Shai Agassi came to fame—in the business applications world at least—at German software giant SAP, where as a latter-stage 30-something-year-old he helped turn the once stodgy company into a trailblazer. The method? Bold strokes in software development that resulted in, among other things, the creation of NetWeaver, an integration and development platform that's been the basis of just about everything SAP has done from 2003 to now.
Now 39 and the CEO of his own company, for now called Project Better Place, Agassi hopes to have the same impact in the automotive industry as he did in the software industry. His plan: bring about the mass adoption of electronic cars by making the concept of on-demand electricity through ubiquitous charging stations a reality.
Agassi is tapping his six years at SAP in more ways than one, which is the untold story of Project Better Place. Because while Agassi plans to implement a global electronic car infrastructure, he's also writing the software that will run the infrastructure.
Click here to read why Agassi left SAP.
"We understood that at the heart of the system there is a very interesting piece of software that actually makes sure all cars get charged when they need to get charged, and it allows us to direct and sort who is a higher priority and so forth," said Agassi, during the company's Oct. 29 launch in New York. "If you think about all the batteries—mobile distributed devices—that are going around the electric grid itself, for the ability to understand how much excess capacity [there is available] there needs to be a piece of software that sends the electrons the right way."
The secret with this software, according to Agassi, is to make it simple at the surface level—where consumers tap energy by recharging batteries—and hide the complexity behind the software that allocates who gets what when.
Simplicity on the surface was also the goal with SAP's NetWeaver platform, which helps companies integrate applications and build composite apps from various components sourced from inside and outside of SAP. While the success of NetWeaver still hangs in the balance (a majority of SAP's 42,000 customers have yet to migrate to the platform), there is no arguing the almost cult status Agassi achieved while at SAP—mostly because of his rare ability to mix technological expertise with business acumen and then sell the watered-down concepts to customers and partners.
With Project Better Place, Agassi intends to tap those skills. "This is where my expertise comes from," he said. "I had a great school at SAP, [I've developed] an understanding of business models and the complexity of multiple different systems in multiple different industries."
Agassi is not the first to suggest building an electronic car infrastructure. At least one other company, Evin LLC, claims to have both patents and prototypes for electronic vehicles and the infrastructure network. However, one differentiator might be Agassi's goal to link technology, financial policy and government players in the deployment of the charging infrastructure—a task he seems to be up to. Since its inception last year, Project Better Place has raised $200 million, a tremendous first round for a startup.
Tesla Motors hopes to revolutionize the automotive industry with its electric Roadster. Click here to read more.
He's also got some big investors on board, including Israel Corp., an Israeli transportation and technology holding company, and Vantage Point Venture Partners, as well as a group of private investors that includes James Wolfensohn, former head of the World Bank.
In what can only be described as a "duh" move, the Electric Recharge Grid will tap the existing power grid—assuming Agassi nails down the appropriate approvals—and use "extension cords" to power charging stations in places such as parking garages, work places and people's homes. For trips longer than 100 miles—the range of the current batteries available on the market—Agassi plans switch stations where batteries can be exchanged automatically.
Working with partners, Project Better Place will also source the electric cars—Agassi is said to be in talks with five major automotive manufacturers—and the batteries that will be compatible with the charging network. To kick-start the whole thing, Project Better Place will also subsidize the cost of the car through leases and credits. The kicker for consumers is that the cost of batteries is taken on by Project Better Place and consumers subscribe to the electricity.
"We'll use a model deployed many, many years ago that is widely used today—the cell phone model," said Agassi. "We build, set up the network, then sign up some subscribers, and they can choose the car of their choice from a multitude of vendors based on a subscription contract, which will be subsidized, making electronic cars the more affordable, more sane, more sustainable solution that is faster and cheaper for consumers."
While there are some significant hurdles to overcome—not the least being the fact that electronic cars require about a minute charge time for every mile of travel—the brilliance or downfall of Agassi's plan depending on the outcome is that Project Better Place owns the software that could run the world's electric car grid. For a development guy, you can't get any better than that.
To date, Agassi has remained tight-lipped on the actual details of the software development under way at his 10-person startup.
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