While it’s normal for established technology companies to turn to low-cost Asian manufacturing, lately even very young companies have been heading east.
A prominent example is Boston Power, a startup based in Westborough, Massachusetts, that’s developing longer-lasting, higher-capacity lithium-ion batteries.
The company has won widespread recognition for its technology, and lists HP and Mercedes-Benz among its early customers. But in 2009, it failed to get a $100 million grant it had applied for as part of the U.S. Recovery Act, and in late 2011, the Chinese government stepped in with a package of $125 million in venture capital, low interest loans, and grants.
Now Boston Power is building a factory in China that can make enough batteries for 20,000 electric cars. It’s also building a new R&D and engineering facility there.
Boston Power’s founder, Christina Lampe-Onnerud, says money was only a part of China’s draw. Recently she talked to Technology Review senior editor Kevin Bullis about the other attractions China has to offer, the impact the move could have on U.S. innovation, and what it takes for a newcomer to take on big battery manufacturers.
TR: What makes China attractive to young technology companies?
Lampe-Onnerud: It’s not like China is all good and the U.S. is all bad. It’s not that simple. We love being based in the United States for the innovation culture. Boston is a phenomenal community where there’s a lot of support and infrastructure for innovators and entrepreneurs. What China has given us is scale and recognition, very, very high up in the bureaucracy.
The premier of China invited me to meet with him. In the United States, well, I understand that I cannot speak to President Obama, but could I speak to someone in the administration? It would be good for me to know at least what my country wants to do. I could not get through. We would love to do manufacturing in the U.S., but if China is more eager and more hungry, that’s where we will go.
Although you’re based in the U.S., you’ve long had connections to Asia. What was the attraction in the beginning?
When we set up the company, we went immediately to China to do prototypes. In the U.S., the idea was, you could run pilot trials, but pay $1 million up front. And I’m like, “I’m not going to pay you a million dollars. I don’t even know if it works.”
In China, I was able to make our prototypes in production facilities. I paid for the materials and we were able to do small runs. I was there donating time to the team at the factory, sharing my insights from 15 years in the battery industry, so it was more like a trade. We had working prototypes two months into the journey, and I paid for it out of my Bank of America savings account—$5,000 or $6,000 per run.