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Despite Bill Gates' investment, Pittsburgh battery company files for bankruptcy

| Wednesday, March 8, 2017, 4:18 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband
Jay Whitacre, director of Carnegie Mellon's Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation, founded Aquion Energy in 2009.

Aquion Energy Inc., a Pittsburgh-based battery company, has run out of money and filed for bankruptcy, the company announced Wednesday.

The company, headquartered in Lawrenceville with a factory in Westmoreland County, let go about 80 percent of its employees, reduced its staff to an R&D team, paused all operations at its factory and stopped marketing and selling its batteries.

Aquion developed and manufactured a saltwater battery that stored energy produced from solar panels and other renewable sources. The company described its batteries as clean, safe and sustainable, saying they contained no heavy metals or toxic chemicals and were not flammable or explosive.

Creating and producing the batteries on a large scale was expensive, outgoing CEO Scott Pearson and Suzanne Roski, hired to manage the bankruptcy, said in a statement Wednesday .

“Despite our best efforts to fund the company and continue to fuel our growth, the company has been unable to raise the growth capital needed to continue operating,” the pair said.

Neither could be reached for further information.

Aquion wants to sell all of its assets. Several buyers have shown interest, according to the statement.

Aquion was founded in 2009. Jay Whitacre, a professor of material science and engineering in Carnegie Mellon University's Department of Engineering and Public Policy, had worked on the batteries for about a year and a half in the university's labs before spinning out the technology and founding the company.

The company had raised about $190 million from investors. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates invested in the company in 2013. The company received more than $13 million in state incentives in 2012 to locate its manufacturing facility inside the former Sony plant in East Huntingdon.

The company attracted early investment from the California-based venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. Ray Lane, a partner emeritus at the firm and former chairman of HP and president of Oracle, is the chair of Aquion's board of directors. He could not be reached for comment. Lane called Aquion one of the firm's “most promising venture investments” when the company named Pearson its CEO in 2011.

Pearson was named CEO of the Year in 2012 by the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

Whitacre, named the new director of CMU's Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation last week, did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment.

Whitacre told the Tribune-Review in 2015 that he was surprised at how fast the company had grown .

“We're sold out for the year, which means we have booked all of the sales set in our production quota and we have sold all the units that we are able to make. The company's sales will be between $5 million and $10 million this year, and they will be more next year,” Whitacre said at the time.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach Aupperlee at aaupperlee@tribweb.com or 412-336-8448.

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