Revisiting Jay Whitacre's Innovation Story

Earlier today energy storage startup Aquion Energy announced that the cost of its breakthrough saltwater battery technology should fall by 50% in as little as 2-4 years, instead of the 10 they originally predicted. That’s an incredibly confident statement to make for a company in one of the world’s most challenging and capital-intensive markets. As always with energy innovations, time will tell whether they can achieve this without running out of money, but for now the signs are promising.

Aquion’s announcement prompted me to revisit a TEDx talk from 2012 by Jay Whitacre, the inventor of Aquion’s battery technology, that I originally saw shortly after starting my own company to develop a saltwater battery based on “blue energy” principles. In it, Dr. Whitacre describes the rational, cost-first approach he used to create a new battery that can be brought to market in less than 10 years.

“Do things to the minimum necessary resolution to get you to the next step” -Jay Whitacre

The video is packed with great insights about how to innovate technologies based on new materials, including:

  • Why we can’t afford to wait to develop better energy technologies (3:31)
  • The importance of using commodity materials to accelerate scale-up (8:10)
  • A rational, step-by-step process for assessing the commercial viability of new technology concepts (8:45) and then proving them out (11:45)
  • Rules for successful execution of that process (13:26)
  • The evolution of Aquion’s battery from lab to prototype scale, in pictures (14:30)

I feel like I could write a whole post on every one of these insights, but that will have to wait for another night. For now, enjoy the full video embedded below.