Startup Zen Electric pivoted their business strategy after Dal Innovates mentors encouraged them to double down on the unmatched Dalhousie battery science that powers their product.
When Ravi Kempaiah brought his startup Zen Electric Bikes to Dal Innovates’ Lab2Market Launch program, he intended to leverage its entrepreneurship training to revolutionize the e-bike market. After all, he was an e-bike evangelist. During his PhD at the University of Illinois Chicago, the engineer became a convert commuting to his lab each day.
Enamored by the transport’s ease and efficiency, in 2016 he set off on a mission to promote the e-bike advantage. It was an 8,200-kilometer journey from Madison, Wisconsin to San Diego, California that earned him a Guinness World-Record that stood for seven years.
At the end of the trip, he calculated the cost of the electricity he expended — six dollars.
“That was the aha moment. At that point, it became really clear in my mind that this is going to be my future,” says Kempaiah. “I shifted my focus from material science to true battery material science. I said, I must spend my life on this.”
He was charged up. But he hadn’t yet fully anticipated which way his current would flow.
With his new mission in mind, Kempaiah focused on finding the best university in the world to research battery science, a search that quickly landed him on Dalhousie’s doorstep.
“There's a chemistry initially developed here by Dr. Jeff Dahn and his research team that is in almost every power tool, laptop, phone, camera, so many things. What started here has changed the world in a lot of ways. It’s the Mecca of the battery research,” says Kempaiah.
Dr. Dahn’s research group at Dalhousie are responsible lithium-ion chemistry that is fundamental to battery science. It’s an innovation that his lab continues to build on. In a May 2022 paper published by the Journal of the Electrochemical Society his team, led by PhD student Connor Aiken, details a battery design with the potential to last 100 years.
Kempaiah joined Dahn’ Lab in 2021, with support from the Dahn Lab and the Mitacs Accelerate Entrepreneur program which provides $60,000 a year for two years to students and postdocs who are also advancing science-based startups. In addition to gaining Dr. Dahn as a postdoc supervisor, he added the revered researcher as a scientific advisor and investor.
With guidance from Dr. Dahn, Kempaiah is adapting the scientist’s cell technology to meet the needs of the e-bike and scooter market, including an innovation that allows for long battery life in hot climates.
Jeff Dahn. (Danny Abriel photo)
“When you have hot climates, lithium batteries degrade fast, a couple years when it's above 40 degrees all the time,” says Dr. Dahn. “So, this is where you need this long lifetime chemistry and I think Ravi’s one of the few people to appreciate how important it is.”
Indeed, it’s a significant differentiator for Zen which is targeting India and Africa for the future of their business, where temperatures top 40 degrees and almost everyone travels on two wheels.
With the science and inspiration in hand, Kempaiah was ready to build his venture. But says he initially stumbled out of the gate, not knowing where to start. “I was new to this whole ecosystem,” he says. “So, I turned to Dal Innovates and its programs to learn about the nuances of doing business here.”
Kempaiah says the program embedded him in Canada’s venture creation community and introduced him to opportunities and assistance available to entrepreneurs in the region and country. These leads eventually landed him on the radar of Sustainable Development Technology Canada, which provided Zen $100,000 in funding in 2022. Invest Nova Scotia also stepped up, providing a production bay in its Dartmouth, NS facility, where Zen has established a team of six employees.
But perhaps even more valuable was the mentorship Dal Innovates provided, advice Kempaiah credits for helping him look at his business with fresh perspective. During Dal Innovates’ 12-week Lab2Market Launch program focused on business model validation the e-bike evangelist had a revelation.
“Our mentors said, ‘Ravi, look at the forest, not just a single tree. Look at the real essential – the battery that goes into every two-wheeled electric vehicle on the planet,’” says Kempaiah.
While his bikes are state-of-art – the result of extensive design prototyping during a residency in Dalhousie’s Emera ideaHUB – Kempaiah realized Zen’s batteries are what truly sets the company apart. With a lifetime that is four times longer than today’s best-in-class batteries, their product is poised to become the world’s decisive leader.
So, Kempaiah pivoted. He hasn’t abandoned e-bikes — the company has two models that started shipping across Canada and United States in spring last year. But now he sees bikes as part of a much bigger business that has batteries at its core.
With a prototype under development in collaboration with a leading cell manufacturer, Zen is now looking for large-scale buyers.
Kempaiah has begun travelling the globe to meet with two- and three-wheel electric vehicle manufacturers interested in incorporating Zen’s battery tech. His first trip was with a Canadian CleanTech trade delegation to India in mid-February, supported by Canada’s Trade Commissioner Service and Global Affairs Canada.
His goal is to secure acquisition commitments so Zen can move their battery cell prototype into production. When they hit this stage, the company will be able to draw on the expertise of Novonix, another spin-off company that finds its origins in the Jeff Dahn lab.
Led by PhD alumnus Chris Burns, Novonix is a world-leading developer and supplier of high-performance materials and technologies for the global lithium-ion battery industry. Burns has joined Zen as an advisor and will be an important supporter in helping the company design and manufacture the packs that hold their cells. With collaboration, the company will be able to scale up quickly.
“We have this amazing opportunity at hand,” said Kempaiah three days before he left for India. “We are going to be talking to original equipment manufacturers to see how we can bring this battery technology from Dalhousie’s Dahn Lab to the Indian market through focused research partnerships. If it goes well, we will be bringing a couple of million dollars in orders our direction.”
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