Electric dreams: How a Brisbane startup is recharging the wheels of the world


Brisbane-based startup Tritium is ensuring Queensland is at the forefront of the automotive industry’s renewable evolution.

Tritium don’t make cars, but they do make the most powerful EV (electric vehicle) charger in the world, capable of adding 150km of driving range in just five minutes. The company’s chargers can be found in more than 2,000 locations around the globe, accounting for a fifth of all direct current (DC) fast-chargers for electric vehicles sold in Western countries.

Climate activist and former US Vice President Al Gore recently praised the company’s “world-class” EV chargers, and the startup was named one of the World’s Most Innovative Companies (in the Energy category) by Fast Company.

They’ve even rubbed shoulders with Hollywood royalty, providing the battery management system for the Deep Sea Challenger that took Avatar and Titanic director James Cameron to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

You might expect a startup with these sorts of credentials to be based in Silicon Valley. But while Tritium has opened offices in the USA and the Netherlands, you’ll find the company’s global headquarters in the east Brisbane suburb of Murarrie.

In fact, Tritium opened a brand-new research and development centre, the Tritium E-Mobility Innovation Centre, in Murarrie earlier this year. Sitting alongside the company’s warehouse and production facility, the R&D centre further deepens Tritium’s roots in the Brisbane suburb.

Dr David Finn, Tritium’s CEO, Managing Director and co-founder, is surprised that anyone would be surprised to find a company like his in Brisbane.

“Well, it’s pretty simple — it’s where we live, it’s where our investors are based, and it’s where a lot of the R&D expertise is for us,” he says.

“Certainly, the Queensland state government has been quite supportive of us over the years, and that has helped us on our journey. The two Business Development Fund grants that we have received add up to $5 million, which has been very significant for us.

“Even smaller grants that we received in the early days from the Queensland Sustainable Energy Innovation Fund were very instrumental in our decision to push ahead with Tritium instead of just going into the industry and getting a job. Even those small grants have ripple effects.”

The seeds for Tritium were planted two decades ago at the University of Queensland, when Finn and co-founders Dr Paul Sernia and James Kennedy built a motor inverter for solar-powered race cars. Dubbed the Gold Controller, the technology is still used by the majority of the world’s solar racing teams.

That early success fuelled the trio’s passion for renewable energy, and in 2011, Tritium pivoted its focus entirely towards DC fast charging for EVs — technology that Finn believes is crucial to breaking down the barriers to widespread EV adoption.

“There are three factors that currently impede the takeup of EVs,” he says.

“The first is vehicle diversity. In other words, vehicle manufacturers need to sell EV models that people actually want to buy — if I’m in the market for an SUV, and you’re only selling a hatchback, then I’m not going to buy what you’re selling, because you don’t have what I want.

“That’s a simple equation that’s really solving itself as we go forward, mostly driven by incentives to get CO2 emissions down around the world, and various governments pledging for all new vehicle sales to be non-diesel, non-gasoline cars by 2030 or 2040. That naturally results in a greater diversity of EV models.

“The second factor is price, which is becoming less of a barrier because of efforts by Tesla and the mobile phone industry to drive down the price of electric batteries. Within the next three years, we’ll see EV vehicles come into parity with the price of a mid-size sedan, and in five years, they should be coming into line with the price of a standard low-cost car. Because of that parity, most of the modelling shows we’re going to see a pretty rapid EV uptake from about 2025 onwards.

“The last factor is being able to replicate — or improve upon — the convenience of the gas stations that have already been built around the world. In the US alone, there are 120,000 gas stations, and they probably average about 10 hoses each. So that’s a pretty challenging infrastructure to take on.

“Most of the models for EV adoption assume that we won’t be able to get the charging infrastructure in place fast enough, and there’ll be an s-curve in adoption rates after 2030 because of this. But I don’t believe that. I believe that Tritium can bring a product to the marketplace that will make it cost-effective to create that charging infrastructure in the public space.”

In Australia, the majority of EV owners charge their cars overnight in their homes. But Finn believes a fast-charging network has the potential to turn convenience into a selling point for EVs.

“We won’t be bound to the big tank that sits below the fuel dispenser anymore,” he explains.

“At the moment, what’s happening is that you’re seeing Coles and Woolworths move into petrol sales. This is an opportunity to do it the other way around. They’ve already got their free-standing stores — so it makes much more sense to put the charging infrastructure out the front of a Woolworths store, rather than bringing Woolworths products to petrol stations.

“You could just go to Woolworths once a week for half an hour and charge while you shop, and you’ll be topped up for the whole week. Probably two weeks, actually, with the range of batteries coming into the marketplace at the moment and the capacity they have.

“When we get to about 10 per cent of vehicles on the road being EVs, which is expected to happen around 2025, globally, that’s the point when operating a network of charging infrastructure will actually be profitable. We’ve already passed that point in Norway, and it won’t be long until we’ll be at that point elsewhere, so that’s quite exciting.”

As the world increasingly looks towards renewable energy sources, Finn believes that automobile manufacturers will need to “adapt or die”.

“We’ve already reached peak production of internal combustion cars,” he says.

“That’s now. So if you’re a vehicle manufacturer and you don’t have an electric vehicle offering, you’re facing declining revenues, which is exacerbated by the fact that mobility services are going to drop the total number of car sales anyway. You have to adapt, and we’re seeing that vehicle manufacturers are adapting — not just because they’re facing their demise, but because they see there are opportunities for them going forward.

“You have to continue to evolve. Everybody does. We’re continuing to evolve our hardware, we’re continuing to evolve our software, we’re continuing to evolve the service offering that we bring to the marketplace.

“You know, nobody really knows how this is all going to play out. Our customers are really looking for someone to go on a journey with them… they’re looking for suppliers of technology that are able to evolve with them and respond quickly to the marketplace. That’s what we’re really focused on.”