As some of the world’s largest companies invest billions to advance battery technology, Dominic Spooner has been working at solving the next problem: the impact of unwieldy – and environmentally unfriendly – battery casings.
Spooner runs his lightweight battery casing technology firm Vaulta from a shared garage in Brisbane’s north. “Batteries will change our lives in ways that we’re maybe not even totally aware of, but … we can create our own new group of problems if we’re not careful,” he says.
From a workspace surrounded by packing boxes and other junk, like an old door, Spooner and his team have caught global attention.
This year Vaulta has signed agreements with aerospace and car battery companies, including one with Braille Battery – an American manufacturer of ultra-lightweight batteries for Nascar, IndyCar and the Australian Supercars.
Last month the company received a $297,500 federal grant to commercialise its technology.
So how does a tiny garage-bound Brisbane startup find its place among global giants in the rush to innovate?
“It seems like almost every other day there are tech advancements – in the cells, cell types, cell shapes, cell geometry – coming out of the US or Europe,” Spooner says.
“But the way they’re being packaged, the way they’re being housed, was just being overlooked.”
Vaulta’s technology reduces the number of components used in battery cases. The casings reduce the battery size by about 18%. They also don’t weld parts together, which means they can be taken apart and reused rather than dumped – a start on preventing some of the 98% of disused batteries that goes into landfill.
Spooner says the “lightbulb moment” was a decision to work towards making a casing that could be disassembled.
“At the end of that first life, can you replace cells? Can you change them over? Is any of that feasible? What we started realising was we were just scratching the surface.
“Because we’re not welding the cells, when they come out of that casing they have the same properties as when they went in, and they are better set up for reuse scenarios.
“[Battery innovation] is driven by performance – further, longer, cheaper … all the things that are going the help the take-up of batteries. But we’ve also got the time to do something right now, to do them in a smarter way. It’s not just about recycling and reuse, but how can we get them into people’s hands.”
‘Flying cars could be on the market within a decade’
In an electric car, the battery can weigh several hundred kilograms – about a third of the car’s total weight.
Audrey Quicke, a climate and energy researcher at the Australia Institute, says about a quarter of the cost of an electric vehicle comes from the battery under the hood.
“Upfront cost is one of the biggest barriers to EV uptake in Australia,” Quicke says. “Although the fuelling and maintenance costs are cheap compared to petrol and diesel vehicles, it’s the upfront sticker price that stands out in the showroom. Any tech developments that bring down the price of batteries would likely help increase EV sales.”
Quicke says a 2018 Senate inquiry recommended a comprehensive EV manufacturing roadmap, which would also cover battery and component manufacturing, but that many of the recommendations remain unrealised.
“EVs and batteries are not a high priority in the government’s technology roadmap, and there’s no federal electric vehicle strategy to speak of,” she says.
“But the writing is on the wall. It is the state governments and tech entrepreneurs that are driving the EV, charging and battery innovation in Australia. Imagine what could be achieved with a nationally consistent supportive EV policy environment to provide direction for this transition.”
Spooner says the company doesn’t intend to produce battery casings at a commercial scale. Rather the aim is to license the technology and to work with manufacturers in Australia and overseas. But he says the ability to reduce the weight of batteries could unlock a second tranche of innovation.
“It could really open the door here or overseas for vehicle makers and for [vehicles] that don’t exist yet,” Spooner says.
“Locally there’s not a huge EV industry in Australia, but that’s not to say there won’t be. There’s advanced aerospace … manned and unmanned. Stationary storage is here to stay as well.
“Percentage gains in those sorts of fields are really exciting to be a part of – for a car to be delivered as concept, then to be reined in and delivered to the mass consumer.
“The boundaries for new technology to enter the market would be less.
“But batteries also have a big role to play right now. In a lot of ways it’s a mature technology in its early stages of rollout.”
‘You can’t beat the commute’
At the outset of the pandemic as Spooner began to work on the battery casing technology, he spotted a neighbour, an engineer, working in the garage of a nearby home.
Vaulta sublet the space soon after and has no immediate plans to leave. For one thing, it’s too convenient – right around the corner from Spooner’s home, which allows plenty of time to spend with his young daughter.
“When we talk about the garage, it’s actually an upgrade from where we were,” Spooner says.
“We were working from home. We basically worked through emails, phone calls, text messages.
“Through Covid we’ve managed to find a way to do business with Canada, parts of the US. You just kind of adjust and I actually quite like it. You can’t beat the commute and we’re pretty comfortable there, to be honest.”
The UK capital was the only European city to make the top ten in Startup Genome’s ranking, tying with New York in second place for the second year in a row.
London is Europe’s number one start-up city, according to a recent report by Startup Genome. The research and advisory body which specialises in start-ups released its ‘Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2021’ report today (22 September).
The report identified London and New York as joint second-best cities in the world for start-ups. London was the only European location to make it into the top ten. The city is attractive to founders thanks to its educated workforce and tax incentives, the report found.
Silicon Valley in California took the top spot, unsurprisingly. This year’s global rankings were dominated by the US, with half of the top 30 ecosystems coming from this region, followed by Asia with 27pc and Europe with 17pc of the top performing ecosystems globally.
Silicon Valley, New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles alone contributed more than 70pc to the US’s total ecosystem value.
Paris made the top 20, coming in at number 12. The Amsterdam-Delta region followed in thirteenth place. Dublin improved its rank from the previous year’s report, coming in at number 36 this time.
Beijing, Boston, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, Shanghai, Seattle and Stockholm also made the top ten best start-up cities.
The global start-up economy is currently worth more than $3.8trn in ecosystem value. There are 79 ecosystems generating over $4bn in value, which is more than double the number identified in 2017. This time last year, 91 ecosystems had achieved unicorn status.
“Entrepreneurs, policymakers, and community leaders in Europe have been working hard to build inclusive innovation ecosystems that are engines of economic growth and job creation for all,” commented JF Gauthier, founder and CEO of Startup Genome on the report’s release.
“The Global Startup Ecosystem Report is the foundation of knowledge where we, as a global network, come together to identify what policies actually produce economic impact and in what context,” Gauthier added.
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Facebook’s semi-independent oversight board says it will review the company’s “XCheck” system, an internal program that has exempted high-profile users from some or all of its rules.
The decision follows an investigation by the Wall Street Journal that revealed that reviews of posts by well-known users such as celebrities, politicians and journalists are steered into the separate system.
Under the program, some users are “whitelisted”, or not subject to enforcement action, while others are allowed to post material that violates Facebook rules pending content reviews that often do not take place. The Xcheck system, for example, allowed Brazilian footballer Neymar to post nude pictures of a woman who had accused him of rape, according to the report.
Users were identified for additional scrutiny based on criteria such as being “newsworthy”, “influential or popular” or “PR risky”, the Wall Street Journal found. By 2020 there were 5.8 million users on the XCheck list, according to the newspaper.
The oversight board said Tuesday that it expects to have a briefing with Facebook on the system and “will be reporting what we hear from this” as part of a report it will publish in October.
The board may also make other recommendations, although Facebook is not bound to follow these.
The Journal’s report, the board said, has drawn “renewed attention to the seemingly inconsistent way that the company makes decisions, and why greater transparency and independent oversight of Facebook matters so much for users”.
Facebook told the Journal in response to its investigation that the system “was designed for an important reason: to create an additional step so we can accurately enforce policies on content that could require more understanding”. The company added that criticism of it was “fair” and that it was working to fix it.
A representative for Facebook declined to comment to the Associated Press on the oversight board’s decision.
The Philippines has become the latest nation to impose a digital services tax.
Such taxes require the likes of Netflix and Spotify to pay local sales taxes even though their services are delivered – legally, notionally, and physically – from beyond local jurisdiction.
The Philippines has chosen a rate of 12 per cent, mirroring local value added taxes.
“We have now clarified that digital services and the goods and services traded through digital service providers should generally be subject to VAT. This is just a matter of common tax sense,” said Joey Salceda, a member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives and a backer of the change to the nation’s tax code.
Salceda tied the change to post-pandemic economic recovery.
“If brick and mortar establishments, which are the hardest-hit by the pandemic, have to pay VAT, the giants of e-commerce shouldn’t be exempt,” he said.
However, local companies that are already exempt from VAT by virtue of low turnover won’t be caught by the extension of the tax into the virtual realm.
Salceda’s amendments are designed to catch content streamers, but also online software sales – including mobile apps – plus SaaS and hosted software. The Philippines’ News Agency’s report on the amendment’s passage into law even mentions firewalls as subject to VAT.
But the taxes are controversial because they are seen as a unilateral response to the wider issue of multinational companies picking the jurisdictions in which they’ll pay tax – a practice that erodes national tax bases. The G7 group of nations, and the OECD, think that collaborations that shift tax liabilities to nations where goods and services are acquired and consumed are the most appropriate response, and that harmonising global tax laws to make big tech pay up wherever they do business is a better plan than digital services taxes.