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Shai Agassi To Forge Israeli Electric Car Network

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So ex-SAP executive Shai Agassi’s Project Better Place has managed to pull it off. Former product chief Shai catapulted coolly into DLD in Munich yesterday straight from Jerusalem, where he had launched one of the most curious deals the auto industry has ever seen. He drove out that afternoon. To Davos.

Alongside Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Renault / Nissan’s CEO Carlos Ghosn, Agassi announced, a spectacular and audacious agreement on Monday to deploy a new kind of electric power network and set of cars to run on them that will get Israel’s car drivers off oil as quickly as possible. It’s consistent delivery on his October deal, when he raised $200 million from Israeli Corp and VantagePoint Venture Partners.

Shai and I spent thirty minutes talking yesterday in Munich and what I heard proved to be true. On stage, Agassi is a brilliant presenter, dashing, focused, witty and strident. He’s up there with Al Gore in getting you by the throat and implying “talking about this isn’t enough!” and stood shoulders above the impressive line up the crushed and seat-deprived attendees of Burda Media’s DLD event had seen.

Project Better Place will integrate and deploy a new product, sales and support channel (read ‘charging’ stations) that will allow Israeli consumers to drive their own pure electric (not hybrid) car that has a 200km or so range. It will feature a new design of battery that can be swapped in and out in about the time it takes right now to fill up a car with gasoline. People will be able to do so at a country-wide network of swapping stations, or charge cars via power points. The cars will be designed and built by Renault / Nissan. Agassi says it will reduce oil use in Israel drastically – we’re talking figures like 50 per cent here.

The capital to get this going has come from a group of investors that includes Israeli Corporation (which right now supplies Israel with oil – proving, as with Abu Dhabi’s latest moves – that oil money can sometimes turn green) and also features VantagePoint Venture Partners, blessed right now with this shining star to distract everyone from the mess at Tesla. Agassi claims the system will launch within four years.

One of the big features of the system is that electric power will be sold as packages akin to the way that mobile phones are sold today – there will be multiple plans you can buy, including one that says if you buy about six years of power, they’ll throw in the car for free.

Shai Agassi

Photo credit jdlasica

But can he really pull it off? Agassi has got to this situation incredibly quickly. When I ask how in a year he has managed to leave his old job and do one of the most audacious deals imaginable he says “Nine months! It’s been nine months!”

In truth, for any entrepreneurs out there who may suddenly feel deeply inadequate, Agassi has had this process in train for three years. The journey started when he listened to a challenge by a speaker at Davos to do something to make the world a better place. Agassi admits that during those first few years “I walked every single wrong path first. I was sure for months hydrogen, then I was sure it would be ethanol.”

This characteristic of Agassi’s seems crucial to understand. You feel he’s churned the options over in his head constantly and worked out the answer. Now he’s settled on it, his purpose is to set that vision out to the world, do the necessary business deals to make it happen and then…”. Actually, “and then?” is a fairly good question and there isn’t right now a lot of substance to see, beyond the deal itself. Be in no doubt that Project Better Place now needs to ‘execute’, as IT guys would say. They’ll need some very talented people, they’ll need to ensure that Renault / Nissan and other partners such as battery provider NEC deliver technologies, and integrate those technologies together, on time. They will also need to work out the details of the service model and sales and marketing, factors that could make or break the project. And of course if oil prices fall dramatically (admittedly unlikely) the economics become a problem.

So is the man up for it? The company website is today a lonely place, with a link to ‘leadership’ that leads to… just Agassi. There are two people photos. Him and, curiously, his young son, who is part of the Davos pitch. Yet while Agassi himself quipped on stage to the (German) DLD audience that he “used to be the next CEO of SAP”, he never was SAP’s CEO and opinions gathered from my Twittering IT analyst friends vary on just how successful his time at that firm was.

First, here’s Dennis Howlett, veteran technology and financial software analyst:

“Shai created a roadmap and at one stage was delivering a ton of product [at SAP]. “But it became indigestible for many SAPpers.”

Then over to Greenmonk’s own James Governor:

“The Agassi legacy at SAP?…. a job unfinished. He built an architecture, but it was not as widely adopted as he, or the board, wanted.” James’s other comment is curious. “Shai evidently doesn’t have a great deal of patience and is inclined to hector communities (for example, customers) that don’t do what he wants.”

What next? Well Project Better Place has a hell of a lot to do and, once Davos is over, Agassi better get together a brilliant team and start executing. Right now, you hear nothing except him. While the project talks about partnership and being open, it would seem that the big deal has for now taken priority over engaging the talent base required. The firm will need a lot of great people, and those partnerships will take a lot of managing.

What’s sure is that the world is a better place for this development. Amongst the visionaries and future talk underway at DLD, Agassi stood out as a doer.

But don’t for a minute think this is the only future for cars. Agassi’s vision has unlocked anything up to a billion dollars but there is surely more to come and many things are happening right now. Agassi is a visionary but his vision is pretty narrow.

Shai’s in Davos now, wooing the great and mighty with that vision and his audacity. For the next three years he’ll definitely be judged on that ability to ‘execute’. We wish him well.

Read on at Re*Move, where we ask Is Project Better Place the big answer?
Mark Charmer is a contributor to Greenmonk Associates. He is CEO of The Movement Design Bureau, a think tank.

Photo credits: Project Better Place.