C-Motive, Startup Developing Electric Motor Technology, Raises $750K

Cobalt is one of the ingredients in a type of rare earth magnet that, along with other rare earth magnets like neodymium and dysprosium, can be found in electric motors, smartphone batteries, and other products that are popular among consumers and manufacturers today.

The price of cobalt more than doubled in 2017, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Cobalt is a component in batteries that reportedly power the majority of mobile phones, laptop computers, and electric cars around the world, and demand from the technology and auto industries has helped send prices soaring.

Companies like Apple, Tesla, and BMW are responding by trying to strike long-term deals with owners of cobalt mines to ensure a reliable supply and protect against potential future price increases.

But there’s also a chance the recent trend could reverse itself, and cobalt demand and prices will fall in coming years. Companies large and small are developing new types of batteries and electric motors that don’t rely on cobalt, which could impact the market. One example is C-Motive Technologies, a Madison, WI-based startup that’s seeking to commercialize a new type of electric motor that it claims will produce less heat and can be built with lighter materials than the motors currently on the market, like those made with cobalt.

“We’re eliminating the rare earth magnets that are in high-performance motors today,” says Justin Reed, president and CEO of C-Motive.

The company recently raised a $750,000 round of convertible debt financing from a group of angel investors, Reed says. C-Motive, which launched in 2012, plans to use some of the proceeds from the round to manufacture an initial run of motors. That work, which C-Motive has contracted with Madison-based Swift Manufacturing to carry out, will likely be complete in late 2018 or early next year, he says.

The startup’s motors could eventually be used to do anything from spinning ship and aircraft propellers to accelerating electric cars to powering robots on assembly lines, Reed says.

C-Motive’s early customers will likely be businesses that fit into the category of original equipment manufacturers, he says. Rather than selling customers a motor that’s already been customized to work in a designated piece of machinery, the startup’s initial plan is just to get prototypes into the hands of motor experts who work at the companies C-Motive is courting as prospective clients.

Reed and the other members of the startup’s six-person team want to “get our motor out into the hands of customers for evaluation,” allowing them to “kick the tires, and know that this technology is real, and it works.”

The design of a conventional motor typically involves wrapping a copper coil around a piece of steel inside the motor, he explains. The way to make the motor spin, and set into motion whatever vehicle or machine part it’s attached to, is by putting electric current through the coil, Reed says. This rotational force, or torque, requires the motor to produce heat, he adds.

Because a regular motor produces heat while trying to create the torque necessary to make the motor spin, it can’t put out a peak level of torque all day. If it did, it would overheat.

Reed says C-Motive’s motor can give peak toque output all day because it uses electric voltage, not electric current, to create toque.

“Any torque production requires heat. Our motors don’t,” Reed says. “It can output peak torque all day long, and not heat up. That is something that regular motors cannot do.”

The technology underpinning C-Motive’s motors is not new, Reed says. In fact, it was the brainchild of Benjamin Franklin, who came up with the concept of an electrostatic machine in the mid-18th century.

While the basic principles of electrostatic motor design have been around for a long time, C-Motive’s innovation was to make what Reed calls “some clever changes to a few aspects of it, using the latest technology—the components that go into it.”

Whether C-Motive’s technology can be fully commercialized, or scaled in a cost-effective way, remains to be seen. But if things unfold the way the startup hopes, one long-term result could be the ability to make motors out of plastics and other materials that tend to be lighter and cheaper than metal, Reed says.

“You could 3-D print them and injection mold them,” he says. “You can make them very cost-competitive, while also giving superior performance in a lot of emerging markets.”

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