How to Innovate by Asking Audacious Questions

By: Prof. Shlomo Maital

This month two colleagues and I visited Better Place, a company founded by Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi. Better Place wants to wean the world from its addiction to oil and gasoline. It believes consuming 85 million barrels of crude oil daily, half of it for powering automobiles, is not sustainable. Its solution: Create an ecosystem with electric cars (Renault-Nissan “Fluence”),  lithium-ion replaceable batteries, charging stations, and battery-replacement stations. The first such nation-wide system is now almost in place in Israel (we interviewed Agassi by phone as he made the rounds of his robotic battery-replacement stations, aiming at having 50 of them in place very soon, all over the country).

better-placeHybrids are not the solution, because they still consume gasoline, albeit somewhat less of it. Better Place thinks the added electricity used by electric cars can be generated by non-fossil-fuel sources, and Denmark, the next site of a nation-wide system, already makes 20 percent of its power through wind and sun, and has so much of it Denmark pays Germany (!) to take the power off its hands. Drivers of Better Place cars drive into charging stations, where a robot replaces the spent battery with a charged one, in less time than it takes to fill a tank with gasoline. You pay by subscription, based on kilometrage driven yearly (20,000 km., 30,000 km., etc.). The car’s computer tells you if you have enough charge to get to your destination without a new battery, and if not, where you can replace the spent one.

The origin of Better Place was an audacious question. After completing an amazing career (B.Sc. from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology at age 17 ½, work at Apple,  startup named TopTier, sold to SAP, work at SAP leading up to a top management position, resigned to launch Better Place, and Agassi is only 36), Agassi asked this question:

How can we run a country’s cars without gasoline?

The technological answer is simple. Electric cars. The business answer is really tough – how to sustain a company that does this. Better Place is essentially a “media” company. It doesn’t sell cars, Renault does that. It sells the recharging/battery replacement system. Fluence owners drive in to a battery replacement center, and a robot replaces the lithium-ion battery under the car with a charged one. The margin between what Better Place pays for electricity and what it charges the drivers for electricity provides profit that drives and sustains the business.

It all began with an audacious question. But Agassi’s answer was NOT technological, solely, but cleverly business and economic. This has enabled him to raise several hundred million dollars, from top investors, including GE.

So – innovator: Ask, what is the question? Not, what is the answer! And, seek highly audacious questions. Questions that comprise unsolved, perhaps unsolvable, social problems. Then tackle them with energy vision and creativity.

This article originally appeared in Prof. Shlomo Maital’s Innovation Blog, November 24, 2011.