10 years of CUSTOMCELLS: 10 questions for Leopold König and Torge Thönnessen

Read the interview on the 10th anniversary of CUSTOMCELLS here.

In the year CUSTOMCELLS was founded, exactly 2,956 new electric cars were registered. Various articles at the time bemoaned the failure of the energy transition on the roads. Six years later, CSU politician Dorothee Bär was still earning scorn and derision for her reference to air cabs. What made her confident at the time that CUSTOMCELLS could be successful?

The confidence has been fed by the fact that even debates such as the one surrounding Dorothee Bär's statements could not hide the challenges we were facing and still permanently face today due to technological developments. At the same time, we have learned from the failure of other start-ups that timing and use of resources in particular are crucial for success. This quickly led us to a lean path and to a step-by-step plan in which we consistently focused on unoccupied areas in the market. We were successful with this – and it spurred us on to continue.

When in the past ten years did you realize that CUSTOMCELLS could actually establish itself in the market?

For a long time, we were clearly too small to make the leap into the mass-produced automotive business. However, we knew that the "startup business" would have to undergo a major transformation in order to survive in the long term. So, with the support of IPCEI, we took the leap into large-scale production about three years ago and established a logical vertical value chain.

Was going back to research ever an option for either of you?

Have we ever left research altogether? We are both technology-savvy entrepreneurs – just like a large number of our employees at CUSTOMCELLS. That includes research. Entrepreneurship gives us the opportunity to translate research directly into practice today and thus create added value for society through innovative technologies.

Hardly a week goes by now without the media reporting on alternatives to lithium-ion technology. Why do you consider lithium-ion technology to be dominant for the next 10 years?

It has now been a good three decades since lithium-ion technology reached market maturity. Nevertheless, we believe that it has not yet reached the limits of its potential. Artificial intelligence and nanotechnology are opening up completely new possibilities for the further development of lithium-ion battery cells. At the same time, despite all the success stories in the media, it is not an easy undertaking to transfer novel accumulator or cell systems from the laboratory into practice. Being able to manufacture something on an industrial scale is something completely different from achieving successful results in the laboratory.

In job interviews, the question is often asked: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? We’re asking this question with regards to CUSTOMCELLS. Where do you see the company in 10 years?

We expect CUSTOMCELLS to establish itself as an international group in the premium battery cell production segment. Here, too, the business will expand along the vertical value chain, and we expect that in the future not only cells will be produced, but meaningful electrification concepts that also include software. In 10 years, we will still be a company that will play a decisive role in the ongoing electrification of mobility.

Will application-specific cells remain an issue – or will standardized cells not prevail in the end? What is CUSTOMCELLS' assessment and strategy?

The question is rather whether the standardized cell – in the sense of the big all-in-one solution – will still exist in the future. The range of products on the market is becoming increasingly differentiated. More and more use cases are being found for which lithium-ion batteries with very specific performance characteristics are needed. "Ahead in Innovation" is a lived credo at CUSTOMCELLS. And we will remain true to it in the future. In 2016, we manufactured the first silicon cells. In 2018, we began developing high-temperature cells. These are both technologies that are in greater demand today than ever before. For the aviation sector, we have developed cells that set new standards in terms of both high energy and high power density. We are now opening the next chapter by linking our cells with digital technologies such as cloud computing and AI.

A transformation is taking place in many industrial sectors. Products are becoming services. To what extent are companies like CUSTOMCELLS also working on such approaches in order to further extend the value chain?

From the early days, we have strongly oriented our business model towards services. Today, we cover large parts of the value chain of battery cell development and production with our service portfolio. The use of digital technologies enables us to extend this value chain further. The basis for this is provided by connecting the battery to a cloud. The data obtained in this way, which provides us with information on the condition of the cells, for example, will enable us to provide our customers with additional services in the future and also provide them with useful support after the cells have been installed.

CUSTOMCELLS describes itself as a company "powered by people", but how does a company like CUSTOMCELLS find the right personnel, especially in the early years, when there may not yet be a large HR department?

The answer is already in the question. In the early years, we ourselves were the front and back office, the development and sales department rolled into one. Above all, we tried to get people on our team who not only had a lot of technological expertise, but also a ‘do-er’ mentality and the desire to help shape a technology of the future. A good team is comparable to the world's best battery cells. Only when the chemistry is right and the teamwork as a whole is right can outstanding performance be achieved. And that is exactly what we at CUSTOMCELLS have done for 10 years – and continue to do every day.

10 years of CUSTOMCELLS – that's a long time. Which phase in the company's history do you still remember particularly often today?

Of course, what applies to every founding team is that there were ups and downs, but the early days in particular had a strong impact on us. Shortly after our founding, our only customer at the time went bankrupt. We had to change our business model – and as quickly as possible. In retrospect, this shaped us in many ways. It made it very clear to us that history rarely follows a straight line, and that we have to be fast, flexible, and highly innovative with our products, services, and ultimately the entire business model if we want to survive in the market. Today we can say that we have succeeded. CUSTOMCELLS is at home in its customers’ markets. We know the specific challenges in their industries and the demands they place on our solutions. Our employees combine technical know-how with extensive experience from over 1,400 industrial projects – and that is exactly what makes us successful.  

Could have, would have ... we know what happens next. But what is the one decision, in the history of CUSTOMCELLS, that you would say in retrospect was truly groundbreaking?

There is not this one decision. In retrospect, every decision we have made has been important in its own way. Certainly, in the past few years in particular, we have to mention the joint venture with Porsche AG. And finally, of course, the appointment of Dirk Abendroth as CEO of the CUSTOMCELLS Group.  Building CUSTOMCELLS into a globally leading company with a key role in the premium battery market is precisely the challenge that now drives us together.