Portrait of HiLyte
HiLyte – Joined Microcity in January 2018
David Lambelet – Microtechnology engineer – Neuchâtel
Jonathan Fiorentini – Economist and future mathematician – Neuchâtel
Briac Barthes – Mechanical engineer – Originally from Nice (France)
HiLyte is a start-up and, above all, a young and dynamic team that places societal and environmental impact at the heart of its thinking process. Highly attentive to the needs of their users and to opportunities for their iron batteries, David, Jonathan and Briac have many of the qualities required to revolutionise access to energy on a global scale. Interview with a team of complementary professionals and personalities.
How did the project begin?
David: The project dates back to when I was working on my Masters at the Berkeley Lab in the United States. The project was started by Mike Tucker, my supervisor, who invented the technology. When I returned to Switzerland, I continued to work with Professor Tucker remotely. After taking the Business Concept course run by Innosuisse, the project shifted from the research field to the start-up sector.
How did you meet?
Jonathan: We met at the EPFL building in Neuchâtel while taking the “Business Concept” course. The program focused on improving entrepreneurial skills and brought around 20 participants together each week for three months. Every course member could present a project to the class and jury if they wished. The jury then decided which projects to select, and groups were then formed around these projects. David’s own battery project was selected. David thought my background in business/finance would be a good fit with his engineering skills.
How did the Business Concept program help to drive your idea forward?
Jonathan: We won the Business Concept Award in July 2017 with Monica Morales, who is now a HiLyte consultant. We flew to Berlin to find out more about the innovation ecosystem (the competition prize) and used our time there to take an in-depth look at the project, asking ourselves whether we had the time, energy and inclination to take it beyond the academic sphere? That’s when we decided on the project’s name.
What happened next?
David: In Tanzania, two-thirds of the population, i.e. 30 million people, have no access to the electricity grid. As Swiss engineers and entrepreneurs, we knew that we were somewhat removed from the situation in the field and from the reality of life for those with no access to the electricity grid. So we looked for someone with detailed knowledge of an African country to join us. Somewhat by chance, I got back in touch with Briac via Facebook, who was in Tanzania at the time. We sent him a prototype while he was there, it took one month. Once the prototype had arrived, Briac was able to check and confirm that the local population was interested in the product within a matter of days. As Briac had lived there for a few years and spoke Swahili, this made everything much easier as he was able to go straight to the villages, knock on doors, and ask the locals about possible improvements and how much money they would invest in the product. Briac was KEY to HiLyte’s dramatic and rapid development.
What initial results have you been able to validate?
David: We have been able to set a price! 12 dollars per battery with a lifespan of several years and up to 12 cents per day of consumption (ferrous and iron sheet solution). This is a daily saving of 40% per household.
Our product’s societal and environmental impact is also very important to us. Over time, the consumables’ technology and assembly should be possible on site. However some parts of the product come from Asia, because the relevant industries don’t exist in Tanzania.
You launched a crowdfunding campaign for your first production run. Is that quite common in the entrepreneurial world?
Jonathan: No, it’s not really that common. It was probably effective because our start-up delivers social change. We saw it as a way of speeding up the process and raising money without having to distribute capital stock. We used the platform wemakeit.ch because right now most of the people who follow our product are based in Switzerland. And the platform has a strong social aspect which matches our positioning.
The amounts are relatively low, but it’s a good way to fund a specific initiative. Social media helped us to spread the word.
In 2019, you were featured in Bilan’s Start-Up Top 50 and in the Forbes under 30 ranking. What have these accolades brought you and how do you explain your success?
Jonathan: The social impact helps, but the economic potential of our project is also key; we’re not an NGO. We are riding on the “impact investment” and “social impact” waves. Our innovation is a credible alternative to existing batteries and is based on iron, which is one of the most widespread and cheapest electroactive materials on the planet. It doesn’t perform as well as a lithium battery, but it is inexpensive and non-toxic.
Forbes gave us excellent regional visibility, which boosted our crowdfunding campaign. Various contacts got in touch with us. Overall, I would say that these rankings helped raise awareness and enhance our credibility.
Could your innovation be applied to other fields?
David: Working on ferruginous batteries for large-scale energy storage in the same way as the electricity grid is a distinct possibility. It would require large reservoirs with iron solutions and flow batteries. This type of battery is more complex in terms of mobility though, because it has a lower storage capacity.