For more than a decade, Rochester-based battery manufacturer Cellec Technologies has been hard at work developing clean, sustainable energy solutions. But sometimes, even brilliant problem-solvers need help to keep the momentum going and scale their business.
Lithium-ion battery maker Cellec has significantly improved the capability and safety of lithium-ion cells that vital defense and aerospace efforts rely upon (think satellites, remote sensors, and GPS). They’ve eliminated the need to store and transport cells at a partial state of charge, delivering efficiency and savings to customers while preserving high performance. But Cellec recently hit a logistical wall. Scale for ClimateTech, a climate technology manufacturing accelerator, was there to partner with this promising venture to keep them on track. The firm—which started in a Rochester Institute of Technology lab and launched as an independent company in 2016—has conducted years of meticulous research aimed at making lithium-ion cells safer.
The challenge of moving a product into manufacturing
Through state and federal grants and programs, Cellec advanced beyond their initial research and development and was ready to manufacture products. But the elaborate MRL threads necessary represented an obstacle to their reaching a full product launch.
“Earlier programs helped accelerate our technology,” says Christopher Schauerman, CEO and Founder of Cellec. “But we soon realized we lacked the standard documentation known as high Manufacturing Readiness Level, or MRL. We needed help with that to keep the momentum going.”
MRL is shorthand for standards created by the U.S. Department of Defense and industry leaders to assess the readiness of suppliers to make reliable products. It’s all about reducing risks involved in doing business with new suppliers.
Cellec’s products go into several satellite applications led by U.S. government agencies and contractors that require substantial validation documentation, which the MRL threads enable companies like Cellec to provide. Those threads—or topical criteria—number in the dozens.
“Once we started looking at the MRL requirements, it was clear the enormous volume of documentation our customers were asking for,” Schauerman says.
While Cellec understood the need, the process was overwhelming.
“Even with my 15 years of experience making and testing batteries, having all of this MRL documentation down in black and white instead of in my head was a different matter entirely,” Schauerman says.
And MRL documentation extends to a company’s own suppliers, too.
“With our customers, the suppliers we work with matter just as much because their materials go into our batteries,” Schauerman says. “They consider those materials separate products when it comes to verification, so Cellec has to go through the entire verification matrix again in order to test supplier products under the same conditions. It’s one more way to make sure we can handle the manufacturing process.”
How does a company get up to speed on an unfamiliar process that is crucial to moving the company forward?
An expert partner scales up the process.
Cellec connected with Scale for ClimateTech—a NextCorps and SecondMuse program supported by NYSERDA to help climate tech startups navigate the world of manufacturing—through the company’s contacts at RIT. The program offered Cellec a clear roadmap forward to continue their work. Its staff of manufacturing experts understood how to navigate MRL threads and processes, how to collect enormous amounts of information, and how to track down third-party validators to keep the process moving swiftly.
Scale For ClimateTech provided Cellec with a dedicated team of mentors, intensive workshops, and access to New York State’s manufacturing ecosystem that they would not have otherwise had. The company was able to master its understanding of MRL assessment—and understand the benefits of the process.
For instance, working through MRL threads not only legitimizes a company’s fitness to manufacture products, the process builds their confidence in the path they’re taking to market. It reduces mistakes along the way, too. The program teaches clients how to speak the language and express the same metrics that matter to their prospective customers, which further builds their credibility. And the process enables companies to scale up manufacturing faster to meet growing demand, while avoiding costly mistakes at the same time.
“Coming from a science and engineering background, I had limited exposure to manufacturing methodologies. As people sometimes put it, ‘I didn’t know what I didn’t know,’” Schauerman says. “The MRL framework laid out a clear path for developing a complete manufacturing plan. And the Scale For ClimateTech program has been instrumental in developing our manufacturing plan.”
Scale For ClimateTech also supported Cellec’s efforts in negotiating partner and supplier agreements and managing logistics, all while helping the company take control of time-sensitive, critical decisions throughout the full manufacturing process.
“For Cellec, going through the MRL thread has helped us meet our customers’ expectations so much more effectively,” Schauerman says. “It’s in a format and language they expect to see, so it’s giving them more confidence that we’re moving in the right direction—especially as a small company with a new technology that began at a university.”
Successfully charging ahead
Cellec is thriving and recently outgrew its second facility. The company now occupies 7,200 square feet of space in Henrietta. And they’re fully equipped to work with new customers, as well as with other contractors they rely on to build their batteries.
“Now I can give our suppliers the right documents and explain how to do every step in the process, rather than just relying on the knowledge in my head,” Schauerman says.
That wasn’t always the case because it’s never easy to put the knowledge in your head on paper in ways that conform to an established standard set of metrics for the operational environment.
“When our customers express interest in doing business with us, now we can more easily prove the soundness of our manufacturing because we know how to speak their language,” Schauerman says.
And Cellec’s batteries will soon reach the next level—literally. They’ll live in the systems of satellites slated to be launched into space.
But the progress won’t end there. Cellec is working toward advancing their products to third parties that need lithium-ion cells to fuel their devices, which will enable the company to get involved in bigger programs and contracts in the near future.
The MRL thread process is key to those advances.
“We’re developing MRL threads for new tasks and statements of work for upcoming programs we anticipate with the government,” Schauerman says.
It’s a framework Scale For ClimateTech helped Cellec build right into its way of work.
“The MRL framework simplifies a very complicated process into manageable threads,” Schauerman says. “By implementing the MRL methodology, my employees are able to independently develop each aspect of the manufacturing process, following a logical progression. That’s really helped us push us closer to our first product.”