Crijn Bouman wanted to radically change the process of batteries recharging, forever. In 2004, he and his partners founded Epyon Power focusing, at first, on phone batteries. After 4 years, in which they’ve faced important challenges, Epyon finally saw some traction in electric vehicles market. In 2011, it was acquired by ABB, a giant in the technology industry.
Start by telling us a little bit about yourself and Epyon’s story. It all started in Delft Technology University, right?
That’s correct. My name is Crijn Bouman. I’m an entrepreneur in the smart energy clean tech area and in 2004, I founded a company called Epyon Power. We were basically driven by a mission to accelerate the uptake of electric vehicles and the company was making fast-charging technology for electric cars, so the ability to charge an electric car within 15 minutes.
That company became quite successful and it was successfully acquired by multinational company ABB. After that, I worked for several years inside ABB to scale the business, actually to quite significant business, and now I’m back in the entrepreneurial track.
How long did it take getting Epyon from the idea to traction? When did you realize that the business was really taking off?
I would say about four years, more or less. First of all, it’s a very technical and hardware-oriented domain where things take long, take a lot of investment and, let’s say, we’ve experimented a lot. Initially, we looked into the mobile phone market.
As you know, everybody told us that if you can fast charge batteries [it’s a] fantastic solution for a mobile phone. But, we found out the hard way – just by trying – that basically, the mobile phone market is actually extremely tough and a difficult market. What we did then was, at some point, we started to look at professional electric vehicles, which are like, for example, forklifts.
The electric vehicles you see at the airport. We found our first real business case. It was actually in professional electric vehicles at the airport, because if you can charge your vehicle in 15 minutes, it saves a lot of money for the airport. In many airports, and also in warehouses and businesses that operate more than 16 hours per day, they have multiple vehicles, multiple batteries, in order to run the whole day.
Basically, the first market was professional industrial vehicles like forklifts, industrial cleaning machines, small vehicles at airport etc. That happens around 2008 when we signed contracts with the airports and with vehicles manufacturers.
So, when you changed the focus from mobile to the electric vehicles… this was something very important for you, right?
That was the turning point, because the benefit of the industrial electric vehicle market is that it’s not all about the price of the equipment, it’s more about the total cost of ownership.
Basically, even with a more expensive technology, if you can charge a vehicle in 15 minutes, it means you can eliminate a lot of vehicles from your shift. Maybe the cost of the equipment is higher, but you can reduce your total fleet, significantly.
In airports, there are also other benefits, like with the lithium-ion batteries, [so] you don’t need special equipment to clean the air. The traditional equipment uses lead-acid batteries, [that] give out some hydrogen gas, which is dangerous. So, they need special ventilation systems in the airport, which are quite expensive. The technology was more expensive, but the total cost of ownership of a solution was much better. So, that’s where it really started to work.
Which would you say were the top elements that contributed the most to your journey to traction?
Refocusing Target Market
The real success actually started one phase later because we focused on the industrial electric vehicles and that was the first real traction where we’re actually making some sales, which had good margin and was with good customers. The real “boom” started when we started to focus on the electric cars and that was actually the second pivot we’ve made.
We found that the industrial electric vehicles, although it’s a very interesting market, it’s not a super fast-growing market. It’s quite fighting against many entrenched competitors, whereas the consumer electric vehicle market is a complete greenfield and very high growth. So, that was actually when the real traction… when it starts to become really big.
[Check also this post: 3 Steps to Assess Your Startup’s Market Size]
What is extremely number one always is your team. My experience is that, really, the key to success is the team. Technologies change over time, markets change, your challenges change and the only way to make the step to a new situation is with great people. I realized, also early on, that this is quite important. You better have a bad idea and a good team, than have a bad team and a good idea.
I also hired a super experienced entrepreneur to join us, a guy called Hens Streng. He is a great guy. He is like a serial entrepreneur who actually built more than six businesses to success and he’s absolutely great. He’s been my mentor. Number one is always people and team. I would say, that’s key.
Courage to fail
Of course, there are many factors you could say contributed, but I think you have to always try things a lot. Don’t be afraid to fail. But, also, be honest to yourself and learn, because sometimes people are so in love with their own idea, that they ignore the signals from outside.
So, I think it’s extremely important to be very critical towards yourself and be opened to learn and stay very humble. Don’t think you know everything, because the market may tell you something else. If you’re so convinced of yourself, maybe you may not pick up the right signals.
You better have a bad idea and a good team, than have a bad team and a good idea.
From all the challenges you’ve faced, which in your opinion were the most difficult ones and how did you overcome them?
One of the challenges you face, sometimes, is that somebody in your team, in the beginning, functions okay, but at some point, does not function okay anymore. Somebody in the founders’ team or management team. We had that and we also had to basically buy out one person who was actually part of the team. That was very tough.
[…] So, once you go from an R&D stage to traction stage, challenges become much more industrial and a bit boring. You have to just do things about execution, and people who are more in the experimental domain tend not to like the execution part, which is just boring, crunching numbers, Gantt Chart, meeting deadlines, etc.
The question is: can you find a good place for those people? Is their contribution still somewhere very useful or not? In general, a lot of the people stay a long time, because the benefit of growing is that, once you grow, there are a lot of new roles created, then you get more freedom to realign your organization with more people.
We had a situation where we were almost bankrupted. The good thing is, in hindsight, everything always looks and sounds like a perfect success story, but in reality, it’s never.
I think there are very few startups which don’t have like a near death experience or something. But, we also faced that financial crisis where, basically, we found out that the cash was running out too fast and as a typical technology startup, it takes a little longer to develop the product than anticipated, it takes a little bit more money than anticipated, the market is a little later.
For the financial challenges, we had the initial investors [which] were great investors. They, actually, were more than financial investors: SET Ventures and Chrysalix. They were very strategic investors, and they also basically supported us in tough times.
So that’s also critical. I think you [should] find investors which are not only financial investors, but people who also care for the business, somehow. Make sure that your investors have sort of the same horizon as you have.
[…] as a typical technology startup, it takes a little longer to develop the product than anticipated, it takes a little bit more money than anticipated, the market is a little later.
What piece of advice would you give to startup entrepreneurs that want to achieve traction in their businesses?
Do something you love and do something you believe in. I’ve always worked like that and many people I’ve work with are very driven by mission or they really believe in what they do, and they follow their heart. Because, in the end, life in a startup can be very tough.
You are very close and connected to your product and it can be very stressful, sometimes. So, the only way to basically succeed is that you do something you love. Go and find people who are in it with their hearts.
Be very humble and open to criticism, never ever think that you are a genius and that you are always right. Try to continue to listen to feedback from the market, feedback from your investors, feedback from smart people. In my opinion, the most important thing is investing in your team. This is the key. In the end, technologies change, markets will change, a lot will change and the only constant is change.
So, the only way to address the change is to have a great team, great people around you. My main advice is: spend a lot of time and develop your skills to find good people, hire them and keep them enthusiastic. That is the best you can do.
Do something you love and do something you believe in.
FROM IDEA TO TRACTION…
- Time: 4 years
- Number of Pivots: 2
- Initial Team Background: 3 (technical)
- “Winning” Team Background: 1 technical/commercial + 2 commercial + 1 finance
- Methodologies/frameworks used: Agile and Lean
- Relevant Partners/Services/Tools: MS Outlook, Skype and Salesforce
- General Practices: weekly official MT meeting, many ad-hoc meetings when required, quarterly board meetings.
- Funding to traction: Bootstrapping, bank loan, some subsidy, VC investment.
- Mentors/Advisors background: Hans Streng (joined as a professional CEO later on). Was Crijn’s personal mentor: “he is a fantastic serial entrepreneur.”
MORE ABOUT CRIJN BOUMAN
Crijn Bouman (Twitter; LinkedIn) is an entrepreneur with a background in cleantech and smart technologies. After working as a software developer in a start-up on smart remote controlled toys he founded Epyon power, a start-up focused on 15-30 minute fast charging solutions for electric vehicles, well before commercially available electric cars existed. Epyon was one of the first companies worldwide to offer fast charging solutions for electric cars and offered a unique webconnected solution allowing operators of charging stations to run their charging network efficiently by enabling remote diagnostics, mobile payments, remote monitoring software updates and service. Epyon power was succesfully aquired by multinational ABB group. Driven by the mission to speed up the transistion toward electric mobility, Crijn continued inside ABB to expand the business as the global head of product management building a product portfolio of chargers for the various market segments and 50+ countries which grew to well over 100M annual business volume. Now he is back on the entrepreneurial track working on a new entry in the smart energy domain. Crijn studied integrated product design at Delft Universtity of Technology and graduated (MSC with honours) on a hydrogen electric scooter design which was widely covered in international media. He is passionate about high-tech solutions which help the world to become a better place.
MORE ABOUT EPYON POWER
Epyon was founded late 2004, by Crijn Bouman, Wouter Smit, and Wouter Robers who met in the context of Delft University of technology. The initial technology revolved around fast charging of lithium-ion batteries, which at that time was seen as impossible to do and dangerous. However after proving skeptics wrong by demonstrating the technical viability, several markets were investigated such as mobile phones and electric vehicles. As with many technology-push type of start-ups this was a bumpy road with many moments of re-focus and re-alignment. The first real business started to develop in the professional electric vehicle market: electric forklift trucks, pallet jacks, airport ground service vehicles, etc.and with the help of a first VC funding round the core of the fast charging technology was developed. Around 2009 the first rumors about mass market electric cars surfaced and with the help of a new larger funding round and adding seasoned star entrepreneur Hans Streng to the team, Epyon went trough a super fast growth cycle which made it Europe’s first company to offer fast charging solutions for the mass market electric cars developed by Nissan, Mitsubishi and others. The success did not go unnoticed and Epyon was acquired by multinational ABB in the course of 2011. Today the former Epyon core still serves as ABB’s global electric vehicle charging unit and is market leader in Europe and USA for fast charging solutions for electric vehicles.