Each week, we seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.
Fed up with the dwindling battery life of his BlackBerry Bold 9000, Carleton University chemistry student Tim Sherstyuk took a straightforward problem to his electrical engineer dad, Nick: Could the two of them come up with the technology to make a standard lithium-ion battery last longer?
Lithium-ion batteries are the rechargeable life forces powering most portable consumer electronics. If you have a smartphone or laptop, there's a good chance you've also dashed for a power outlet in a public space once your device reached its first birthday.
After a year of trial and error, the Ottawa-based father-son duo hit an engineering bull's-eye. By pairing batteries with their own special printed circuit board, they were able to increase a battery's capacity by 30 per cent. Their battery management system also boosted the number of recharging cycles available. Today's standard lithium-ion batteries are good for about 300 cycles; the Sherstyuks boosted this to an amazing 2,500.
"The best analogy I can make is, inside the battery there's something called the SEI layer, and it's kind of like the plaque on your teeth," explains the younger Mr. Sherstyuk, 20, who dropped out of school to focus on building the business. "As time goes on, this layer grows and it stops the battery from charging as much as before.
"Our technology is able to electronically maintain this layer and keep it very small, so we're essentially brushing this battery's teeth," he adds.
In 2012, the father-son team patented the technology under the company Gbatteries Systems Inc., and they're shopping it to major players in the consumer electronics and energy storage industries. They recently relocated to California's Silicon Valley to test the waters there, although they will keep their headquarters in Ottawa for all development-based work.
Mr. Sherstyuk believes their market edge comes from the fact that they are "using already mass produced batteries and making them work better."
But at the same time, he's adamant about promoting the product's consumer and environmental benefits. Increased calendar life means Joe Laptop won't have to shell out for a new machine as often. This means fewer dead batteries leaking their toxic innards into landfill earth.
"I would like to do something good for the world, personally, and I think that right now I have the opportunity," Mr. Sherstyuk says.
Unfortunately, these altruistic intentions are not finding a receptive audience along Technology Row. While he remains focused on promoting the increased calendar life, Mr. Sherstyuk says most of the major players he has met with so far are interested only in the increased capacity and, in fact, want to downplay the longer life. The reason, he says, is that these companies have expressed concern that the longer-lasting batteries will result in fewer units sold, as consumers will be able to hang on to their devices for much longer.
Though their technology would end up increasing calendar life regardless of the way it is marketed, Mr. Sherstyuk feels strongly about aligning with retail partners who share the same value system and are willing to promote its environmental benefits.
While a number of smaller companies have expressed interest in this, Mr. Sherstyuk has held back before jumping into any partnerships. He says he's aware he has a potentially game-changing product and wants to make sure that, as a newly minted entrepreneur, he's leveraging his company's potential to the widest and most lucrative market possible.
THE CHALLENGE: Does Mr. Sherstyuk risk torpedoing the success of his company if he holds too firmly to his ethical beliefs?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Ethics are what you do when the going gets tough, and Tim and his father have some tough slogging in front of them.
We tend to say that human life is priceless; however, we don't all drive expensive European cars, noted for their safety. We understand that locally grown, organic food is better for us and for the environment, yet most of us shop for less expensive alternatives. We tend to consider our alternatives, then vote with our wallets.
That's how the Sherstyuks should evaluate their options. Is it worth $100,000 to stand by their principles, or is it worth $100-million? If they would turn down $100,000 from a small environmentally protective company and accept $100-million from an industrial giant, then their "price" is between the two amounts.
If they partner with a small company, expansion will be slow and millions more batteries will be discarded before their sales have a noticeable impact. The resources of a large company could quickly increase the number of improved batteries being used, and thereby reduce the waste.
The sooner their product makes it onto the world's stage, the world will see fewer old batteries in the landfill, so I think their choice is fairly easy. And they can use some of their additional wealth to support environmental projects that they truly believe in.
Mark Schwartz, associate professor of management and business ethics, York University, Toronto
I would advise Gbatteries to partner with whoever will help them sell the most units of their new battery device. I don't see this as "selling out" of one's ethical principles. Both the founders and whoever distributes the device will make money, and a greater number of consumers will presumably benefit by needing to purchase fewer batteries. The natural environment will benefit as well through less toxic waste. No one is being deceived in the process.
It may take cogent business arguments to convince the "big fish" distributors to promote as a competitive advantage the fact that the device also increases the calendar life of the batteries, but this is not critical in my opinion. Even if unsuccessful, the founders, by selling as many units as possible, will have done something good for society and can sleep well at night.
And I would expect that recognition for this ethical and socially responsible achievement will inevitably follow in any event once this technology proves to be a success in the marketplace. Too many great ideas that would clearly benefit society never make it to market. Hopefully Gbatteries will not end up falling into this category.
AJ Tibando, CEO and director of operations at SoJo, Toronto
We're an online learning website that helps social entrepreneurs take their ideas for social change and turn them into action. Two years ago when we were starting out we were urged to charge user fees. Because we were so new, it was really hard not to second-guess what we believe in, which was that we shouldn't be incorporating fees.
Ultimately, we decided not to. Instead, we secured grants and bursaries that are giving us time to find other revenue streams.
The Sherstyuks really need to figure out how they define success. They are operating in a place with established definitions of success, and everything is going to drive you toward that definition. If you sacrifice your own definition because of how others define it externally, you're not going to feel good about that success anyway.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY CAN DO NOW
Play the players
Even if big electronics companies downplay the increased calendar life, the product will still achieve the same goal in the end. Consider whether it's smarter to simply get the technology on the shelves faster and in larger supply, or if it's the messaging that's more important.
Gbatteries might consider sticking to their ideals and restructuring the way they define success in the short term – a tactic that will hopefully lead to greater rewards, both personally and professionally, in the long term.
Seek out grants or other sources of revenue to buy some time while waiting for the right partnership to arise.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.