After winning $120,000 at the Rice Business Plan Competition as well as the top prize at MIT Accelerate, Louis Beryl (HBS 2012) is understandably optimistic about the future of SolidEnergy, a business which he co-founded with Qichao Hu, an MIT Grad student.
The liquid battery company has developed the technology to make batteries which are safer (they can’t blow up), smaller (four times smaller than today’s equivalents), and operational at a wider range of temperatures (completely safe from -40 degrees Celsius to 250 degrees Celsius compared to a high of 60 degrees Celsius of today’s batteries) than conventional batteries–an amazing trifecta which has corporations from consumer product companies to oil drilling firms salivating.
The Harbus sat down with Beryl to learn more about the successful partnership of business and science, MIT and HBS.
How It All Began: Turning Down the Heat?
Beryl and Hu met at an MIT class called Energy Ventures, a highly-regarded program in which the professor, Bill Aulet, recruits a range of students and professional from around Boston in a variety of disciplines to network and form teams with the specific purpose of coming out of the class with a business plan.
Initially, after Hu and Beryl were paired, they were both skeptical of the partnership. It was difficult for Beryl to see the broad commercialization of the initial version of the product, which, at that time, only operated at high temperatures. Hu on the other hand was skeptical of the value of an HBS student as a teammate. “I had to get him over the HBS stigma, because there’s a little bit of mistrust of HBS students at MIT.”
However, the two worked together to overcome their respective skepticism.
To prove his worth as a business co-founder, Beryl analyzed the model through the frameworks of Clay Christensen’s course, Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise, and walked Hu through a potential commercialization strategy to disrupt the battery market. Beryl also visited Hu’s lab and dove quickly into the technology to better understand the commercialization potential.
On the other hand, Hu responded to Beryl’s hesitance regarding the battery’s operating temperature range by resigning the product to operate at room temperature — a unique and remarkable feat in the solid polymer electrolyte space. Beryl described, “It gave me tremendous confidence in my co-founder — this guy is really impressive.” Hu was also able to envision future potential development, key challenges in the future, and resources required to overcome those challenges. This was critical, according to Beryl, to create a credible business plan, and demonstrated the forward-thinking view of both founders.
What Does the Business Guy Do Anyway?
While Hu continues to improve the product, Beryl sees his role as continuing to develop the go-to-market strategy. The company will initially focus on making batteries for oil drilling sensors, given the market’s high willingness to pay since drilling companies do not have a battery solution that operates at high temperatures. According to Beryl, the small addressable market size of the drilling industry is actually a positive — it allows SolidEnergy to prove its product without needing to build large scale manufacturing capabilities.
From there Beryl sees his role as seeking funding agreements, building out the SolidEnergy team, figuring out manufacturing capabilities, setting up a lab, and continuing to fill the business development pipeline. The duo will also be participating in several more business plan competitions over the next few weeks.
According to Beryl, his HBS education prepared him well for this entrepreneurial path. “Classes like Entrepreneurial Finance with [Professor Joe] Lassiter” helped him to become comfortable with emailing venture capitalists and then pitching the vision to them, as well as developing effective commercialization strategies.
However, Beryl says that the most learning came from the venture process itself. “Having [investors] ask me a bunch of questions that I couldn’t answer and then going out and figuring out the answers to those and getting back to them…I’ve learned so much about business, IP, putting a presentation together, [and] how to sell an idea.”
Beryl has this advice for students who may want to follow a similar path: “You just have to go out there and do it.” Entering the business plan competition or doing a project at the i-Lab are all some examples. According to Beryl, “People are looking for an idea that’s too fleshed out…. HBS–we’re really good at talking, but we need more building in our life.”