We talked to Elon Kim, Ph.D in KAIST and CEO of LiBEST, about its secondary Lithium-Ion, and custom flexible batteries and here is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Elon Kim: I would have to say that we are definitely ‘Busier’ than ever.
I recently married my wife (after several wedding delays due to COVID) while going through our super-fast first-quarter business growth. I was quite serious about postponing the honeymoon, but (as you’ve guessed) I was persuaded by my wife to take the vacation, which actually turned out to be a very wise decision. I was able to take a step back and contemplate the future direction of our business.
Now that I am back, I feel truly set for the next phase of our business’s momentum.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded LiBEST.
Elon Kim: I was actually a very enduring, mad scientist-like character in Lithium-Ion Battery academic field. I finished both my masters and Ph.D. in just three and half years (KAIST, Korea); that’s how crazy I was.
In 2015, I was offered an opportunity to lead a $2M funded project, which had its objective on two areas:
a) Setting-up a full-production line for a flexible secondary battery
b) To achieve commercial readiness of different flexible battery models.
This really intrigued me because not many academics get the chance to actually realize their theories to a pre-commercial phase. It took roughly two years to stabilize flexible battery cell technology. Once I felt confident enough, I began registering patents, as well as investing my capital to start a ‘Seed-Start-up’, and this became our company ‘LiBEST’.
Luckily, now we are currently doing business with many global IT (wearable device, cannot disclose names) giants who are interested in adopting our flexible secondary battery technology to their next generation of innovative wearable devices.
How does LiBEST innovate?
Elon Kim: There were significant changes to the ‘direction’ or the ‘source’ of where our innovation came from. For the first few years, many ideas or resources were invested in ‘what we can offer’ from the flexible battery technology, which we phrase as ‘inwardly-directed. This has to do with perfecting our flexible secondary battery technology, bending, operating performances, size-wise related tech innovation. At the time, this did not involve a lot about ‘what our target device customers’ wanted.
But once we’ve moved onto the pre-commercial phase, we started to innovate ‘everything’ centering on the target device market and customers. It did not take long to admit that we are ‘ONLY’ secondary battery experts and ‘NOT’ wearable device experts. The proper focus of innovation comes from how we understand our device customers.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Elon Kim: Our business which is in association with the small-sized secondary, LiB industry, there are clear pros and Cons due to COVID. But we think the positive side has a much stronger influence, though.
Con: In some cases, it can be very critical for our customers to actually see the flexible cell and discuss the development options. We sometimes do have a difficult time developing a pre-sales relationship with non-domestic customers. But we’re currently making efforts to solve this through different directions and in-direct channels.
Pros: Because of COVID, the growth of communication-related wearable devices are very, I mean, very rapid. We are not saying this only in terms of ‘growth in shipment size’, but the efforts that device manufacturers try to innovate is truly advantageous for us. For example, we believe that, because of COVID, there is now stronger demand for AR / VR devices due to increased needs for effective, untact communication, along with different designs and form factors.(CAGR of +45%, ~2024)
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Elon Kim: Among hundreds of other difficult business decisions, the most tough choices I had to make were ‘WHEN’ to move onto ‘Pre-Mass’ scale production. Because this industry requires a quite heavy scale of CAPEX/OPEX, we have to feel very confident about our investment timing based on the forecasted size of market demand. If we move too early or too late, we might not seize our position in the market as we’ve planned.
After several rounds of internal debate, we’ve agreed to initiate our construction of the plant in 3Q of 2021. This seemed like a super hard decision just one year ago, but it recently became very clear when we saw that our forecasted demand (requested capacity) started to exceed our maximum manufacturing capacity in the current location. (180k cells/yr)
What specific tools, software and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Elon Kim: Among others, the most useful S/W and management skill is ‘Getting Comfortable’ with different kinds of untact video-conferencing tools. We do not solely rely on single video-conferencing S/W, but we use 4~5 different solutions to best support the objectives of each meeting.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Elon Kim: Globally, there are about 5 competitors who see a similar market. (Prologium, BrightVold, Samsung SDI, etc) Because currently, the flexible battery market is ‘opening up, we plan to stay in the game by creating a very strong wave in the market to build a ‘representative case’ ahead of our competitors.
Recently we’ve succeeded in sole-contract of 200k flexible cells to a wearable LED manufacturer. We see other target markets are Smartwatch, AR/VR wearables, Beauty & Healthcare device markets.
Your final thoughts?
Elon Kim: Many current high-end wearable devices have a huge space dependency on the existing form(rigid, spared) of the secondary battery. According to our estimation, their spaces take up at least 40~60% of the modular space of a wearable device. We try to innovate by removing constraints from the size or fixation of the existing battery to re-define and to truly maximize the device’s core features; 5G(AP), RFIC, Display, CPU, Memory, etc…
The core value of our technology lies in that sense, which is to innovate the speed and ways of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, centering on high-end wearable devices.
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