Interview with Marco Righi, a young entrepreneur from Reggio Emilia, an electronics enthusiast, and Founder/CEO of Flash Battery.
It is one of the most successful companies in our country and a flagship in the production of lithium batteries for the industrial sector. Flash Battery produces over 300 new battery models per year, all highly customised, designed and manufactured according to specific customer requirements. It is a story built on passion, especially a passion for electronics. So much inspiration and great determination, but also and above all, it is a story of the courage and responsibility that goes into founding a company at a very young age. A true case study in young entrepreneurship.
How was Flash Battery born?
“I’ve always been passionate about electronics: my father had a company where he produced high frequency battery chargers and it’s certainly thanks to him that I came to this world. I saw it as my future: of course I would follow in his footsteps, continuing in the family business. One day, however, while I was abroad, my father told me that he had sold the company. My certainties, as well as my dream of continuing my father’s work, had suddenly vanished. For some time I pursued other professional paths, but inside me, my only interest, the little voice in my head, was always the same: electronics.
My first “encounter” with lithium batteries was in 2009 when, by chance, I met a friend of my father’s who produced electric vehicles. I immediately realised that the batteries were not the best, neither in terms of quality nor performance. And then, inspiration! I realised that by solving some technical problems with those batteries, I could create a significant innovation for all industrial applications.
My friend Alan Pastorelli has taken this journey along with me: today he’s my Partner and Technical Manager at Flash Battery. We started in my garage, doing analysis and experiments until the “lightbulb” came on. The problem was not with the electronics, but in finding a new technology for lithium batteries and equipping them with a control and management system. So in 2009 we started to design our own lithium battery management system.
In 2012 we officially opened our doors as Kaitek. We were mainly involved in producing the electronics that controlled and managed our customers’ existing batteries to make them safer and more reliable. Soon after, however, we realised that where we could stand out would be in the manufacture of the complete battery pack. We launched Flash Battery, a true brand that would design and manufacture state-of-the-art lithium batteries. Today I can officially say that Flash Battery is not just a brand, but an independent company in every respect, so much so that by the summer we will also change our company name to Flash Battery.”
Who was the first customer who believed in your product?
“The very first application came from a Korean multinational corporation. The request was to electrify an endothermic Alpha Mito. We took care of the whole battery part. Then gradually other customers arrived, always in the automotive sector. I remember, for example, some smart cars with combustion engines that didn’t last very long. This was another case where we managed the retrofit, proceeding with the electrification of the vehicle. In January 2012, the year we opened, we immediately took an important order in China, which also earned us the world record: we electrified an old Fiat Multipla that covered over 800 km on a single charge, at a speed of 80 km/h.
In 2013, there was also Elettric80, which specialises in automated logistics solutions for consumer goods manufacturers in the beverage, food and tissue sectors. We started out with a small collaboration, as they were not satisfied with their previous suppliers and wanted to give us a try. In a very short time, we became their sole suppliers across the entire range of LGVs and AGVs, creating a real partnership.”
What are Flash Battery’s target markets today, and in which sectors does it operate?
“Today our vision is definitely aimed at the European market. Also, this year we have recorded a turnover of 70% in Italy and the remaining 30% abroad, as far as direct customers are concerned. Indirectly our products, our batteries, are present in 54 countries around the world.
The trend and the business of this recent period make us understand that this foreign percentage is destined to increase. We have already made important agreements with Germany, France and Northern Europe, places that are very predisposed to this technological change that is taking place and therefore are naturally oriented towards electrification.”
Why are we different from the others? What are the most important innovations?
“We made ourselves stand out from our competitors right from the beginning with our applied technology. Our patent-pending active and passive balancing system is unique.
Moreover, having started earlier in terms of time than our competitors, we have evolved and improved ahead of them. We have added constant investment in research and development to our initial standard, and have included remote management and control. This is an essential feature in a 4.0 industry, with machinery that is constantly interconnected and able to perform self-diagnostics and predictive maintenance.
The Flash Data Center is software entirely made by Flash Battery, created to meet the need to give our customers, scattered all over the world, the best possible service without increasing costs for the company with travel and transportation.
The Flash Data Center runs daily checks and analyses on the battery operation data it receives, and reports any warnings, anomalies or possible abuse by the user to the Flash Battery Service Department. All this makes it possible to work pro-actively, eliminating false reports and preventing faults even before they occur. Just now, some competitors are coming around to this system, but clearly the time advantage helps. We have also implemented “special” management systems (in jargon: highly customised products) bringing the care, verification and control of the customisation to an industrial level. We are now able to guarantee high quality and performance in the supply with validated and standardised processes.
Quality, in our case, refers not only to the battery, but also to the service. It is a very important distinction that undoubtedly makes a difference, especially if you can apply and maintain it on a large scale. Another of our strengths is warehouse storage. We do not only buy raw materials when the customer orders them, but we supply our warehouses constantly to ensure prompt intervention and to be able to respond quickly to customer requests during purchase and extraordinary maintenance.
Technology is another great advantage of our company: more than 40% of Flash Battery staff is divided between Research & Development and the Customisation Office”.
What has been the biggest challenge so far?
“We’ve had so many, but every time I’m asked this question, I say it was the last one. We’re constantly raising the bar.
We’ve just produced batteries for the railway industry. A very special and very challenging application at the same time. It was interesting especially due to the size of the battery pack that we built and the remote-control service that we planned in order to operate the supervision in total safety. Additionally, we have been included among the pool of 17 companies selected within the IPCEI (Important Projects of Common European Interest) for the production of next-generation lithium batteries.
In essence, the European Commission has approved an important project of common European interest, IPCEI, jointly notified by Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Sweden to support research and innovation in the common European priority sector of batteries. Together with 17 other key stakeholders and national authorities, a lithium battery value chain, fully integrated in the EU, will be established, producing raw materials, cells, modules and battery systems on a large scale.
We will develop advanced and disruptive lithium-ion battery technologies that meet cost, performance and safety targets not currently available.
This theme of energy and renewable sources has always been part of our Flash Battery philosophy. Making innovative batteries is one of the founding values of our daily activity.”
In the last 3 years Flash Battery has grown by double digits, both in terms of turnover and hired staff. What are the next steps?
“The new venue is perhaps the step I am most proud of. Your well-being also comes from the place where you spend most of your day. In making it, we skimped on nothing to create a friendly, supportive environment. We wanted our employees to live in a healthy and proactive space where they could work well and develop their ideas.
Plenty of space, therefore, will go to the Research & Development Area. We will install state-of-the-art test booths as well as climatic cells that go from – 40 to + 45° to have full control of the results and run all possible tests and analyses. We have invested in a resource that will deal with just the chemical side of things, with an ad hoc area being allocated to it.
This new location will to all intents and purposes be a big step forward for Flash Battery and will allow us to develop very challenging proposals for some of the most important calls in which we have been included, such as IPCEI. If I think about the recent past, in 3 years we’ve gone from 2 million to 13 million in turnover, and it’s been a difficult but equally beautiful challenge. Today we are in a consolidation phase with 14 million in turnover and our 2021 forecast is to move the target to 18 million. We’ll see.
Another thing we are proud of is the growth of our workforce: we started as two people, now there are 52 of us, and that is very satisfying.
For the future, the sure thing is that Flash Battery will continue to invest in Research & Development. The trend is to get increasingly safer, smaller and lighter batteries over time. These are the 3 characteristics that we are refining, because they are the 3 limits that have always been found. In contrast, in terms of battery life, we have already reached very high levels of performance, to the point where the batteries very often exceed the life of the product itself.”
Speaking of the company, we know that even at the company level Flash Battery presents itself with an innovative model, which takes into account the human contribution at least as much as the technical one.
“Attention to our employees, and attention to their experience of and in the company, has always been fundamental.
We have a very deep-rooted vision of general sustainability, both in terms of liveability and in terms of how the company places itself outside the environment it lives and exists in. We believe a lot in supporting our local area, and we are very active with the support of several local associations.”
You are also President of the Young Entrepreneurs of Unindustria in Reggio Emilia, what do you propose to convey?
“I firmly believe that people always make a difference. All my colleagues in Unindustria are highly committed professionals, but they devote a lot of their time to developing new topics, from wanting to improve our region to giving concrete help to talents that need to emerge. They are and we are particularly sensitive to start-ups. To concretely support new activities worthy of development invariably reminds me that until a few years ago I was in the same situation. So, we must support them.
Another important issue is sustainability, which is something we believe in deeply. We have already created a course for members of the Young Industrialists Group to raise awareness on the issue, which does not only mean talking about the disposal of materials, but about sustainability in every detail.
We start from the purchase of raw materials, up to how to put the finished product on the market, analysing all the intermediate steps along the way.”
Which expanding sectors are you monitoring for the near (imminent) future?
“The surprise of the past year and a half comes from the agricultural and construction markets.
For example, in the latter sector, great attention is now being paid to mining machines or small electric excavators. CIFA, for example, was one of our first customers as early as 2011, and for them we electrified some concrete mixers to be used in tunnel construction in order to eliminate exhaust gas emissions.
We also need to monitor the airport sector, for which we produce, for example, batteries that are used in luggage-transport vehicles rather than aircraft. It is certainly an expanding world in the medium term.”