Published on May 1st, 2014 | by Andrew Meggison7
Shai Agassi & Project Better Place’s Downfall
May 1st, 2014 by Andrew Meggison
Originally published on Gas.
How would you run a whole country without oil? Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi wanted to find out, and the result was a company called A Better Place. Through a network for charging stations and robotic battery swapping stations, Agassi had grand ambitions to banish oil from the world. But his grand ambitions fell far shore, taking with it more than a billion dollars of investments and leaving behind a legacy of unfulfilled promises that Fast Company explores in an excelent, in-depth article.
Project Better Place was not an electric car company, but rather an electric infrastructure company in the form of charging stations and automated battery swap out stations that utilized robots to change out EV battery packs in five minutes. Better Place bought modified Renault electric vehicles with a battery range of 80 miles, and the goal was to install enough battery-swapping stations to allow a driver to go from Tel Aviv to Eilat, about 200 miles away, with only 15 minutes worth of stops. At its height, A Better Place had a $2.25 billion valuation based around Agassi’s promises.
A Better Place was not just some Israeli hidden secret either. Shai Agassi was all over the news for sometime, appearing on TED talks, being featured in the New York Times, on the cover of Wired Magazine in 2008, and even had a spot on the Colbert Report. All this exposure paid off big time as other nations came calling on Agassi. Demonstration projects were planned in China, Japan, and even the State of Hawaii. Better Place was even at the U.S. Capitol during the 2009 auto industry bailouts – because why bail out GM when you could throw support behind this new industry?
That didn’t happen of course, and when Department of Energy did offer loan guarantees to some EV and clean tech startups rolled out, Better Place was not on the list. Why? Agassi’s attitude alienated him from automakers like GM, who showed interested but were turned off by the outspoke CEO. Better Place’s failure to partner with am automaker with a U.S. presence (which Renault doesn’t have) kept it from securing needed funding.
Meanwhile, Better Place was blowing money on obscene pet projects like a GPS navigation system called osCAR that cost some $60 million to develop. Meanwhile, the actual electric cars themselves were doughy, short-ranged, and slow, hardly inspiring the kind of emotion Better Place was hoping for. Charges of cronyism were levied at Agassi, and after failing to get funding from the U.S. Agassi scaled back American and Australian operations, moving back to Isreal to focus on the company’s home market, as well as Denmark. But it was too little, too late.
In 2010 A Better Place moved to Israel and opened a visitor center in Tel Aviv complete with test tacks that attracted 100,000 tourists, including U.S. congressmen, senators, and governors. But by January 2012, Better Place was bleeding an estimated $500,000 per day. In the two months that followed, Better Place sold only 100 of their battery-swappable Renault Fluence Z.E. sedans By early 2013, Better Place filed for bankruptcy, and the company sold less than 1,500 EVs, with just 21 operational battery swap stations that have since been shuttered.
Late last year, the remnants of Better Place were sold for just $450,000.
There’s a lot more to this story and it’s absolutely worth reading the whole piece to get an idea of the madness that went on behind the scenes at Better Place. For an idea with so much promise and ambition, it’s a shame things ended the way they did.