You might know SimpliPhi Power for its lithium ferrous phosphate (LFP) batteries used to back up residential and commercial solar arrays. But you might not be aware of the diverse applications the batteries are used in or its inspiring CTO and founder who developed a battery architecture based initially on the lithium cobalt oxide and later, in 2007, on the LFP chemistry that changed the film industry forever.
“Stuart is an interesting and amazing man,” said Catherine Von Burg, SimpliPhi’s president and CEO. “He’s an inventor and tinkerer.”
Stuart Lennox spent years as a production designer for film and TV—much the same background as Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman on the TV show MythBusters. He was “the guy” who solved problems on any production set, whether pulling off special effects, creating an apparatus to move cameras or bringing power to remote location shoots.
“That’s really what led him to see a need for better power supply,” said Von Burg. “He was all about solving problems and creating solutions.”
Lennox often encountered problems using diesel generators on set—the pollution, noise and logistics of bringing in the fuel. He also saw problems with lead-acid, the incumbent battery technology. Equipment with enormous draw, such as 800-W strobe lights, damaged the batteries. They were also temperature sensitive, often arriving dead after shipping to locations in warm climates. Lead-acid batteries were also very large and heavy.
In 2001, Lennox found inspiration in an electric bicycle on set. He had the manufacturer create prototypes of the bike’s battery, which he used to power movie cameras and portable lighting. The batteries worked so well that the film and TV industry asked for more, which provoked Lennox to found his own company, LibertyPak, one year later.
“The bicycle really captivated his imagination,” Von Burg said. “It was so small, yet it provided enough power to move, even when carrying a human. The small battery was performing functions that lead-acid could never address.”
Lennox offered LibertyPaks and LibertyBelts, portable plug-and-play battery packs that could be charged by solar or through other methods. The packs’ batteries used a lithium-ion chemistry with cobalt—a break-through technology in the early 2000s still used today. Although these batteries had high energy density, they produced excessive heat. This “thermal runaway” shortened cycle life and increased fire risk.
Once again, Lennox’s problem-solving side came out. He went into his garage lab and began to innovate. When the first LFP battery cell prototypes came out in 2007, Lennox immediately saw the chemistry’s potential to offer greater efficiency, safety and cycle life. He refined the his processes based on the new chemistry and developed a proprietary battery management system and architecture that was cobalt-free.
“A chemical property of cobalt, known as thermal runaway, leads to failure and fires, like we’ve seen with cell phones and laptops, as well as larger applications, such as cars,” Von Burg said. “Today our products, compared to other cobalt-based batteries, outperform on efficiency, cycle life and safety, and eliminate the risk known as thermal runaway.”
In addition to using LFP technology in his packs and belts, Lennox incorporated the batteries into portable rechargeable generators. The Little and Big Gennys can store power from any source, including solar. His expanded product line only brought him bigger gigs in the film industry. For example, Conan O’Brien’s late-night TV show used the Big Genny to power a 3D moon on set. The LibertyPaks and LibertyBelts have also been used on many movies and TV shows, including Avatar and Tron: Legacy. But Lennox didn’t stop there.
Von Burg met Lennox in late 2009. She previously worked in biomedical engineering research and had also in the non-profit sector, introducing technology and data to improve lives, so LibertyPak immediately captured her attention.
“I was captivated by something that meant a lot to me—introducing access to energy to the 1.4 billion people that live without clean water, agricultural irrigation or lighting for schools and clinics,” Von Burg said. “When I saw the LibertyPak and Gennys and how they could plug into a solar blanket to give people the ability to harvest their own power in a lightweight, safe, non-toxic way off grid in remote areas, that was a game changer in my mind. I really bought into his vision and technology.”
Von Burg joined LibertyPak in 2010 and helped launch a new product line of larger batteries while expanding the company into new markets, including emergency relief and the military.
Lennox and Von Burg also saw a need for power resiliency in commercial and residential applications. Customers with grid-tied solar systems were quickly realizing their arrays would disconnect during a power outage. But Lennox and Von Burg knew that retrofitting systems with batteries and inverter charge controllers allowed arrays to disconnect and island the assets for the home or business when the grid went down, providing uninterrupted solar power. They pitched the business proposition to contractors across the country.
“We helped installers understand how they could tap into a customer that was no longer active and help them optimize that initial capital investment,” Von Burg said.
The idea that the company could help simplify people’s power inspired LibertyPak to rebrand as SimpliPhi Power. The “Phi” comes from a Greek symbol based on a mathematical principle known as the ‘golden mean’ which is found throughout nature and when applied to mechanical systems, achieves balance, symmetry and simplicity.
By the time Elon Musk announced Tesla’s Powerwall in 2015, SimpliPhi was way ahead of the game. Still, Von Burg is grateful to Musk for raising awareness around a model of power independence based on energy storage.
“Elon Musk did everyone in the industry a great service,” she said. “He was able to captivate people’s imagination and help them understand how storage takes the intermittency out of renewables and the grid. But we started that in 2010. We are probably the energy storage company with the longest track record, considering actual systems and deployments across markets and applications.”
Today SimpliPhi Power’s executive offices and manufacturing plant are in Ojai, California, though the company is considering expanding into other territories such as Australia and Europe, specifically the United Kingdom.
SimpliPhi values using its open source technology to work with all major inverter manufacturers, tailoring voltage settings to make integration, again, as simple as possible.
SimpliPhi today sells through some distributors, although that wasn’t always the case.
“Early on, distributors thought our technology was too new, so we built our business with the hundreds of solar installers across the U.S. and overseas,” Von Burg said, remembering back to 2010 when the company partnered directly with solar installers, architects and electricians. “I’d spend hours on the phone with our technical team talking to installers, electricians, architects and municipalities understanding their pain points and what they’re trying to achieve. Those early customers were the reason we grew, because they were willing to take a chance on us and provide the basis to prove out our platform technology that had been tested for years in the film and movie industry.”
Von Burg said SimpliPhi’s mission of helping solve problems is what still makes it more than just a battery manufacturer. The company continues to provide engineering and design services to help contractors and consumers optimize solar+storage, as well as other generation assets, even optimizing generators coupled with batteries..
“We are committed to helping get customers engaged in their own power generation and utilization and understanding what the true cost is,” she said. “When they look at a price of a gallon of gas, because of the subsidies, they’re paying a low cost on the frontend but paying dearly on the backend. People can create resiliency with solar and storage.”