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The Station: Via makes a $100M acquisition and a chat with GM about battery tech

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The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every weekend in your inbox

Hi friends and new readers, welcome back to The Station, a newsletter dedicated to all the present and future ways people and packages move from Point A to Point B.

I changed things up this week to make room for an interview we had with Mike Lelli, senior manager of advanced battery cell technology over at GM. That means I don’t have the typical roundup at the bottom of EVERYTHING, or most things, that happened this week. But don’t worry, I’ll bring that back next issue.

You might recall, or maybe not, that GM president Mark Reuss announced last week a partnership with SolidEnergy Systems, an MIT spinoff. GM and SES plan to work together to improve the energy density of lithium-ion batteries. The companies are going to build a prototyping facility in Woburn, Massachusetts and aim to have a high-capacity, pre-production battery by 2023.

As one reader pointed out to me, the partnership is an interesting next step in GM’s interest in SES. Five years ago, GM Ventures, the VC arm of the automaker, invested in SES. Rohit Makharia, a longtime engineer turned investment manager at GM Ventures, is now the COO at SES. In other words, this isn’t some casual relationship.

Scroll below for a Q&A with Lelli.

Email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, offer up opinions or tips. You can also send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Q&A: GM’s battery plans

the station electric vehicles1

After the partnership between GM and SolidEnergy Systems was announced, we (meaning me and TC reporter Rebecca Bellan) jumped on the phone with Mike Lelli, senior manager of advanced battery cell technology at GM, to try and learn about about the automaker’s battery plans.

Specifically, we wanted to find out if SES was going to be providing the tech for the next generation of Ultium batteries. I’m not talking about the first generation of Ultium batteries that are going in the upcoming GMC Hummer. We’re talking next generation. We also wanted to learn more about GM’s approach to battery development.

The interview with Lelli was edited for clarity and brevity.

TECHCRUNCH: You’ve said that GM is trying to increase energy twofold and reduce the cost of batteries by 60%. So are you aiming to work directly with SolidEnergy Systems on building the next generation of Ultium batteries?

LELLI: The SolidEnergy Systems arrangement includes building a prototype line in Massachusetts. So, this new technology will be built on that line.

TECHCRUNCH: Are you looking at any other battery tech startups to help speed R&D along?

LELLI: I would just say, stay tuned on that; we have a lot more to announce in the future. In the meantime, work is continuing on lithium-metal batteries and other related technologies at our R&D lab. We’re working on many different technologies at this point, including high voltage cathode, electrolytes, dry processing, battery raw materials etc.

TECHCRUNCH: GM already has a lot of critical IP in the space of lithium metal batteries. How is SES filling in the gaps?

LELLI: Well they have strengths and we have strengths and that’s the beauty of this arrangement. SolidEnergy Systems is a very innovative technology company and they offer many novel ideas around lithium metal anode technology, and manufacturing and, of course, we do as well. That’s where their strength is.

They also have a strength in electrolytes, but we have a strength in electrolytes as well and we have IP around electrolytes that we think could be an enabler to this technology. We have 49 patents and over 45 pending in this lithium metal space, so we’ve been working on it for a while. This isn’t something that we’ve thought about, you know, a year ago and saying, ‘hey what are we going to do next?’ This is stuff we’ve been working on for quite some time.

TECHCRUNCH: How is GM thinking about pushing for reductions in nickel and cobalt? Is that a priority?

LELLI: When we came out with the event last year on the Ultium battery, we were very focused on the precious metals. And you may remember that we commented that our cathode would be NCMA — nickel, cobalt, manganese, aluminum. We said that technology we were taking on because it was able to reduce cobalt by over 70%, and we’re able to do that by building a cathode with aluminum. 

We’re always focused on these raw materials and reducing high-cost materials and materials that are hard to get. That’s part of my group’s job; my group is responsible for the technology roadmap relative to all these different spaces within the cell: the cathode active material, separator, electrolyte, anode material, the different ways to process the cathode in manufacturing —  right now we have a wet process and if we can get dry to work, it’ll be less expensive. We work in all of these spaces simultaneously to reduce costs.

The beauty with the SolidEnergy arrangement is that we can put any of those cathodes that we develop and we can tie that to the lithium metal anode. The key work we’re doing with SolidEnergy is getting the lithium anode technology to work, and then we can, at some point in time, continue to change the cathode part of that cell for further cost reduction and less reliance on some of these critical battery materials out there.

TECHCRUNCH: The work around the anode is really the key to unlocking that energy density, is my understanding. Are there any other benefits?

LELLI: Equally important is the electrolyte. Because the electrolyte is not just a commodity where you can buy it and put it in. It has the electrochemistry and the kinetic of electrochemistry in the cell are very dependent on the electrolyte.

And so the life of a cell will be very dependent on what electrolyte — and the electrochemistry behind that electrolyte — and how it reacts with the materials you’re using, like lithium.

Lithium gives us energy density, but then you also have to design a cell that lasts many cycles, and so to do that you have to understand all the other parts and pieces of the cell that enable that. An electrolyte is an extremely critical part of that. 

TECHCRUNCH: Is SES only working with GM or is it working with other automakers or clients?

LELLI: SolidEnergy Systems can work with other OEMs and, of course, we can work with other technologies. We’re not restricting SolidEnergy Systems in any way.

TECHCRUNCH: What are you expecting the range to be for the next generation of Ultium batteries?

LELLI: It’s conceivable that the range of our production in lithium metal batteries could be as high as 500 to 600 miles, but that really depends on the car you’re putting it into. If you put the same battery in a truck, it’s not going to have the range that if we took that same battery and put it in a small car. It really depends on the product you’re putting the battery in to answer that question, but to give you a frame of reference, 500 to 600 miles is conceivable.

TECHCRUNCH: Has GM identified which vehicles will receive the first generation Ultium battery, besides the GMC Hummer?

The Cadillac Lyriq and the Cruise Origin will be among the first. 

Deal of the week

money the station

Earlier this year, I predicted that Via was going to have a big year; I was right. The on-demand shuttle startup turned mobility-as-a-service provider has been expanding, snapping up contracts with cities globally. And now it’s expanding through acquisitions.

Via bought Remix, the startup that developed mapping software used by cities for transportation planning and street design, for $100 million in cash and equity. Remix will become a subsidiary of Via, an arrangement that will let the startup maintain its independent brand. Remix’s 65 employees and two of its co-founders — CEO Tiffany Chu and CTO Dan Getelman — will stay on.

Remix’s strength is in planning, while Via brings expertise in software and operations. The acquisition should nicely rounded out Via’s current business and help it capture more customers, which currently number more than 350 local governments in 22 countries.

I’m not so sure that Via is done. I expect more deal making — maybe even a bid to go public — by this company that last year hit a $2.25 billion valuation after raising $400 million in a Series E round.

Other deals that got my attention … 

Damon Motors, the electric motorcycle company, raised more than $30M in funding, completing a bridge round led by Benevolent Capital, SOL Global Investments, Zirmania, and others.

FlexClub, the South African-based car subscription startup founded in 2019, raised $5 million in equity and debt. This is a seed extension round, bringing the total investment raised by FlexClub to over $6 million. The company recently expanded to Mexico.

Optibus, the transit-focused software-as-service company based in Israel, raised a $107 million in a Series C round co-led by Bessemer Venture Partners and Insight Partners.

Populus AI, a San Francisco-based startup founded in 2017, has raised $5 million from new investors Storm Ventures and contract manufacturing and supplier company Magna along with existing backers Precursor, Relay Ventures and Ulu Ventures. The company has raised nearly $9 million to date.

Zego, the insurtech that got its start by offering flexible motorbike insurance for gig economy workers, has raised $150 million. DST Global led the London-based company’s C round, which gave it a $1.1 billion valuation and a unicorn status.  Other new backers include General Catalyst, whose founder and MD, Joel Cutler, joins Zego’s board. Zego has since expanded its business to offer a range of tech-enabled commercial motor insurance products.

A deep dive: the Volkswagen ID. 4

vw id 4 electric crossover

Image Credits: Volkswagen

I recently brought on Abigail Bassett, a World Car Juror and longtime journalist who writes about cars and tech (among other topics) to review some of the most important vehicles of 2021. Last month, Tamara Warren (another longtime reporter in autos and tech) reviewed the Aston Martin DBX, a vehicle that is critical to the automaker’s survival.

This month, Bassett takes a deep dive into the Volkswagen ID. 4, a five-passenger, fully electric crossover with a starting price of $33,995 (before federal or state incentives).

The ID. 4 matters. A lot. Volkswagen, once a dabbler in electric vehicles, is now betting its future on the technology.

Did the ID.4 make the grade? Bassett tested it on three different occasions. I suggest you read the whole article, but for those busy folks here is the tl;dr: The VW ID.4 offers a balanced blend of technology, comfort and design for a more affordable price. It offers solid technology without being so out of this world that your average crossover buyer will balk … with one exception. The lack of seamless charging makes finding and then connecting to a third-party charging station a clunky, even complex experience.

Read more by clicking below.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Vietnamese electric motorbike startup Dat Bike raises $2.6M led by Jungle Ventures

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Son Nguyen, founder and chief executive officer of Dat Bike on one of the startup's motorbikes

Son Nguyen, founder and chief executive officer of Dat Bike

Dat Bike, a Vietnamese startup with ambitions to become the top electric motorbike company in Southeast Asia, has raised $2.6 million in pre-Series A funding led by Jungle Ventures. Made in Vietnam with mostly domestic parts, Dat Bike’s selling point is its ability to compete with gas motorbikes in terms of pricing and performance. Its new funding is the first time Jungle Ventures has invested in the mobility sector and included participation from Wavemaker Partners, Hustle Fund and iSeed Ventures.

Founder and chief executive officer Son Nguyen began learning how to build bikes from scrap parts while working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. In 2018, he moved back to Vietnam and launched Dat Bike. More than 80% of households in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam own two-wheeled vehicles, but the majority are fueled by gas. Nguyen told TechCrunch that many people want to switch to electric motorbikes, but a major obstacle is performance.

Nguyen said that Dat Bike offers three times the performance (5 kW versus 1.5 kW) and 2 times the range (100 km versus 50 km) of most electric motorbikes in the market, at the same price point. The company’s flagship motorbike, called Weaver, was created to compete against gas motorbikes. It seats two people, which Nguyen noted is an important selling point in Southeast Asian countries, and has a 5000W motor that accelerates from 0 to 50 km per hour in three seconds. The Weaver can be fully charged at a standard electric outlet in about three hours, and reach up to 100 km on one charge (the motorbike’s next iteration will go up to 200 km on one charge).

Dat Bike’s opened its first physical store in Ho Chi Minh City last December. Nguyen said the company “has shipped a few hundred motorbikes so far and still have a backlog of orders.” He added that it saw a 35% month-over-month growth in new orders after the Ho Chi Minh City store opened.

At 39.9 million dong, or about $1,700 USD, Weaver’s pricing is also comparable to the median price of gas motorbikes. Dat Bike partners with banks and financial institutions to offer consumers twelve-month payment plans with no interest.

“These guys are competing with each other to put the emerging middle class of Vietnam on the digital financial market for the first time ever and as a result, we get a very favorable rate,” he said.

While Vietnam’s government hasn’t implemented subsidies for electric motorbikes yet, the Ministry of Transportation has proposed new regulations mandating electric infrastructure at parking lots and bike stations, which Nguyen said will increase the adoption of electric vehicles. Other Vietnamese companies making electric two-wheeled vehicles include VinFast and PEGA.

One of Dat Bike’s advantages is that its bikes are developed in house, with locally-sourced parts. Nguyen said the benefits of manufacturing in Vietnam, instead of sourcing from China and other countries, include streamlined logistics and a more efficient supply chain, since most of Dat Bike’s suppliers are also domestic.

“There are also huge tax advantages for being local, as import tax for bikes is 45% and for bike parts ranging from 15% to 30%,” said Nguyen. “Trade within Southeast Asia is tariff-free though, which means that we have a competitive advantage to expand to the region, compare to foreign imported bikes.”

Dat Bike plans to expand by building its supply chain in Southeast Asia over the next two to three years, with the help of investors like Jungle Ventures.

In a statement, Jungle Ventures founding partner Amit Anand said, “The $25 billion two-wheeler industry in Southeast Asia in particular is ripe for reaping benefits of new developments in electric vehicles and automation. We believe that Dat Bike will lead this charge and create a new benchmark not just in the region but potentially globally for what the next generation of two-wheeler electric vehicles will look and perform like.”

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Binance Labs leads $1.6M seed round in DeFi startup MOUND, the developer of Pancake Bunny

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Decentralized finance startup MOUND, known for its yield farming aggregator Pancake Bunny, has raised $1.6 million in seed funding led by Binance Labs. Other participants included IDEO CoLab, SparkLabs Korea and Handshake co-founder Andrew Lee.

Built on Binance Smart Chain, a blockchain for developing high-performance DeFi apps, MOUND says Pancake Bunny now has over 30,000 daily average users, and has accumulated more than $2.1 billion in total value locked (TVL) since its launch in December 2020.

The new funding will be used to expand Pancake Bunny and develop new products. MOUND recently launched Smart Vaults and plans to unveil Cross-Chain Collateralization in about a month, bringing the startup closer to its goal of covering a wide range of DeFi use cases, including farming, lending and swapping.

Smart Vaults are for farming single asset yields on leveraged lending products. It also automatically checks if the cost of leveraging may be more than anticipated returns and can actively lend assets for MOUND’s cross-chain farming.

Cross-Chain Collateralization is cross-chain yield farming that lets users keep original assets on their native blockchain instead of relying on a bridge token. The user’s original assets serve as collateral when the Bunny protocol borrows assets on the Binance Smart Chain for yield farming. This allows users to keep assets on native blockchains while giving them liquidity to generate returns on the Binance Smart Chain.

In statement, Wei Zhou, Binance chief financial officer, and head of Binance Labs and M&A’s, said “Pancake Bunny’s growth and MOUND’s commitent to execution are impressive. Team MOUND’s expertise in live product design and servie was a key factor in our decision to invest. We look forward to expanding the horizons of Defi together with MOUND.”

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Battery Resourcers raises $20M to commercialize its recycling-plus-manufacturing operations

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As a greater share of the transportation market becomes electrified, companies have started to grapple with how to dispose of the thousands of tons of used electric vehicle batteries that are expected to come off the roads by the end of the decade.

Battery Resourcers proposes a seemingly simple solution: recycle them. But the company doesn’t stop there. It’s engineered a “closed loop” process to turn that recycled material into nickel-manganese-cobalt cathodes to sell back to battery manufacturers. It is also developing a process to recover and purify graphite, a material used in anodes, to battery-grade.

Battery Resourcers’ business model has attracted another round of investor attention, this time with a $20 million Series B equity round led by Orbia Ventures, with injections from At One Ventures, TDK Ventures, TRUMPF Venture, Doral Energy-Tech Ventures and InMotion Ventures. Battery Resourcers CEO Mike O’Kronley declined to disclose the company’s new valuation.

The cathode and anode, along with the electrolyzer, are major components of battery architecture, and O’Kronley told TechCrunch it is this recycling-plus-manufacturing process that distinguishes the company from other recyclers.

“When we say that we’re on the verge of revolutionizing this industry, what we are doing is we are making the cathode active material — we’re not just recovering the metals that are in the battery, which a lot of other recyclers are doing,” he said. “We’re recovering those materials, and formulating brand new cathode active material, and also recovering and purifying the graphite active material. So those two active materials will be sold to a battery manufacturer and go right back into the new battery.”

“Other recycling companies, they’re focused on recovering just the metals that are in [batteries]: there’s copper, there’s aluminum, there’s nickel, there’s cobalt. They’re focused on recovering those metals and selling them back as commodities into whatever industry needs those metals,” he added. “And they may or may not go back into a battery.”

The company says its approach could reduce the battery industry’s reliance on mined metals — a reliance that’s only anticipated to grow in the coming decades. A study published last December found that demand for cobalt could increase by a factor of 17 and nickel by a factor of 28, depending on the size of EV uptake and advances in battery chemistries.

Thus far, the company’s been operating a demonstration-scale facility in Worcester, Massachusetts, and has expanded into a facility in Novi, Michigan, where it does analytical testing and material characterization. Between the two sites, the company can make around 15 tons of cathode materials a year. This latest funding round will help facilitate the development of a commercial-scale facility, which Battery Resourcers said in a statement will boost its capacity to process 10,000 tons of batteries per year, or batteries from around 20,000 EVs.

Another major piece of its proprietary recycling process is the ability to take in both old and new EV batteries, process them and formulate the newest kind of cathodes used in today’s batteries. “So they can take in 10-year-old batteries from a Chevy Volt and reformulate the metals to make the high-Ni cathode active materials in use today,” a company spokesman explained to TechCrunch.

Battery Resourcers is already receiving inquiries from automakers and consumer electronics companies, O’Kronley said, though he did not provide additional details. But InMotion Ventures, the venture capital arm of Jaguar Land Rover, said in a statement its participation in the round as a “significant investment.”

“[Battery Resourcers’] proprietary end-to-end recycling process supports Jaguar Land Rover’s journey to become a net zero carbon business by 2039,” InMotion managing director Sebastian Peck said.

Battery Resourcers was founded in 2015 after being spun out from Massachusetts’ Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The company has previously received support from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium, a collaboration between General Motors, Ford Motor Company and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

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