La Vecchia: “A little nanoFlowcell® doesn't work”
How close is the nanoFlowcell® flow cell to market readiness? When will production start of the first QUANT electric vehicles? How realistic is a nanoFlowcell® power station? FLOWmag speaks to Nunzio La Vecchia, CEO of nanoFlowcell Holdings Ltd.
Mr. La Vecchia, following a succession of technological and corporate highlights over the last few years, your company seems to have gone very quiet in recent months. Why is that?
It’s true that we achieved a breakthrough in the technical development of our nanoFlowcell® in 2016 and 2017. It was a watershed for the development of our nanoFlowcell® 48VOLT low-voltage drive as well as other application opportunities. We provided regular and detailed information on this development progress – and on our associated corporate prospects. The technical market readiness forced us also to think about the development of our company and our role as an integrated research and development company. We considered several different development scenarios, from sale to going public. Alongside the evaluation of various corporate development options, we also spent the last two years working hard on the market readiness of our technology concept – especially on how we can transfer our technology from the lab into mass production. Both of these are tough, time-consuming processes. And while we’re making progress, there isn’t a highlight to announce every month. Less spotlight and more hard graft.
What do you see right now and going forward as the greatest difficulties for your company and the commercialisation of nanoFlowcell®? Certain critical voices are casting doubt on whether nanoFlowcell® is a production-ready technology.
I have to expand a little on that: In the recent past, the company certainly suffered from the fact that, as CEO, I was not always able to be present to the degree necessary to drive forward company development in a more targeted manner. I became the target of defamation in Switzerland in a very private matter and was forced to take legal steps to defend myself – something that consumed a great deal of my energy. Ultimately, the disputes were finally and fully settled by mutual agreement in August 2018. However, at least I now have a clear head to concentrate once more 100 percent on the challenges that lie ahead. The priority among them is the construction of a pilot facility. We’re working hard on our QUANT City project – our future research and development centre, which will also be an international knowledge hub for flow cell research and application development. Over the last few months we have evaluated a large number of possible locations for QUANT City and undertaken a series of feasibility studies. We’ve narrowed the shortlist down to a small number of locations and are certain that we’ll be able to take a decision within this half of the year. That will be a milestone for us.
Production of the nanoFlowcell® on an industrialised scale and the mass production of bi-ION® will also silence the final doubters. Those who currently criticise us for not permitting independent lab testing of nanoFlowcell® and bi-ION® are only interested in a cheap buy-in to our technology. It would not be the first time that an innovation finds its way to market via re-engineering. It seems that ethical entrepreneurship is a scarce commodity these days, as we too have already been the victim of industrial espionage. Nobody can blame us, therefore, for wanting to protect our research findings – our intellectual property. At least until we’re able to commercialise our R&D work.
The decision to build QUANT City presumably means you’ve decided not to sell nanoFlowcell?
You could say that. Although selling it was only ever a theoretical option. Our company is not for sale. We want to remain independent and self-sufficient, so that we’re not obliged to anyone. That doesn’t mean we don’t value cooperation with other companies in research and development. Over the years, we’ve received a great deal of encouragement from industry for our technology, and many manufacturers remain closely involved in our technical development to this day. We also speak openly with these manufacturers about the problems that have emerged in respect of commercialising our technology. For instance, we have to be able to demonstrate industrial mass production of the nanoFlowcell® membrane and the bi-ION® electrolyte liquid with no loss in quality or performance compared with its production in the lab. On top of that, we have to work on our business concept. Many potential partners have expressed concerns about our monopoly with regards to the flow cell and its associated bi-ION® “fuel”. An energy technology like nanoFlowcell® is without doubt disruptive and, depending on the industry, will leave virtually no room for other energy carriers in the long term, especially given that nanoFlowcell® is not compatible with other battery systems. Considering this and the market potential for environmentally friendly stationary and mobile energy carriers, it’s an “all or nothing” case for nanoFlowcell®. A little nanoFlowcell® doesn't work. And the question of intellectual property is obviously a very important one for manufacturers.
Car makers are currently investing heavily in new technologies and business models. What’s making them hesitant to pursue a nanoFlowcell® 48VOLT low-voltage drive?
It’s true that automakers are facing enormous change. On one side, manufacturers are looking for sustainable solutions for powertrain electrification. And, on the other, increasing digitalisation of the vehicle and accompanying services is also changing existing business models for car manufacturers. When it comes to powertrain electrification, there won’t be an evolutionary development of tried-and-tested technologies, rather a disruptive technology transformation. The nanoFlowcell® 48VOLT low-voltage drive is currently the only EV technology that is both ecologically and economically sustainable. But manufacturers continue to hesitate because of the reasons I mentioned earlier. Hesitation to make a move that will result in the transformation of the company and, as a consequence, an entire industry is understandable to a certain extent. However, when a leading auto executive asserts: “Electric mobility is like a good party: If you arrive too early, you’re left standing alone on the dance floor. If you arrive too late, you miss the best moments,” I can only respond: If you compare the need to develop electric mobility with a party, you don’t understand the gravity of the situation.
But let’s stay with that comparison. What would a party with nanoFlowcell® be like?
Ideally, it would be a party where everyone arrives at the same time. Why should anyone want to hold off from going there? A nanoFlowcell® flow cell drive will make electric mobility considerably more attractive than it is right now. Electric cars powered by nanoFlowcell® have ranges comparable with those of diesel vehicles, without the harmful emissions, and are just as easy and fast to refuel. Our 48-volt low-voltage drive technology also offers a previously unattained level of inherent electrical safety with absolutely no detriment to performance. I would therefore turn the question back to you: If you could drive an electric car that is superior to other vehicles – petrol-powered or electric – in terms of range, speed, safety, environmental sustainability and maintenance requirements, and that is also well designed and no more expensive than a current ICE vehicle, wouldn’t you choose a vehicle like that?
But the vehicle isn’t the only issue. I would also have to be able to refuel an EV powered by a nanoFlowcell®. Have you already discussed cooperations on this or worked out any other solutions?
For outsiders, this might seem like a chicken-and-egg problem, but that’s not the case. As I said, the key to the market success of our nanoFlowcell® technology is a reliable process for mass producing the bi-ION® electrolytes and cell membranes. Once it’s available, actually distributing and selling bi-ION® is a straightforward process. We will offer fuel-station operators a sound business concept based on the existing fuel-station business model and complementary to their current offering. From a technical standpoint, a nanoFlowcell®-powered EV is refuelled with bi-ION® electrolyte liquid just like a regular vehicle is with diesel or petrol. The only difference is that bi-ION® doesn’t have any hazmat requirements because the electrolyte liquid is neither flammable nor explosive and, on top of that, it’s also unharmful to health and the environment. This makes equipping existing fuel-station infrastructures faster, easier and less expensive than the establishment of a widespread charging infrastructure for conventional electric cars.
Are you facing the emergence of new competitors among American companies that are actively conducting research into flow cells? Will players there too soon be building complete powertrain systems for electric vehicles?
Potentially, yes. But because we commenced our research into modern flow cells early on, we have established a healthy lead. As far as I’m aware, a few companies are working on mobile fuel cells. However, we’re the only company that has developed a complete electric powertrain system for electric vehicles – not to mention a road-legal vehicle with fuel cell drive. It will take some time for any other company to be able to close this development gap. Don’t forget that there’s a lot of new ground to cover in fuel-cell research. There’s very little existing know-how on which to build. The nanoFlowcell® is a fully independent development. We secured the IP to the low-voltage electric motors via an acquisition, and we’ll also be developing the power electronics in-house in future. We’re targeting integrative development, which means not viewing nanoFlowcell® as a singular technology, but also as part of the overall system within the context of the specific application. This approach has delivered progress on two fronts within the EV sector – namely, energy supply and propulsion. The combination of flow cell and low-voltage motor is an absolute USP!
You speak very passionately about nanoFlowcell® e-mobility. When will that become reality? And are you working on any other areas of application?
Passion is important – you should be passionate about what you do. I've been a successful Maserati Trofeo racer in the past, so there’s no denying my passion for cars. Naturally, I’d love to see a huge fleet of QUANT 48VOLT and QUANTiNO 48VOLT vehicles on our roads tomorrow. But that will take a few years yet. After all, both vehicles are only test cars, ambassadors for our nanoFlowcell® technology and pioneers of what we see as sustainably structured e-mobility. Before we get to the stage of producing the vehicles in series, we have to accomplish series production of the flow cell membrane and mass production of bi-ION®. The production process layout for the industrial production of bi-ION® is in place now, including the production process for the membranes. We have already been able to develop important parts of the production facilities; others will be completed shortly. Time is of the essence, as both production sites are priority building complexes for the construction of QUANT-City. We’re putting all our efforts into this challenge at the moment. Everything else will follow. At the end of the day, manufacturing a nanoFlowcell® electric car is not a major challenge – just about any company could handle that. The technical design of the nanoFlowcell® 48VOLT drive – motor, power electronics and flow cell – is completely robust, as demonstrated by the durability test recently completed with the QUANTiNO 48VOLT. Plus, the QUANT 48VOLT and the QUANTiNO 48VOLT are both already fully homologated and ready to enter low-volume production at any time.
But let me come to the second part of your question: No, it’s not all about cars. nanoFlowcell®-powered electric vehicles will not be crucial to the success of nanoFlowcell® technology. nanoFlowcell® EVs are certainly the most visible technology showcase, but applications within the stationary power sector will be the more important market for us in terms of volume. Another important future market that we want to address is robotics. When it comes to thermal safety in particular, nanoFlowcell® has major benefits to offer as a low-voltage energy source.
So, what are you going to develop next – a nanoFlowcell® robot or a nanoFlowcell® power station?
Actually, that covers the sheer breadth of the scalability of nanoFlowcell® technology very well. In stationary applications, nanoFlowcell® can replace the good-old diesel generator as an energy supplier, nanoFlowcell® can function as a “block power station” to provide homes and residential areas with an uninterrupted energy source and serve as a back-up energy supplier for critical infrastructure installations. We convert renewable energies into chemical energy that can be used whenever and wherever required. Not only do we make renewable energy mobile, we can actually speed up the energy transition through increased certainty in electricity supply. For example, because a nanoFlowcell® – either on- or off-grid – ensures uninterrupted energy supply from renewable energies. In theory, a nanoFlowcell® megawatt power station would be possible right now. But I see the strength of nanoFlowcell® more in decentralised electricity supply measurable in kilowatts.
But other energy technologies can do that?!
Correct. But our business model is innovative in that it comprises both a technology component and a service component. We will use nanoFlowcell® to offer not only renewable energy, but also interesting purchasing options such as energy leasing. Companies can then lease a certain allocation of energy – meaning they don’t pay to build their own energy infrastructure for uninterrupted energy supply, but instead buy from us only the allocation of energy they want. They can thus free themselves from the general electricity grid, and nevertheless – or, in fact because of that – have a guaranteed uninterrupted energy supply. This is an important but also highly problematic aspect right now for energy-intense production in particular, but also for critical infrastructures. However, we go a step further by offering insurance cover for this uninterrupted energy supply that financially underwrites our supply promise. What that means in simple terms, is that companies who choose nanoFlowcell® have the certainty of being able to draw sufficient clean, renewable energy – regardless of time and weather – and are also insured against blackout. To put this in context, I would like to emphasise that we continue to see our strength being in integrated research and development – not in the production of applications, not in the development of financial and insurance services. The latter are interesting aspects of the value chain, but we don’t cover these ourselves. Instead, we work with partners from the financial and insurance sector.
Does this also mean that your announced stock market flotation will be as a research and development company and not as a manufacturer of electric cars?
Exactly. We will enter the stock market as a research and development company that will market the results of its R&D work in the form of licences and patents. However, we’re going to take our time as far as an IPO is concerned in order to (a) ensure we go to market with the right business model and (b) time it right. At the moment, everything depends on the series and mass production of our technology. QUANT City will be our pilot plant for the series production of our flow cell membrane and the mass production of bi-ION®. The starting signal for QUANT City will therefore also be the starting signal for an IPO. Do we need an IPO? Not in order to finance our research and also not to finance our corporate growth. We already have the capital we need for that. However, a stock-market flotation would ultimately bring us the publicity we need for our technology and our value proposition, while at the same time providing us with the necessary security to protect and market our intellectual property.
If you were to sum up the mood in your company in a single sentence, what would it be?
Exciting times for nanoFlowcell! Many cornerstones for the future of our company are being laid right now. We’re convinced by the nanoFlowcell® technology and its market success. Mobility is a must in modern society. nanoFlowcell® is an environmentally compatible technology for sustainable and progressive mobility. We can face the uncertainties of the energy transformation with the absolute reliability of nanoFlowcell® as an uninterrupted electricity supply. If I look at our overall situation, nanoFlowcell® is a win-win technology to which I see no sustainable alternative at the moment.