Toyota Prius hybrid.
Spiers New Technologies tests and rates the battery packs. Depending on how those tests go, the company provides repair, reuse or remanufacturing services. If they can’t go back into the vehicle, the batteries can be re-purposed for use in stationary storage to back up renewable generation or provide electricity services for industrial use.
“We can reuse the battery modules coming out of those automotive battery packs,” said Spiers, a native of The Netherlands who came to Oklahoma City on a consulting assignment almost five years ago. “The lithium ion technology in the battery cells of an electric car is the Usain Bolt of battery technology. It is much better than the battery you have in your camera, your mobile phone or your power drill. It is built to the highest quality standard and safety.”
Spiers has led engineers from all over the world through the warehouse, which has been fully refurbished with offices, testing areas and research and development space. He’s close to signing a lease on a second, bigger building just south of the first warehouse on NE 42. In addition, the company is looking at expanding to California and possibly Europe and Asia.
Spark of ingenuity
Spiers said the idea for the company came out of an intense interest in electric cars and their batteries. The batteries coming out of electric cars still have power, but at the end of their driving lives, it’s not enough to properly power a vehicle.
“Five years ago, I was thinking about this constantly,” Spiers said. “I thought, if remanufacturing exists for combustion engines and transmissions, why doesn’t it exist for batteries? But I’m not an engineer, so I kept thinking, reading, analyzing and checking. No one was doing it, and no one was talking about it. I kept thinking, ‘I must be stupid. What didn’t I understand?’”
At an industry conference, Spiers approached Tony Posawatz, the father of the Chevy Volt who went on to become CEO at Fisker Automotive, an electric vehicle manufacturer. Spiers asked for five minutes to explain his vision, and ended up talking to Posawatz for an hour.
“I said, ‘This is what I want to do,’” Spiers said. “And he was completely silent. Then he looked at me and said, ‘It’s brilliant. We never thought about it. But you’re correct.’ Some of his guys at GM called me 10 days later.”
Spiers convinced his then-employer, ATC Drivetrain Inc., to start a division four years ago to look into alternate uses for the batteries. ATC, a longtime Oklahoma City company, is an automatic transmission and engine remanufacturer.
“It was reasonably successful, but in the end, we were a startup in a very established company,” Spiers said of his time at ATC. “Our needs, our mentality and our culture was very, very different. It was a mismatch. We needed to invest. This is a very expensive business. If you believe in it, then you need to invest in it.”
Spiers and ATC parted ways last year, and Spiers struck out on his own. Spiers New Technologies raised more than $2.4 million in its first round of fundraising, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. About $500,000 came from i2E Inc., an Oklahoma nonprofit that focuses on technology-based startups. Spiers also receives internship grants from Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology.
“In the beginning, it’s really difficult,” Spiers said. “These are big companies. We are relatively small. It’s hard work to get there, but once they start to talk to us and see what we have, I think they’re convinced.”
As a logistics company shipping batteries across the United States and Canada, Spiers said Oklahoma’s central location has helped. The company also has a machine shop to develop many of its tools and manufacturing processes in-house.
“We have an incredible team of people,” Spiers said. “From making fixtures to tables, we do it in house. We have the tools to do it, but also the talent. It allows us to react much quicker, be more economic in what we do and control the whole process. If you’re a pioneer, you need to do your own
Part of that includes a goal of being energy neutral. The company plans to build covered parking with solar panels on top. Using a combination of solar power and battery storage, Spiers said the company can save thousands from its electric bill.
Electric vehicle sales
Lower gasoline prices have dented sales of electric vehicles a little in 2015, according to sales data from the Electric Drive Transportation Association. But Spiers, who alternates between a Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid and an all-electric Nissan Leaf for his in-town driving, remains convinced that is just a short-term blip.
“Once you drive electric, you do not go back,” he said. “Within in the next 10 years, electric cars will be cheaper than combustion-engine cars as the automotive industry starts to understand it.”
“Range anxiety” and safety issues from the batteries were among the major consumer concerns in the first versions of electric cars. Spiers said extensive testing and technological advances have solved the safety issues. Gone are the days when a nail or a wreck could set off a fire from a damaged electric car battery pack. First responders also are now trained in how to respond to accidents involving electric cars.
“We know about safety and how the cell technology has evolved,” Spiers said. “We know the community. We know the companies that have done destructive testing. Five years ago, if you drove a nail through one, it would take a corner off this building. Now, it gets
Taking his iPhone out of his pocket, Spiers points to the advances in the smartphone market since the iPhone was introduced in 2007. He said battery technology is on a similar trajectory.
“We are on the sixth- and seventh-generation of smartphones,” Spiers said. “We’re still on the first generation of electric cars. In a short period, prices are coming down, range is going up, and the vehicles are just phenomenal — it’s instant torque.”
Spiers’ newest customer, Dorman, is an aftermarket battery supplier for the Toyota Prius line of hybrid cars. Those batteries, used in conjunction with a combustion engine, are nickel-metal hydrides. The first ones are now more than a decade old, but there are more than 1.5 million Priuses on the road in the United States, representing a huge market for future battery reuse and servicing.
“We are very aggressive and very ambitious, but we’re also very lucky,” Spiers said. “What we do is unique. No one else is doing it, and we want to keep it that way, so we keep investing in resources, equipment and people to stay ahead of the curve.”