Building a better battery
At first glance, ZincFive doesn't look like a company leading a revolution.
The company's main operations are tucked away in an unremarkable industrial park in Tualatin. The cars that fill the parking spaces outside ZincFive's front door are for the most part solid, reliable vehicles — no flashy sports cars or automotive bling.
The interior spaces the company occupies are equally understated. An assembly line and storage space are tidy but simple, with do-it-yourself touches that include a walkway marked off with tape in primary colors.
Hardly the headquarters of a company that is credited with producing the world's first environmentally safe nickel-zinc battery alternative to applications that had previously been the domain of lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries.
Until ZincFive came along, only four rechargeable battery chemistries had scaled across the world since 1859: lead acid, nicad, lithium ion, and nickel metal hydride. ZincFive's founders say they've produced the fifth.
The company isn't alone in its faith in the promise of nickel-zinc batteries. Unlike other battery types, nickel-zinc doesn't dispatch significant heat during performance. Batteries made of nickel-zinc can withstand a wide range of temperatures and charge faster and more safely than other battery types. Ninety percent of the components of ZincFive's batteries are recyclable.
Just offering a nickel-zinc battery alone isn't what has helped ZincFive earn a place in the market, though. The company bills itself as a solutions provider that offers a complete package, including battery backup delivery systems and software to maximize performance.
Those combined factors have helped the company's initial product called UPStealth become the traffic signal back-up battery system of choice for transportation departments around the country.
With growing attention focused on ZincFive and its products, it would be understandable if the company was at least considering a move to showier, sleeker digs. But that's not how ZincFive works. Co-founders Tim Hysell and Dan Sisson say working in a low-key, unassuming manner is exactly the right position for the company. At least for now.
A long, winding road
In the past 18 months, ZincFive has added several notches to its business belt.
The company made news in May of last year when its nickel-zinc battery backup system, a sustainable alternative to lead-acid batteries traditionally used to keep traffic signals operating when power fails, earned an endorsement from the Oregon Department of Transportation. The path to receiving that nod took two years of rigorous testing in a transportation lab considered to have among the highest standards in the country.
That same month, the company's battery received the "Most Disruptive Technology of the Year" award at the annual Oregon Technology Awards.
In January, ZincFive announced it had hit a financial milestone after raising $11 million in a second-round financing effort, money that the company earmarked for increasing engineering efforts and growing its manufacturing operations.
For anyone who hasn't followed ZincFive's path from its founding to now, the success may seem to have occurred overnight. But that's far from the reality, Hysell and Sisson say.
ZincFive and its innovative nickel-zinc battery alternative can be traced back nearly 10 years to Salem. That's where Sisson and a business partner were running Phillips Sisson, a company that was one of a handful of businesses with acumen in the world of electronic systems for traffic signals.
"It's a really small market," Sisson said. "Just handful of people are really adept at it."
Then Tim Hysell came knocking.
Hysell had amassed three decades of experience in renewable energy, banking, manufacturing and medical devices while working for companies that included Hewlett-Packard and General Electric. He also was skilled in negotiations, fundraising, and mergers and acquisitions. When he acquired the Salem company, which was renamed PSI Acquisitions, Sisson came along as a partner.
The two men balanced each other professionally. Sisson had a head for science and engineering; Hysell had the business know-how. But they soon found they also had much in common. Both men are self-professed technology junkies. They also realized that the traffic signal systems that PSI Acquisitions was producing weren't an end point, but a beginning.
"We saw a real opportunity that those signalized intersections needed a battery backup," Hysell said. "The battery backup that was available at the time and still is today was your car batteries, believe it or not."
Sisson and Hysell wanted to find an alternative battery chemistry that was sustainable and safe. They bypassed creating a backup system that used lithium-ion batteries because of the highly volatile nature of the chemistry. They soon turned their attention to nickel-zinc.
In 1901, Thomas Edison obtained a patent for a rechargeable nickel-zinc battery. But the inventor couldn't figure out how to get his battery to discharge and recharge enough times to make it viable for the commercial market. More than a century later, major corporations still hadn't been able to find a solution. However, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dr. Jeff Phillips and another scientist realized that advances in lithium-ion battery technology could be used to find a solution to Edison's nickel-zinc battery dilemma.
While the chemistry to create the nickel-zinc batteries had been patented by Phillips' company, PowerGenix, an actual system where the battery could be used in a commercial capacity hadn't been invented. That's where Sisson and Hysell believed they could make a mark.
"No one had ever done (a nickel-zinc battery back-up system)," Sisson said. "We had nothing to base it on. We went completely in a new direction. It wasn't just the chemistry. The whole design was designed around this (traffic signal) market, and we were trailblazers the whole way."
"All we had to work with was the battery chemistry that we chose ...," Hysell said. "Even PowerGenix, which was the owner of the nickel-zinc battery chemistry globally, they had never built a product (it) would fit. So, there were a lot of risky unknowns."
The one year Sisson originally anticipated it would take to create a nickel-zinc battery back-up system stretched out to two years, and then three. Still Hysell and Sisson and his team had a gut belief that what they were chasing had the potential to be industry changing. They continued to press on, even when a particularly stubborn challenge took them nine months to solve.
"We just filled white board after white board," Sisson said.
When they finally found the solution, the discovery turned the tables, allowing the team to go on to solve a series of problems it had been tussling with.
"We had a eureka moment," Sisson said.
"The product wouldn't be here today (in the traffic realm) if that hadn't of happened," Hysell added.
A little luck
There's also been more than a touch of good luck encountered along the way.
By 2012, the success of the company's UPStealth product led Sisson and Hysell to realize there was potential for more than just a battery back-up system. They decided to spin off the battery portion into a new company called Millennium Power Solutions.
In 2013, while the partners were raising money for the new venture, they were approached by a company called Blue Earth. At the time, Blue Earth was focused on securing a space in the energy market. It had already acquired a solar company and saw Hysell and Sisson's company as adding a battery technology aspect. Hysell and Sisson agreed.
"At the time, it looked like it was going to be a very positive thing for (us)," Hysell said.
By 2015, though, Hysell started seeing some red flags related to Blue Earth. Concerned, he approached the company and suggested the battery company be spun off as a stand-alone business. Blue Earth agreed.
The move proved to be lifesaving for the battery company, which Hysell and Sission renamed Ensight Power. In early 2016, without enough money to continue its strategy to grow a base focused on energy, Blue Earth declared bankruptcy.
"We were blessed that we exited (Blue Earth) at the right time," Hysell said.
Later that year, Ensight Power's name was changed to ZincFive. Approximately two months later, Hysell and Sisson were the ones doing the acquiring when, in November, they purchased PowerGenix, the company that held the patents for the nickel-zinc battery chemistry that ZincFive was using in its systems.
"We became not only the owner of the battery solutions, but of the battery chemistry," Hysell said.
The two companies had been working together for several years, sharing information that allowed each side to make improvements in their specific areas. But any limitations related to that arrangement dissolved with the acquisition.
"It took the handcuffs off everything," Hysell added. "We were a bit limited that PowerGenix would only give (us) access to traffic and data centers and a couple of other (markets). But when we acquired them, it didn't matter any longer. We could go after any market we wanted to go after."
The company now holds 95 patents, up from 55 patents just seven years ago. It also has unveiled a new product — a nickel-zinc back-up solution for data centers.
The company is continually looking at possible new markets and while Sisson and Hysell aren't in a position to talk specific deals just yet, they are willing to throw out some possible areas where their nickel-zinc energy storage and battery systems would excel, from fork lifts to micro-hybrid vehicles.
Sisson and Hysell admit the road forward for ZincFive isn't clear of possible pitfalls. Other battery types still have strong shares of the commercial market. The global lead-acid battery market, for example, is expected to grow from a current value of $48 billion a year to $58.5 billion a year by 2020, according to an industry source. In addition, while the company has been smart about how it structured its patents, there always a chance that competition could pop up.
But the partners also are confident they're in a good spot to hold their own ground, especially considering how they've beat the odds that were stacked against for nearly 10 years.
"The simple rule of thumb is, going from a lab to commercialization (with a battery) is 10 years and $100 million," Hysell said. "Now all you've done is you've created a battery that's commercially available. Now you have to spend millions more to find a market that will accept your product commercially."
"Then you have to build a battery management system to manage it; it's almost insurmountable to bring a new battery to market," Sisson said.
"But we've done it," Hysell added.