As Kenan Sahin walks through the labs at Tiax, an energy technology development firm located along Boston’s tech beltway, he points to a row of little muffle furnaces in a small beige room. The company’s researchers use the ovens to heat mixtures of metals, producing slight variations of a nickel-rich cathode recipe that Sahin believes will improve the energy density, cycle life, and price of lithium-ion batteries.
If he’s right, it would represent a rare genuine advance in battery materials, one that could help tip electric vehicles into the consumer mainstream. It’s the result of 15 years of research and tens of millions of dollars of personal investment, reflecting Sahin’s patient and deliberate approach to the innovation process.
Sahin, 75, is best known for selling his billing software company, Kenan Systems, for $1.5 billion to Lucent in 1999, without having taken a dollar of outside investment. Since then, he has spent much of his time and fortune quietly working to push battery technologies forward, launching Tiax in 2002 to produce and foster promising advances before turning them over to a marketplace that’s brutalized green-tech startups (see “Why Bad Things Happen to Clean-Energy Startups”).
(Full disclosure: After the sale to Lucent, Sahin contributed $100 million to MIT, and he is a life member emeritus on the institution’s board. MIT owns MIT Technology Review.)
The company has been developing cathode materials from the start, and this spring it announced that a spinout, CAMX Power, was emerging from stealth mode. Sahin himself has become a cathode evangelist, arguing that improving the battery electrodes that power electric vehicles is the fastest way to transform the transportation sector, promising to cut costs and boost mileage range. “Cathode materials are the key to the electrification of vehicles,” says Sahin, in a slight Turkish accent that’s lingered since he first arrived in the United…