Katherine Kan | 2020-04-13 Founder Picture

Could you give us a quick introduction to Rovilus?
Sure! We deal with thermo-management systems for electric vehicles and battery packs. The problem we are trying to solve is battery overheating. A lot of applications have high power requirements which often causes batteries to overheat. 
Our value proposition to our customers is that our thermo-management system is integrated into our standard battery pack. And our standard battery pack can be stacked into various different shapes and sizes, to fit into a market which is very diverse: all different commercial and industrial vehicles. We’ve seen a sharp rise in the number of passenger electric vehicles. They have a very standard kind of battery pack that fits into the specific chassis of the vehicle itself. But for commercial and industrial vehicles, their demand is very specific to their vehicle size, so by providing a standard, unit battery module and being able to stack it up- that’s really where our value lies. 
We have also gone into second life applications now. We have started looking at how to improve safety, efficiency and extend the lifetime of batteries. That is a tangent we have started looking at since the start of the year, when we got into contact with some government agencies in South-East Asia.

You were a lawyer prior to starting Rovilus. Talk to us about that part of your career. How did that lead to starting a startup based around Electric Vehicles? How did you meet your cofounders?
We have three co-founders and I’ll share each of our journey’s I’ll try my best to be a representative for everyone!
I’ll start with myself. I was an IP attorney for about six years before I met my cofounder Gigi. I was at this point in my career where I had to decide whether I stayed in law and became a partner at the firm, or tried something else. I was interested in the energy and renewables space because of the cases I was dealing with (patents about renewable technology etc.). 
While I was a lawyer, I also did a masters on the side. That was to deal with intellectual property management, focussing on the commercialisation of intellectual property. That was the key that got me into the startup space. It wasn’t an easy period of time for me. I was doing legal work during the weekdays, attending university every single night and on weekends. We did a lot of case studies and I was pretty convinced that this was something I wanted to go into. I met my co-founder Gigi through an attachment. We were both part of a former company, and in that company, I was legal counsel and he was an engineer. On the side, he was working on his electric go-karts. He made himself quite a big name in Taiwan through this.
Our other co-founder has a background in the finance industry. He has had prior startup experience. When he saw what we were doing, he was very interested in joining because when he was in finance, he used to cover the energy sector. He had been looking at financial statements for things like wind farms for the last 15-20 years, so he understood the technology. He joined and helped us shape our finance and our company strategy. 
In summary: the three of us connected because of our mutual interest in the energy industry. We did do some level of trial and error before all three of us confirmed as cofounders. We had two months of thrashing ideas out and trying to see how we communicate. Building proper communication channels is very important. This is something we had to build up because we didn’t have the luxury of knowing each other for 10 or 15 years before we started. So far, it’s turned out great and we’ve been clear in our job allocations. All the decisions in the company are discussed from all three different perspectives. I’ve been very lucky to have these two co-founders working together with me on the project. 

When you guys formed a team, was the idea formulated at the time? How did it evolve? I guess in hardware the MVP (Minimal Viable Product) process is different. How did that work?
The reason we started this company is: we had an order of electric go-karts. Gigi was dealing with re-inventing batteries for electric go-karts because the top speed of electric go-karts has always been limited by the battery technology. Battery overheating has been limiting how fast a go-kart could go. He started addressing this very niche problem, and it expanded into how this technology could be used for all kinds of high-powered applications e.g. forklifts, VTOLs (aircraft that can hover, take off and land vertically). 
The MVP was actually built and completed before the other co-founder and I joined. That was through Gigi’s project with the go-karts. He had tested it in all of the racing tracks in Taiwan. He then tested it in scooter applications (which have lower power requirements) to see what kind of range he could achieve. Gogoro is the largest electric scooter company in Taiwan and our technology outperformed Gogoro’s scooter in terms of range. A lot of the MVP side was initially done by Gigi through these interest projects that he had, until he had the first customer which was the electric go-karts customer. We joined to help him shape the customer roadmap, target market etc. He didn’t think too much about this initially, he just wanted something that was cool for himself. We came in and helped him to see this as a product. 

What did you gain from doing the accelerator 500 Startups?
Initially, we were targeting the passenger electric vehicles space. Through our discussions with General Motors, we realised that it would be a very long journey if we wanted to partner with an automobile company. It would’ve been an extreme test for our runway! We would need to have had at least five years of capital to burn before we were even close to being one of the suppliers. And they wouldn’t just have one supplier for each technology. We also realised that the passenger electric vehicle market is specific about building things from the battery pack perspective, so the chassis, things like that, revolve around how the battery pack is being built. That wasn’t where we were going.
We started looking at smaller markets (construction etc.). We call them smaller markets but in aggregate they are much larger than the passenger vehicle market and we started looking at the pain points. We talked to a lot of customers. We built up a pipeline of potential customers in Asia and in the US and all we did is kept talking to them. We asked them about their current pain points and what they wish they could achieve. A lot of users complained that electric forklifts just could not provide power as compared to a diesel-powered forklift, because of the battery technology used. We tried to understand the problems from the user perspective. It was a very long period of time. We were very lucky to have a lot of advisors helping us because in these sectors it is very difficult to just come into them cold. So, we leveraged our advisors’ connections.

 Because we developed a very standardised module for the battery pack, people started thinking hey, could this be used for my vehicle? We got in touch with people who had lower power requirements. We realised that even though they weren’t our target market, they do have a lot of volume and need to go electric. The lower power sector has a more urgent need to go electric. They are very cost-sensitive and need to have large volume. If they don’t have enough customer demand, they can’t then go to their suppliers and ask them to lower prices for battery packs. Without any volume, the price of the battery pack could be 80% of the price of the vehicle. After about 5000 units per quarter then the cost of the battery becomes 40% of the cost of the whole vehicle.
We then came up with a novel business model which we are currently testing. This was to create a multi-tiered system. Say, for example, a battery pack is first used in a very high-powered application and we retire them after two years. We then recycle this battery pack and put it to some other use, for example, scooters. We use them in the scooters for about three years, until they still have 70% of capacity left. We then retire it and put it into somewhere else like energy storage systems. This model is built based on the idea that a lot of batteries are not being fully utilised. For example, for electric vehicles, batteries have to retire when they are left with 70% capacity, and that’s a lot! You can still do a lot with 70% capacity. What do you do with that leftover capacity? That’s what we’re trying to solve. 
We will also put a leasing model on top of this so that the up-front cost of these battery packs will be very minimal. Customers just need to pay a rolling sum and we will make sure that the quality of the battery pack is good. We will make sure that we are constantly tracking the health of all of these battery packs, and recycling them at the right time. 

Do you have any advice for female founders specifically?
Especially in my industry, and where I am right now, there have been challenges. I used to work in Singapore a lot, and never had any problems. The legal industry is very used to having female leaders. In the manufacturing industry, in a space where the local culture is more male-dominant, in numerous meetings I would be the only female. 
I try to fit into the culture I am in. For example, if I’m in the States, I’m pretty much myself. I’m vocal and share what I think. If I’m in a more male-dominant kind of culture, I will observe the situation and then make comments at the end or during the discussion to keep the process going. I wouldn’t necessarily be in a situation where I lead the conversations because I know that in this part of the market this is not something that is so acceptable. I will adapt in the sense that I will still say whatever I need to say in the meeting, but I will observe what other people are saying first and then voice concerns at crucial points. I’m a person who adapts to culture. Internally, I have no problems but externally, it’s something I have to cope with and deal with. 
I’m actually doing something on the side to raise awareness and empower females in Taiwan. We have started from the university level, a committee to help graduates going into the working world. We talk about some of the tools you can use to talk to your male colleagues to build rapport and fully utilise your skills. Within our company, we try as much as possible to give every single person equal speaking time. 

Do you have any amusing or most memorable stories along your journey so far?
I would say it’s how the three of us (the three co-founders) thrash out ideas on a daily basis. We communicate in a way that other people would find borderline rude, because we’re so frank. That’s something I truly appreciate. We call each other out all the time. That’s a level of trust that we’ve been able to build over time.

If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
It would be to understand the customers that we’re servicing more. I looked at it from a very narrow perspective when I was a lawyer. If I had leveraged all the cases that I had, I would have a wider view of how customers make decisions and their thought processes. The legal training helped a lot with taking steps back and deriving the reason behind why things happen. If I could go back, I would tell myself to speak to customers a lot more. 

What are your favourite books?
One of the classics is the book written by Intel’s former CEO Andrew Grove: High Output Management. I refer to that book a lot. That, I think, is the go-to book for anyone who wants to start a company. I know there are seminal books like The Lean Startup as well, but that is a book that I think would be recommended by many other people whereas High Output Management is a book that people tend to ignore. 
Also, Difficult Conversations. It’s not an easy read, but it has helped a lot. 
I also listen to things like Tony Robbins a lot, on a casual basis. 

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