Bill Gates-backed Fund Leads Wilsonville Battery Maker’s $30M Raise

A clean-tech fund spearheaded by Bill Gates and backed by a roster of fellow billionaires is getting behind the Wilsonville battery company ESS Inc.

ESS, maker of an underdog type of battery used for large-scale energy storage, said Monday it raised $30 million in a Series C round. The round was led by the Breakthrough Energy Fund, launched by Gates in December 2016, and SoftBank Group’s SB Energy.

ESS completed a $13 million round in December 2017, and has now raised $47 million. Early last year it moved into a 100,000-square-foot space in Wilsonville, expanded its workforce and invested in automation equipment.

“This investment reinforces the value and growth potential of our long-duration flow battery solution,” Craig Evans, founder and CEO of ESS, said in a statement. “It enables us to scale up manufacturing to meet our order pipeline, as well as continue to pursue global deployment opportunities. We’re grateful to our investment partners for their confidence in our solution and support of our vision.”

Batteries used to supplement power in homes, businesses and utility systems have taken off in recent years, driven by increased use of intermittent renewable and distributed resources, rising focus on resiliency and falling costs for the dominant technology, lithium ion.

That’s in the same family as the batteries used to charge phones and cars, but ESS is going in a different direction, with what’s known as a “flow battery.”

The promise is longer output — upward of eight hours — than the few hours that lithium-ion systems can deliver, as well as greater durability.

Flow batteries use separate tanks of chemical solutions that are pumped into a chamber where they react through a membrane to produce electrical charge. ESS distinguishes itself from flow competitors by using a nontoxic electrolyte made up of iron, salt and water instead of the commonly used vanadium or zinc.

ESS calls its system the “Energy Warehouse.” Housed in a shipping container, it can provide either 50 or 100 kilowatts of power, with 400 kilowatt-hours of energy storage. Multiple containers can be strung together to boost capacity.

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The company has done just a handful or so deployments, but the new backing suggest there’s investor confidence that it’s ready to grow.

“ESS Inc. uses low-cost, safe and effective materials — iron and water — to deliver a long-duration storage solution in several applications, even high-temperature climates where there is significant need for off-grid energy,” Carmichael Roberts of Breakthrough Energy Ventures said in a statement Monday. “We’re excited about the near-term opportunity for at-scale deployments of the ESS technology.”

Still, when Gates announced the Breakthrough Energy Fund, he said it would be patient.

“Unlike a software startup, getting a new energy technology from a lab to market takes a lot of infrastructure, a lot of upfront capital, and a lot of time,” he said, adding, “we are willing to wait a longer time for returns than other funds.”

Investors in the fund include former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Amazon’s Jeff Bezos; Alibaba founder Jack Ma; Virgin’s Richard Branson; and Masayoshi Son, CEO at Softbank.

The ESS Series C includes new investors Evergy Ventures and lPTT Global Chemical, along with returnees BASF Venture Capital, Cycle Capital Management, Presidio Partners Investment Management, IPM Group and Pangaea Ventures. Earlier, the firm won backing from the federal government’s ARPA-E program, ONAMI, Oregon BEST (now VertueLab) and Portland Seed Fund.