An MBA startup launched by evening and weekend students aims to send shock waves through the energy storage and electrical vehicle charging industries. Last year it developed a product it hopes will redefine those markets, and within its first year counts Google and LinkedIn among its customers and Nissan and Siemens as strategic partners.
It all started with one self-proclaimed automotive geek. Third-year student Arcady Sosinov moved from Russia at age five, and was soon helping his dad, a Boston taxi driver, with brake repairs and oil changes. By age 11, he was replacing entire auto engines. Later, he formed a small company to design, manufacture, and sell performance auto parts for BMWs.
Once he arrived at Berkeley-Haas, he took full advantage of the Evening & Weekend Berkeley MBA Program to co-found the automotive startup of his dreams: a company called FreeWire.
FreeWire began in the spring of 2014 when Sosinov and classmate Sameer Mehdiratta and Sanat Kamal Bahl, MBA 14, all met in Steve Blank’s Lean LaunchPad course and realized a synergy: Sosinov had finance and automotive expertise and Mehdiratta and Kamal Bahl had engineering expertise in wireless charging. (Co-founder and classmate Luv Kothari went on to take a position with Bain & Company.)
The result was a company that aims to transform the electric vehicle (EV) charging market.
Sosinov credits Lean LaunchPad with supplying the foundation and motivation to get FreeWire off the ground. Applying the class methodology of customer discovery and iteration, the FreeWire team conducted 140 face-to-face interviews with potential customers (including large companies that provide workplace EV charging for employees).
As a result, the team pivoted away from wireless EV charging, its original idea, to mobile, grid-smart battery-powered chargers.
“We realized there was not a market yet for wireless charging, but we also discovered a huge pain point for customers: building the costly infrastructure required with workplace EV charging stations,” Sosinov says. Another problem they uncovered was the limited use of stationary charging stations: employees would fail to move their cars during the day to share the stations with others.
FreeWire’s mobile charger, Mobi, which uses second-life EV batteries, solved the problem. “Instead of bringing the vehicles to the charging station, we bring the charger to the vehicles.”
FreeWire raised $425,000 in seed capital and secured a $500,000 grant from the Office of Naval Research, Sosinov reports, adding the company is currently making headway towards its A round goal of $6 to $9 million. While Lean LaunchPad was essential to starting the company, other Berkeley-Haas courses have proved vital along the way, Sosinov says.
The Freewire Founding Team (l. to r.) Sanat Kamal Bahl, Sameer Mehdiratta, Luv Kothari, and Arcady Sosinov
“Getting those three different perspectives was instrumental,” Sosinov says. “The entrepreneurial spirit at Berkeley-Haas is also incredible, as is the network of people and the connections we’ve made.”
Up next for FreeWire is expansion into the energy storage market as a whole. The company plans to apply its technology to help commercial buildings and utility companies manage energy consumption to dramatically lower costs. It also aims to help residential power users more efficiently use their solar systems.
Sosinov’s advice for other entrepreneurs is two-fold. “I’m a big advocate of the lean startup customer discovery process,” he says.
And for Berkeley-Haas students and alumni: “Use your network. There are Berkeley grads in every dimension of business, technology, and government. Reach out to them because they are always willing to help.”