The automobile industry has been relatively immune from technology disruption—the same people that were making cars fifty years ago are still making them today, in the same way. But Mark Wells, CEO of Cogent and co-founder of Chargefox, knows all of that is about to change.
We sat down with Mark to chat about the origins of Chargefox, the future of automotive transport and clean energy, and what it means for Australia’s society and climate.
What inspired the creation of Chargefox?
Mark: At Cogent, we always try to work on projects that have some clear purpose. We aren’t particularly prescriptive about this, often simply asking ourselves if the project’s outcomes are “useful” in the context of making the world better, even if it’s just a bit better. Over the last twenty years, I’ve been involved in the climate change debate and dabbled in the energy and cleantech industries with a view to finding a way to “sink some carbon”.
I’ve always felt there was opportunity for us to combine Cogent’s skills with a project that would ultimately make the world a cleaner place for the next generation. After exploring a lot of dead ends, we started to become really interested in transport, specifically, the long-term and wide-ranging impact of autonomous electric vehicles. I knew that in Australia, road transport accounts for around 15% of greenhouse gas emissions so going electric combined with clean generation has the potential to make a big dent in our carbon emissions.
Marty Andrews (co-director of Cogent Ventures and now CEO of Chargefox) and I realised we’d found the space we wanted to play in as we began to understand the disruptive implications of “Transport as a Service” both economically and across society.
I told Marty that we needed to talk to everybody we knew about this. And we did—we talked to a lot of people. One of those conversations was with a guy called Tim Washington who is now the founder and CEO of JET Charge. He’s a lawyer who gave it all up to create Australia’s leading electric vehicle charger installation business.
As part of our research into the automotive industry, I met Tim at the JET Charge offices in North Melbourne. We had a chat about what he was hoping to achieve with JET Charge, the problems he’d been having, and the software he wanted to build.
Tim was installing these car chargers for local businesses and councils and the chargers required software that would be able to tell users basic stuff like indicating when they were on or off, providing details about when vehicles charged or didn’t charge, billing, and so on. At the time, Tim was getting this software from overseas and it had a lot of issues, there was no support for it in Australia, and the payment system didn’t work properly.
So I told him, “stop right there—we can fix that.”
By the end of that meeting, we had agreed that Cogent would commit some resources to build a prototype and validate if there was a business there.
The objectives were really basic, it was essentially: Can we work together? Can we build something that addresses all these issues? Can we get somebody to buy it? So that’s what we did and 12 weeks later we’d achieved all of those goals.
What were Chargefox’s biggest challenges?
Mark: There were a lot, the main one was that Australia has no government-level support for electric vehicles, unlike every other developed nation on the planet, so we have very few on the roads. That meant that even the basics like how the plugs work were a real challenge to get past in meetings. We quickly learned to ask a simple question upfront – “have you ever been in an electric car?”.
Manufacturers in Australia wanted to sell electric cars but they couldn’t because the infrastructure wasn’t there, it was a bit of a chicken and egg problem. People would walk into a showroom and say: “I wouldn’t mind buying that electric car, but can I drive it from Sydney to Melbourne?” And the answer was no, because you’re going to start driving down a highway without any ultra-rapid chargers, and while Tesla chargers have been built, they’re not open to other brands.
We soon realised that Chargefox was ideally placed to solve this problem. Jetcharge had the car company relationships and experience installing chargers and Cogent had the product and tech skills to build the platform and explore new business models.
It’s amazing that 18 months ago it was just the three of us, Tim, Marty and I, in front of a whiteboard exchanging ideas, drawing up lean canvases and potential business models to figure out what we could do. Last month we announced that Chargefox had managed to secure $17 million in private, state and federal funding which was a huge achievement for us.
What does the future look like for Chargefox?
Mark: We’re expecting a lot. Certainly, the core of it is the rollout and expansion of the ultra rapid supercharging network, but we’re already experimenting with new models in demand management and virtual power plants.
When we built the first pitch deck for investors, the very first slide had a picture of Tim, Marty and me with our kids and talked about how our vision was for Australian transport to be one hundred percent renewably powered. It’s still the first slide on every deck we present. It might seem a little corny, but it’s true. It creates an extra layer of drive for why we’re doing this. It helps us achieve more and go the extra mile, because it’s a thing of genuine meaning and purpose. We talk about having a vision for Australian transport and every day we think about creating that future. And that really means something.
Click here to learn more about Chargefox.
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