Bosch’s acquisition of Seeo could trigger ‘next-generation’ battery buying spree

The acquisition by Bosch, one of the world’s biggest automotive suppliers, of Seeo, the solid-state battery developer of energy storage, could mark a major turning point for the battery industry, according to Cosmin Laslau, an analyst with Lux Research. The deal was concluded in late August.

Seeo has developed what it calls “next-generation” lithium-ion batteries that could double the range of electric cars.

According to a filing with the state of California, Seeo’s battery technology may increase energy density by 50% to 100%, which could significantly increase the operating range of an electric vehicle.

Seeo has an exclusive licence to core patents from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that could help Bosch produce lightweight batteries on an industrial scale. Seeo’s lithium polymer cells have an energy density of 350Wh/kg, roughly twice the level of batteries used in today’s electric vehicles

The acquisition, which includes all of Seeo’s IP and research staff, represents the first instance of one of the biggest automotive players outright acquiring a next-generation battery developer, highlighting the strategic importance of advanced energy storage for the automotive value chain.

But the acquisition could be a risky bet for Bosch, Laslau says. He highlights a number of inherent risks in the transaction.

The deal comes at a crucial time for what is a fragile startup, he says. Seeo has been trying to pivot from lower-energy LFP (lithium iron phosphate) cathodes towards higher-energy NCA (nickel cobalt aluminum) cathodes to keep ahead of the competition. It was also looking to set up joint ventures to help it scale up production of cells capable of 350Wh/kg, a crucial step in proving its new technology.

“However, its high appetite for burning through cash, its unproven cost claims, and technical issues like low ionic conductivity (which limit power and require the battery ro be heated to about 80°C) place it mid-pack in our Lux Innovation Grid of interviewed solid-state battery developers,” Laslau says.

“Bosch is taking a risk on a mid-pack player, but if the acquisition price was low enough (terms were undisclosed) it was a move worth making. Seeo’s technology will require quite a bit more investment and time before it is ready for a commercial debut. Nonetheless, the buy is an almost necessary one for a supplier like Bosch that has ambitions to be a key battery player in a crowded, competitive space.”

He says there remain some intriguing companies in this solid-state space that present better targets for partnerships or acquisition than Seeo. He names Imprint Energy, Ilika, and ProLogium on the start-up front, and Hydro-Quebec’s IREQ arm on the industrial laboratory front.

“While all of these players have their own associated strengths and weaknesses, it does mean that the next-generation solid-state battery space remains open, despite starting to heat up.”

He says that, in addition to Bosch buying Seeo, Apple is rumored to have quietly acquired distressed thin-film battery developer Infinite Power Solutions at the end of 2014 (not to mention GM’s investments into Sakti3 and SolidEnergy, and VW investing into Quantumscape and working with Oxis Energy, two other so-called ‘beyond-Li-ion’ players).

He believes the acquisition marks the start of a likely buying spree of next-generation battery technology over the coming years. The larger trend is unstoppable: plug-in vehicles have found a successful niche, and will grow from that niche in the coming decades.

“As these OEMs and their suppliers look to appeal to more buyers, the pressure for longer driving ranges for less money will push Li-ion to the breaking point, necessitating next-generation technology. For now, solid-state batteries are the best positioned to take that crown, but other families like lithium-sulphur, high-voltage cathodes, and alternative ions are worth watching, too,” Laslau said.

“Despite the growing hype around solid-state batteries, do not expect Li-ion to lose its crown in the next decade.  It will be surpassed eventually, and those that prepare now by securing key IP and leading researchers, will be best positioned to prevail in the future of transportation drivetrains.”