This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Could rising gas prices boost Chicago battery-tech startup?

No one wants to see the price of gasoline climb to $5 a gallon, but one Chicago startup could get a lift from more people trading in cars for electric scooters or motorcycles.

AllCell Technologies LLC, a small firm that patented technology to prevent ion-lithium batteries from overheating and catching on fire, has been creating jobs and ramping up production over the last year in its recently expanded assembly plant in the city’s Back of the Yards neighborhood.

Said Al-Hallaj, a co-founder and CEO, developed a material solution that evenly distributes heat produced by ion-lithium batteries.

Said Al-Hallaj

The Jordanian-born Mr. Al-Hallaj designed this product while working on his doctorate at the Illinois Institute of Technology in the 1990s on safety and thermal management solutions for this specific type of battery. He co-founded AllCell with his IIT adviser after he was awarded patents for his technology in 2001 and licensed it back from the school.

Last year, they began selling their material solution to companies that make battery packs for electric bikes and scooters. AllCell also signed a deal to work on battery packs with two Purdue University engineering students who are developing an electric motorcycle. That battery-powered bike is expected to reach a maximum speed of 120 mph and a range of 120 miles before it needs recharging.

In the last year, AllCell doubled its assembly plant workforce to 22 as part of a $1 million expansion project and training program. The firm received a $460,000 grant in 2011 from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity that was part of the federal stimulus plan. AllCell is also buying cells from others and manufacturing its own battery packs, which are being sold in the U.S. and in Europe and Asia. Last year sales totaled less than $1 million and the company isn’t profitable yet.

Crain’s met with Mr. Al-Hallaj recently to learn more about AllCell.

Crain’s: Why is heat management such a critical component to developing an ion-lithium battery as a good alternative energy source?

Mr. Al-Hallaj: Sony started making ion-lithium batteries in the early 1990s for their electronics because they were lighter, smaller, and they were supposed to last longer and be environmentally friendly. When you put a few of those batteries together, for example in a laptop, they start to heat up when you use them.

If you don’t control the temperature when the batteries heat up, you lose lifetime on the battery. If you use them in another application, say in an electric car, the battery needs to last five to ten years. So controlling thermal management is a means to extend the life of the battery, but if you don’t control the heat, the cells can catch on fire and you can have an explosion.

Crain’s: So how does your technology actually work?

Mr. Al-Hallaj: We use a passive thermal management solution with a graphite matrix soaked with wax that’s surrounding each cell in the battery pack. That graphite matrix moves the heat around to make the battery temperature uniform. Even if one cell fails, the material will spread the heat quickly and quench it to prevent the heat from moving to other cells (within the battery) and catching on fire.

Crain’s: I hear the U.S. military also purchases batteries containing your product. Can you describe how soldiers are using them?

Mr. Al-Hallaj: We worked with another company to develop battery packs for military personnel that carry portable electronic equipment in the field. Soldiers are now carrying lots of electronics with them — night goggles, GPS, laptops, even cameras for drones. In a lot of cases, their mission time is limited by how much power they have to continue their work, so it’s critical they have batteries with a long life.

Electric motorcycle

Crain’s: What are your plans for growing your business in the near term?

Mr. Al-Hallaj: We’re the only company in the U.S. that makes this product for the e-bike and e-scooter market. We’re hoping the U.S. market will grow and that we become the prominent assembly plant here. The U.S. market is still small, but we just hired sales people who are out there in the U.S. and Europe to promote us. We’re also becoming popular in Asia because it’s so hot there it doesn’t take much for these batteries to heat up.

We’re hoping to grow the business in the U.S. because our biggest competitive advantage is that we’re here, we’re local, and there’s no one in the U.S. making the cooling technology we’re making.

Crain’s: What will it take to really put your company on the map?

Mr. Al-Hallaj: The private sector is still reluctant to invest in this technology. If we could be part of a public demonstration project in a smart grid initiative in the U.S. in a state or federal program, it would make a big difference. If those programs test our product, they’ll publish the data and it would come from a credible third party. That would give strong validation to the technical and economic feasibility of our product and that would make a big push for more in the private sector to invest in our technology. Nobody wants to be the first.

Crain’s: What’s your recipe for nudging the U.S. market to embrace products that run on non-fossil fuel energy sources?

Mr. Al-Hallaj: There’s no silver bullet. The government has a role to push for some funding for continued research in renewable energy sources. But the best thing the government and private sectors can do is level the playing field. Traditional energy companies have a lot of money to spend and we can’t counteract the message of those big oil and coal players on our own. Consumers at the end of the day will decide what they want to buy, but we have to continue to innovate and push and not expect to get rich overnight.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Wicker Park fair aims to inspire small firms to go green

More than 75 Chicago small business owners recently walked away with ideas about how to green their operations and save money after attending a Wicker Park meet-up with sustainable vendors and organizations.

In late March, the Wicker Park Bucktown (WPB) Chamber of Commerce organized a half-day Green Business Resource Fair for its members and others to meet more than 30 green vendors, according to Adam Burck, the chamber’s executive director.

Mr. Burck joined with other community partners to launch the fair, including chambers of commerce and merchant groups from nearby Logan Square, West Town, Lincoln Park, and Old Town. The event was held at the non-profit ReBuilding Exchange in a vast warehouse on Ashland Avenue near Bucktown’s eastern edge.

The WPB chamber that day unveiled a new green initiative intended to inspire local businesses to become more sustainable. On its website, the chamber lists about 30 ways business owners can green their operations. When at least 10 of them are adopted, they will be noted as a WPB Green-designated business on the chamber’s website and they’ll have the option of putting a promotional sticker on their front door.

The rows of tables set up at the fair represented a who’s who of green-oriented service providers and groups in Chicago. They included: Green Wheels, Christy Webber Landscapes, Consolidated Printing, GreenChoice Bank, Foresight Design Initiative, CNT/CNT Energy and the Chicago Conservation Corps.

i-Go’s Nissan Leaf

There was cool eye candy there too: i-Go Car Sharing brought a Nissan Leaf electric car from its fleet; Icon Modern encouraged people to lounge in their sustainably-sourced furniture; and Upper Ground, a vertical landscaping company, drew lots of interest with its glass-encased beehive.

Crain’s spoke with Mr. Burck about the recent event and his plans for future green endeavors for his group’s members and the surrounding community.

Crain’s: What was the main objective of the fair?

Mr. Burck: I’ve been at the chamber a year and a half and one of the challenges the board placed on the newly-formed green committee after I arrived was to develop new ideas for helping members become more sustainable. The idea for the fair came out of those developments. We also came up with the WPB Green designation as a way to encourage companies to start on the road to being green.

Crain’s: What were some of the most useful things business owners learned from attending the fair?

Adam Burck

Mr. Burck: Many of them didn’t know about ComEd’s Small Business Energy Savings Program and all the different initiatives. Some people discovered green vendors in their own lines of business they didn’t even know existed. For example, some restaurant owners weren’t familiar with The Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition.

During a panel discussion, we discussed some of our SSA (Special Service Area) initiatives, including a pilot recycling program. We’re piloting a shared recycling dumpster between two businesses to show that companies can do this affordably.

Many business owners also didn’t realize how cheap it would be to make some of these changes and have such a big impact on their energy consumption and costs. For example, exit signs have to be on all the time, according to (city) code. There’s two costs associated with that: energy and ongoing maintenance to constantly replace the bulbs. By putting in an LED retrofit for those exit signs, (which was offered by one of the vendors and is subsidized in part by ComEd), energy consumption will be reduced while you’re saving money. The LED bulbs can last a minimum of 10 years. And if you forget to change the standard bulbs and that’s found during an inspection, you’ll end up paying fines. So there’s a potential cost savings there too with a retrofit.

Crain’s: Do you think other Chicago business groups will replicate this kind of fair and will the WPB Chamber do it again?

Mr. Burck: These kinds of events should be a regional thing and could be replicated anywhere. We invited neighboring chambers to promote it and invite their members and they were all glad to participate. It makes sense to partner with others. We plan to do this again and we’re meeting this week to discuss ways to make it even better next time around. This event exceeded our attendance expectations (many locals working in the green industry turned out to network too), but next year we’ll consider holding it on a week night or weekend day so even more people can come.

Also, There are some businesses in our area that are struggling and adopting green initiatives can really help their bottom line. If companies don’t have green on their radar because they’re just trying to keep their doors open, they’d learn that going green will help their bottom line. More of those businesses should come in the future.

Crain’s: Are there other upcoming green events you’re working on?

Mr. Burck: Our next sustainable event is the Green Music Fest, planned for June 23 and 24. A new Green Village will be part of the music fest this year, which will be a designated area that will have lots of educational demonstrations of ways the general public can go green. We’re also greening the fest with a robust recycling program that will be run by Bright Beat (a local green event consulting firm). We want these events to be as sustainable as possible, too.


In other green news:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the city of Chicago has saved $2.2 million in recycling service costs during the first six months of competitive bidding, paving the way for a complete citywide recycling expansion by the end of 2013. Beginning in 2013, the city will roll out blue cart recycling services to the 340,000 remaining households in Chicago.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Startup promotes sustainability by sharing stuff, not selling it

Chuck Templeton is building a new kind of sustainable online start-up that encourages people to share what they already have and stop buying stuff they may not need.

He launched OhSoWe with partner Arun Sivashankaran a little over a year ago as a digital meetup that connects neighbors by encouraging them to borrow household goods from each other so they don’t have to buy things they won’t use often. Mr. Templeton, 43, started, a national restaurant reservation site, and sold it before moving to Chicago, where he created OhSoWe.

OhSoWe already has more than 15,000 registered users, with about 60 percent of them located in Chicago, mostly on the North Side. There are some smaller pockets of people in Utah, California and New York who also have joined in the last year. Members can post a request to borrow something they need — a ladder, a blender, or extra chairs — and chances are good there’s someone living close by who’s a member on the site and will be happy to loan it out for a short while.

So far, the site isn’t generating revenue, but the co-owners are working on ideas about how to create income down the road. For now, Mr. Templeton is keen on promoting the idea that we have more than we need. He’s encouraging individuals and businesses to re-think consumption, focus on a local economy, and foster a stronger sense of community.

Mr. Templeton, a San Francisco native, is passionate about sustainability beyond his new business venture. He and his wife are converting their Lakeview house to a net-zero energy home, they’re raising chickens in their backyard, and they’re down to one car that they’ve owned for about a decade.

Crain’s met with Mr. Templeton recently to learn more about the ideas behind this innovative, green venture.

Crain’s: How did you shift from starting a service company like to this very different website, OhSoWe?

Mr. Templeton: I always had a green sense of myself. My dad recycled, we lived efficiently, my grandma was a Depression-era person and was very frugal. With the birth of my first daughter almost eight years ago, I started to look at the world in a new way and wondered what it was going to be like when she grows up.


Here’s my new worldview: Tthe primary currency isn’t money but social capital and how we value each other beyond what’s in our bank accounts. And I thought, let’s build a business that doesn’t sell anything but one that builds our local community and reduces the impact of our dependence on natural resources that are going to run out one day.

Crain’s: You said you did a lot of reading in the time between selling and creating OhSoWe. Was there anything in particular that had a great impact on changing your perspective?

Mr. Templeton: One of the biggest influences was Bill McKibbon’s book, “Eaarth.” There’s lots of emphasis on resilience and rebuilding community. I decided I wanted to encourage more of that.

Crain’s: Can you describe the purpose of this website and how people can benefit from joining?

Mr. Templeton: About 80 percent of the items we have in our house aren’t used even once a month. There are 60 million drills out there, and we don’t need more drills — we need more efficient ways to share those drills. If you think of the natural capital and human capital and energy it takes to make those things, it’s a shame for them to sit around unused.

Recently I needed a 12-foot extension ladder, so I posted it on OhSoWe and seven neighbors on my block all responded by the next day. That means there’s at least six extra ladders on our street alone. We see people on the site giving help on gardening, moving furniture, sharing bread makers, air compressors and giving computer assistance. Instead of having someone pop in a car and drive in from Evanston, let’s have neighbors help each other out.

Crain’s: So what does OhSoWe really mean?

Mr. Templeton: It’s the rediscovery of what should be obvious to us: Oh, so we don’t have to buy that — we can borrow it. Oh, so we can get to know our neighbors. It’s a reminder of what we as humans know should be obvious being part of a community. It’s also a way for us to be more resilient at the local level.

And it was also a short URL, which is tough to get these days.

Crain’s: The business model you’ve set up seems counterproductive to consumerism since the website encourages people NOT to buy stuff. Is there a way for local businesses to benefit from the community you’re nurturing?

Mr. Templeton: We haven’t gone after businesses yet, but they will have to think about how they do business differently in the future. This model of getting a shovel for 99 cents from China and reselling it for much more can’t last forever. Eventually we’ll run out of resources. Instead of selling a drill or some other tool, maybe a business will rent you the drill, or sell you a shoveling service.

Also, businesses have a lot of space they could be better at renting out. If you have a conference room you only use 10 percent of the time, a neighbor nearby might want to rent that for a few hours. One small business could be really good at marketing, and another could be good at accounting. How do we connect them so they can help businesses solve problems with each other that are nearby?

Crain’s: How do you intend to make money with this website, or is that not part of the game plan?

Mr. Templeton: The idea isn’t to become the next Bill Gates, but we want to make it sustainable long term. We’re exploring some ideas: You wouldn’t charge a neighbor to use your shovel, but maybe you would for a power washer. We would enable it to happen through the website and get a piece of the transaction. We’re testing a few different things. We want to create a local economy so the currency can stay local.

Crain’s: Are you engaged in other business ventures?

Mr. Templeton: I’m fortunate. I had some success with OpenTable, but I’m also now a director on the boards of a few different companies. I sit on the board of GrubHub and Getable, and I’m an adviser to Braintree. I’ve also dramatically reduced what I spend on stuff. When you do that, your dollar lasts that much longer.

Read more about OhSoWe in Crain’s: “Neighborliness is latest venture for OpenTable founder Templeton”


Fracking is coming to Illinois, for better or worse: The state, which has sat on the sidelines as new technologies using high-pressure fracturing techniques to extract natural gas have launched energy booms in long-dormant states, could see a boomlet of its own in coming months. Read the full story on Crain’s homepage.

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