Sites to Refuel Electric Cars Gain a Big Dose of Funds

Nelson D. Schwartz|The New York Times

Better Place, the closely watched start-up that hopes to create vast networks of charge spots to power electric cars, is set to receive a vote of confidence on Monday, in the form of $350 million in new venture capital.

Although Better Place will most likely require billions more in financing, this investment is an important step for the company and its chief, Shai Agassi, an Israeli-American software executive who founded the company in 2007.

Shai Agassi, founder and CEO of Project Better Place, addresses a press conference.
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“Better Place is a huge experiment in how you sell and fuel vehicles, and these investors are becoming convinced this will make money,” said Rod Lache, an analyst at Deutsche Bank. “It is a financial validation. Now we need to see technical validation and consumer validation.”

HSBC is leading the new round of financing, contributing $125 million in exchange for a 10 percent stake in Better Place. That gives Better Place a market value of $1.25 billion.

“This is a pretty big round,” Mr. Lache added. “I am impressed that they have succeeded in raising this amount of capital even before the business has started operating.”

Both Mr. Agassi and HSBC executives portrayed the investment as a business-based decision, rather than as an effort to enhance the bank’s green credentials.

Better Place is scheduled to make its commercial debut in 2011 in Israel and Denmark, but HSBC’s investment could ease doubts about its complicated — and expensive — answer to the longstanding chicken-and-egg problem of getting electric cars on the road without the infrastructure to support long-distance driving.

In addition to the $125 million from HSBC, $225 million will come from Morgan Stanley Investment Management, Lazard Asset Management and Better Place’s original investors, which include Israeli companies and VantagePoint Venture Partners in Silicon Valley.

All together, Better Place has raised approximately $700 million, including an initial round of financing in 2008 that brought in $200 million. HSBC’s head of global capital financing, Kevin Adeson, will join Better Place’s board.

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The new funds, Mr. Agassi said, will be devoted to research and development, completing the company’s infrastructure in Israel and Denmark, and eventually broadening its reach to include the United States, Australia and other countries in Europe.

Mr. Agassi has cast his company’s effort in moral terms, citing the threat of global warming and the need to find renewable sources of energy to replace fossil fuels.

A skilled salesman, he predicted that the new investment would be the kind of turning point for electric vehicles that Netscape’s initial public offering in 1995 was for Internet companies.

“We’ve demonstrated that our network is deployable,” Mr. Agassi said. “We’re ready for a big breakthrough, and there is not one country that doesn’t need to get off oil.”

HSBC executives also drew comparisons to technology giants that transformed the Internet.

“It could be a game-changer in its sector the way Google and Microsoft were in theirs,” said Anthony Bernbaum, global head of special opportunities for HSBC.

Before that happens, though, Better Place and its backers will have to persuade consumers to move away from the internal-combustion engines that characterized motor vehicles for more than a century, while also winning the support of major automakers.

Even with the new funds, that is a tall order. So far, only Renault has publicly endorsed Better Place’s plan, agreeing to supply cars with easy-to-swap batteries and working closely with the company to reach its 2011 commercial debut.

Regardless, industry experts say huge fleets of electric cars are likely to hit the road in the coming decade.

“What we’ve seen in the past year is that every automaker around the world has acknowledged there will be electrification,” Mr. Lache said. “The question is the trajectory, but every automaker will have a portfolio of electric cars.”

Under Better Place’s plan, consumers would buy electric vehicles made by the big automakers but get the batteries from Better Place and pay a fee according to the distance they drive. The blueprint calls for thousands of conventional charge points, as well as switching stations where a robotic device could replace a battery in less time than it takes to fill a tank of gas.

These stations are needed because batteries have a range of only about 100 miles, or 160 kilometers, and recharging takes up to five hours. Changing batteries en route would make long journeys more convenient.

Even Better Place’s supporters in Denmark have questioned whether consumers were ready to abandon gasoline engines in favor of Mr. Agassi’s vision, but after a year of investigation and consultation with experts, HSBC executives said they were persuaded it was feasible.

“We started out cynical, and we’ve done expert diligence,” Mr. Bernbaum said. “We think Better Place is going to work.”

He added that the venture was “one of the largest, and the most important and significant financial equity investments we’ve made.”

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