October 14, 2012 5:49 pm

Better Place seeks to broaden its range

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Better Place, the electric car recharging company, wants to raise fresh capital, forge new partnerships, and broaden its pitch to clients beyond the battery-switch technology for which it is best known, its new chief executive said.

Evan Thornley, who took over after the recent ousting of founder Shai Agassi, also rebuffed criticism that the company was too slow to gain customers, having raised more than $750m to build large-scale car-recharging networks starting in Israel and Denmark, but signed up fewer than 1,000 drivers to date.

“We’ve only just finished the network,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times.

Better Place was founded by Mr Agassi, a former Silicon Valley software executive, in 2007, when petrol prices were rising and enthusiasm for the prospects of electric cars was growing.

It has lost more than $420m since 2010, and is not making public when it plans to become profitable.

Mr Thornley likened the company to mobile-phone network providers such as Vodafone, which only acquire customers after making big up-front investments.

“Putting in that network infrastructure is a significant investment,” he said. “Do you expect you will repay that investment in six weeks? No – this has always been a long-term proposition.”

Better Place says it has 500 customers in Israel, 250 in Denmark, and another 70 in Australia, where it is the official network provider for General Motors’ Volt electric car.

The company’s signature technology is its battery-swap stations akin to filling stations, where electric cars can have their spent batteries replaced with recharged ones.

Mr Agassi, who also resigned from Better Place’s board last week after his departure as chief executive, championed battery swap as a way of removing the range limitations that hamper electric cars’ viability.

France’s Renault is supplying its Fluence electric saloon equipped with swappable batteries to Better Place in Israel and Denmark. In Australia, GM’s Holden operation has built small numbers of its Commodore model with switchable batteries as a possible prelude to series production.

However, most other carmakers have been sceptical about battery swap. Many are pessimistic about the near-term prospects of electric cars in general, after seeing weak sales of early plug-in models such as Nissan’s Leaf and GM’s Volt.

Better Place is now promoting its ability to “serve everything with a plug”, including electric vehicles with fixed batteries, which form the core of its business in Australia.

It is looking for more partnerships with large fleet customers and touting an array of services, including conventional and fast battery recharging, telematics for electric cars, and financing and management of their batteries.

“Most of the coverage of the company has been on battery switch,” Mr Thornley said. “I think it’s an essential part of the network that enables affordability, but I think for the customer what’s important is that it’s a full-service network.”

Mr Thornley, a former McKinsey consultant, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Australian politician, said the company was about to close another financing round.

He would not say how much it was seeking, Israeli media, citing unnamed sources, reported last week that Better Place wanted to raise $120m to $130m from investors.

Following Mr Agassi’s departure, he said the company was going through “an inflection point . . . from the vision and development phase to an operating phase”.

He said: “That often requires different skills and a different focus, and that’s why I’m leading this.”

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