Spinoffs proving to be a driving force behind next-gen electric cars.

About 30 years ago, Ballard Research Inc. started out as a company figuring out how to make high-energy, long-life lithium batteries, and its success was marked by the U.S. Navy signing up as a customer using its batteries in submarines. Yes, lithium batteries, not fuel cells; the company we know today as Ballard Power Systems Inc. emerged from that original focus on extending battery life, and today we all know Ballard as a fuel cell company.

If you just recently tuned in to the “new” push for electric vehicles and the mounting hype for a future in hybrids and all-electric vehicles, you may have noticed that these vehicles will be powered by lithium batteries. Heck, even Warren Buffett is investing in lithium-battery companies (China’s BYD Co. Ltd.). Did B.C. miss a huge opportunity to be the world’s knowledge centre for new battery technologies? Did we blow it by focusing on fuel cells instead? Sure, you can focus on the $1 billion invested in Ballard and call it a waste, but you would be missing the larger picture: exciting, groundbreaking technology attracts the best and brightest people. Fuel cells were the hottest clean technology of the late 1990s, and B.C. benefitted from the gigantic talent magnet that it became. Let me explain.

A fuel cell powered car is essentially an electric vehicle; instead of batteries, it runs off fuel cells, but the drivetrain is electric. So a lot of expertise and experience in electric-drive vehicles was developed at Ballard. When Ballard went after fuel cells, it spun out its lithium battery technology, and over the years a few battery-related companies have come and gone (Bluestar Battery Systems International Corp., for example). But local experience and expertise remained.

A handful of local companies have been involved in the new electric hybrid vehicles, and all of them have personnel or founders who can trace their roots to the Ballard legacy. Statpower and Xantrex Technology Inc. (which later became one company and were bought last year by Schneider Electric SA out of France) became heavyweights in electric power conversion. Today, three local electric-vehicle companies continue to make waves: Advanced Lithium Power Inc., Azure Dynamics Inc. and Delta-Q Technologies Corp.

Advanced Lithium Power, for instance, makes battery management systems. These are the “brains” behind efficient use of lithium battery packs, which power the next-generation all-electric vehicles or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles such as the Chevrolet Volt. When you pack 12 to 24 batteries together, they have to discharge at the same rate and deliver power efficiently, which is what a battery management system does.

Azure Dynamics has 20 years of experience in building hybrid electric-drive systems. It offers a range of products for fleet vehicles and buses that are current-generation gas engines with electric assist. They also have complete electric drivetrain systems for powering these larger vehicles.

Delta-Q Technologies is a 10-year-old private company that makes battery chargers for converting AC power from the wall into clean DC power to charge the battery packs on any electric vehicle. Most of its revenue to date comes from non-automotive vehicles, such as golf carts, scissor lifts and neighbourhood electric vehicles, but they are charging ahead into automotive (pun intended!) because the carmakers recognize the expertise in a company with 400,000 chargers already in the field.

The lithium-battery dream may have unwittingly died on the vine for Ballard and the province of B.C. as we chased fuel cell technology, but the expertise in electric vehicles that emerged may yet create a world-class company that can fully take advantage of the future of automobiles. That may be the enduring legacy of the Ballard dream.

Brent Holliday heads the technology practice for Capital West Partners, a Vancouver-based investment bank.