We had the privilege of conducting a Q&A session with Mr Nir Vaks, Director at Lummus Technology and an accomplished Electrification & Mobility Futurist with extensive experience in the fields of energy transition, EV technology, innovation, and business development. In this Q&A Session, we explore the impact of various modes of electric transportation on promoting sustainability, the challenges faced by startups in the EV industry, the creation of intellectual property, and the significance of events like the London EV Show in advancing the electric vehicle industry.
Let's delve into Mr. Vaks' valuable insights and observations.
#LEVS: Electric vehicles such as cars, buses, and vans have already gained significant traction in promoting sustainability. However, when it comes to other modes of transportation like electric aircraft, electric ships, and eVTOLs, what impact do these vehicles have on promoting sustainability, and how likely are they to be widely adopted in the near future?
Mr Nir: This is a fantastic question. We are all witnessing rapid adoption of Electric Vehicles (EVs) technology in the automotive field. All you need to do is look at the road and you can start seeing EVs everywhere, especially around cities with high density areas. Conventional car manufacturers who have been manufacturing internal combustion vehicles for decades are pivoting towards EVs and are making unprecedented investments. For example, Ford is already investing >$50 billion in the development and manufacturing of EVs. GM is not far behind and will invest >$35 billion in EV product development, far exceeding GM's gas and diesel future investments. Other manufacturers including Volkswagen, Hyundai and other American, European, and Asian car makers are making unprecedented investments in this sector. This is in addition to an increasing attention to investments toward developing and strengthening infrastructure such as EV charging stations, service of EVs, and standardisation of the industry.
So it is obvious to see that adoption of EV cars will only continue and accelerate in the upcoming years and by 2030, the average share of electric cars in total sales across China, the EU and the United States is set to rise to around 60% of overall car sales.
But remember, Vehicular applications are not restricted to the Automotive sector. What about other modes of transportation such as electric boats or Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) aircraft? If we wish to continue promoting sustainability, we need to increase the adoption of EVs in the Aerospace and Naval sectors as well.
When it comes to Electrification in the aerospace sector, a particular application that gained a lot of attention is electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL); a variety of aircrafts that use electric power to hover, take off, and land vertically. This technology is only a few years from commercialization thanks to major advancements in electric propulsion coupled with the need for new aerial vehicles for urban air mobility that can enable greener and quieter flights. Significant investments and headway is made by both legacy manufacturers such as Airbus, Boeing, Embraer, Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota, as well as several start-up companies including Archer Aviation, Joby Aviation, and Volocopter. Currently, the global eVTOL market value worth estimated to be over 7 billion, and anticipated to be worth over 30 billion by 2030. Many wonder why what appears to be a niche application gets so much attention? but if one considers the fact that eVTOLs are expected to be integrated into the Transportation (e.g. air taxi, logistics/goods), Agriculture (e.g. smart surveillance, selective pesticide dusting), and Security(e.g. surveillance, law enforcement, combat) sectors, one can see how disruptive and pervasive impact such technology will have.
Other applications such as large scale hybrid or all electric aircraft for cargo, leisure, and defense are still at least a decade or two away from any significant commercialization mainly due to technical reasons such as insufficient power- and energy density (e.g. batteries), but this is a matter of when rather than if.
When it comes to vehicular applications, one of the most exciting sectors is the Naval sector. This includes hybridization or full electrification of shipping, passenger/cruise, and defense applications. Specifically, we are seeing significant advancements in full electric propulsion by using the so-called Integrated Electric Propulsion (IEP) system approach. IEP is an arrangement of marine propulsion systems such that diesel/gas-based generators generate electric power which is then conditioned and used to power electric motors turning either propellers or impellers. At the present, we are already seeing the use of IEP system in various applications such as defense (e.g. DDG-1000, Queen Elizabeth carrier), cargo (e.g. Queen Mary II), and research (e.g. Nichinan-class, Leeuwin-class).
Since this technology is relatively mature compared to many other applications, the use of electric propulsion in Naval applications is expected to rapidly accelerate in the upcoming decade.
#LEVS: What advice would you give to startups or organisations seeking financial support for their electric vehicle-related projects or research, considering your experience in securing funding through various programs and grants? How can these startups effectively overcome the technical and business challenges associated with entering the EV industry?
Mr Nir: Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to create and promote disruptive technologies in the areas of electrification and mobility. Through the roles I have held thus far in my career, as CTO, business founder, vice president, global director, professor, board member, consultant, and engineer, I have had the chance to secure both private, state, and federal funding.
To the technically oriented people who are seeking financial support for their projects or research, I would advise to look at all possible financial vehicles currently present. First, for the ideation and low TRL (technical readiness level 5 or below) I would try and do preliminary bootstrap (self funding) work as much as possible. This will include ideation, simulation/modelling, and maybe even basic/initial software/hardware development. While doing this, I encourage all to keep as much of this development confidential while also being diligent documenting all related development. This will not only allow one to further develop their technology without diluting their ownership but will also be used to secure IP in the form of trade secrets and future patents.
One thing that is truly important is to make sure you consult with people who a) you can trust, b) have experience in innovation/entrepreneurship, c) are critical thinkers and can provide out-of-the-box insight.
Once this step is completed, I encourage starting to look at securing funding through two different approaches: 1. private (such banks, VCs, other companies) and 2. public (such as federal or state solicitations and grants).
As far as the other steps, I can go over many things and tips that you can readily find by reading books or websites that discuss entrepreneurship and startups. Instead, I would like to provide some tips based on my own meandering experience.
Some tips based on my experience:
- The client is (almost) always right – make sure that you have a vision, but at the same time, be flexible. You might believe that your idea/technology is the best thing since the invention of the wheel, but if you can’t get true interest and support, your idea is worth nothing. Do not hesitate to change and pivot despite your belief and vision. Ideas are great, technology is awesome, but investors and clients are everything!
- The company is your vessel towards success – all business should be done through an official business entity (i.e. business). Make sure you choose a business structure that best fits your present and future business needs. If you are going for a small but sustainable business, you might want to go with Sole Proprietorship, Partnership, or LLC. If you wish to go the startup way and get investors, C-corp or S-corp might be the way to go. The structure of the business might not seem very important at the start of your journey, but as you find success, it is probably one of the most important choices one can make early on.
- Find a mentor(s) – find a mentor with knowledge, experience, and shrewdness. Your mentor should be a person you can trust, learn from their experience, and get constructive criticism. Remember, a good mentor, many times, is like a good lawyer, their value is measured not by giving you advice about what to do... but actually being the person to tell you what not to do.
- Search for Lawyers – any business that is tech heavy requires at least two forms of lawyers. A Patent lawyer (for IP) and a Corporate lawyer (for contracts). Make sure you identify them earlier on by having 1-on-1 discussion with them before moving forward.
- Join an accelerator/incubator – there are a lot of accelerators/incubators that provide advice, support, networking, and even space for low- to no- cost. Make sure you find the appropriate one and join. FYI, in my opinion, you should think twice if any accelerator/incubator requires you to give a share and dilute your ownership.
- Join a consortium – we do not operate in a vacuum and regardless of how novel and groundbreaking your technology is, there are at least a number of entities that are doing something similar. Joining consortiums will allow you to meet these people, get insight about the market, and maybe even find your next investor/client/partner.
- The “conventional” EV market is tough – the conventional EV market (cars, motors, chargers, etc.) is a saturated market that is going through growth but also consolidation by multibillion dollar companies. Don’t try and compete against the big ones... try and find a niche where your technology/product truly shines.
- Grants and solicitations are your friend – There is a lot of $$$ out there especially when it comes to local and federal government support. Make sure you look at all related solicitations including SBC funds (Small Business), DoD, DOE, DOT, Rapid Innovation funds, and many others. You will be surprised how much $$$ is out there!
#LEVS: Is there a streamlined process for the creation of extensive intellectual property, including trade secrets, patents, and licensing that can facilitate and promote the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs)?
Mr Nir: In addition to what I discussed in the last question, first and foremost, make sure that you do a lot of reading about IP creation (and protection). Regardless, here are some tips that are not always in the books:
- Trade secrets are your friends - Early on, you might not have much money or ready go-to-market technology, so your best route will be trade secrets. Make sure you document everything as early as possible (right from the ideation stage). Make sure you have it properly dated and filed/saved in a safe and secure place. Sometimes, having a good trade secret is more important than a patent (Tesla is a great example of a company that does just that)
- Quality over quantity – Make sure you file your provisional when you are ready and make it as broad as possible. If you file just so you can have “a patent”, think again. One single patent that is broad and encompasses wide technology bandwidth is better than hundreds of small and diluted patents (Lucid motors is a good example).
- IP strategy and go to market – your IP strategy needs to tie in with your go to market plan. Your IP is not only protecting your technology, but also your ability to penetrate and establish a foothold in a market
- IP strategy and size – Ask yourself very basic questions before deciding on an IP strategy. Here are some questions you should ask yourself.
- How big do you want your company to be? Example: a company that is a knowledge based “subject matter expert” will have a very different strategy compared to a multi-million dollar manufacturing company.
- What do I want the company to do? Example: do a want to provide the IP and technical know-how (licensing might be a good route for commercialization), or do I want to manufacture the technology myself (aggressive patenting might be a good way to commercialization)
- What is your product? Is it software or hardware? Is it easy to protect (i.e. hard to circumvent)?
- What does success look like? Is it $$$ that I am looking and how much time do I think this will take before I achieve success . For instance, if you want to sell your software-based startup within two years, filing for patents might not be the best route as it usually takes over 3 years to receive a full patent after filing.
#LEVS: How do events like the London EV Show contribute to the advancement and growth of the electric vehicle industry, particularly in terms of innovation, market awareness, and industry collaboration, based on your experiences and observations?
Mr Nir: I will start with the following- personally, my first connection with my first big client was through a technical conference in Chicago Illinois over a decade ago. So, at least in my case, I am living proof of the importance of such venues.
- Knowledge sharing- such venues bring together experts, researchers, and professionals from a specific field or industry. Attendees can learn about the latest trends, best practices, and innovative approaches through presentations, workshops, and discussions. This fosters professional growth and helps stay up to date with the rapidly evolving landscape... especially when considering a fast-evolving market like the EV market.
- Networking opportunities- building a strong professional network can lead to collaborations on projects, research partnerships, job opportunities, and mentorship. These allow individuals to meet like-minded professionals, exchange ideas, and create lasting connections that can benefit their careers and contribute to their personal growth.
- Collaboration and partnerships- These events facilitate discussions, brainstorming sessions, and workshops that can lead to the formation of research collaborations, joint ventures, and partnerships for innovation. Also, this encourages interdisciplinary approaches and opens doors for new collaborations that can drive technological advancements.
- Professional development- Technical conferences often offer workshops, tutorials, and training sessions on specific topics or technologies.
- Presenting research and gaining recognition- Provides researchers and professionals with a platform to present their work, share their findings, and receive feedback from peers and experts in their field. This also allows one to establish credibility, and contribute to the advancement of knowledge in their domain. It also offers an opportunity to receive valuable input and suggestions from the community, which can further enhance their work.