A Sherwood Park startup is pioneering a device that harnesses ambient energy — from vibrations, radio frequencies, solar, and other sources — to power the Industrial Internet-of-Things (IIoT).
Element 4 was founded in 2019 by Erik Brisson, Amshu Gongal, and Porfirio Mendez, who set out to create a technology that would power IIoT without lithium-ion batteries. "We went about designing and developing a device that was capable of living autonomously without any power source," CEO Brisson told Taproot.
The company's flagship product, the Gallium 1.0, harvests power from a sensor's immediate environment, specifically solar (via an organic ink technology from France), piezoelectric (from vibrations such as traffic), thermoelectric (from temperature changes), and radio-frequency (produced by electronics like wireless routers and radio). Those sources are where the four in Element 4 comes from.
The device is wireless and battery-less, but also modular — that is, designed to attach to other companies' sensors — and self-sustaining for up to 20 years. Accompanying software supports data collection and analysis.
Like IIoT itself, the Gallium 1.0 has wide-ranging applications such as mobile asset tracking, environmental monitoring in agriculture, and industrial gas sensing. One of Element 4's partners is an Alberta startup with technology that monitors the electrical current in power lines and needed a safer alternative to lithium-ion batteries, given the volatility of lithium. Last summer, Element 4 did its first proof-of-concept at the smart farm at Olds College, which uses IIoT tools to monitor crop growth.
Element 4 has been gaining momentum with help from accelerators such as the Alberta IoT Fast Track Program and Plug and Play Alberta, as well as the 2022 prime cohort of Creative Destruction Lab. With patents secured and a production-ready product, Element 4 is on the cusp on the next stage of its development.
It's an important moment for Brisson, too, who said the company was conceived not long after the birth of his son four years ago. At the time, he was running a fleet management company with Gongal and Mendez, and was thinking a lot about the world his son would inherit. Concerned about the environment and human rights, Brisson wanted to create a company that could be a force for good — as did his cofounders, with whom he brainstormed ideas. "We kept coming back to the same thing — we wanted to leave the world in a better place than we found it."
The trio saw an opportunity in the US$264 billion IIoT market, which is growing rapidly as businesses see its potential to improve their productivity and efficiency. Essentially, IIoT refers to cloud-linked smart sensors and devices that gather, send, and analyze information on practically any aspect of a company's operations.
The devices are predominantly powered by lithium-ion batteries, and therein lies a challenge. There's a global shortage of lithium, exacerbated by the demand from electric vehicle manufacturers, which means that costs are rising. "The price (of lithium) is going to increase exponentially by 2025," said Brisson. "We're already seeing it in the (electric vehicle) industry as Tesla recently increased its prices by $10,000 — and that's just the beginning."
Brisson noted that lithium has more than a supply-and-demand problem, as mining is associated with child labour and environmental harm. And in terms of battery use, lithium isn't ideal for extreme climates. Lithium-ion batteries perform poorly in very hot or cold environments, which is bad news for outdoor sensors during Alberta winters.
Although there are global efforts to come up with alternatives such as sodium ion batteries, Brisson isn't optimistic they'll perform as well. And he doesn't think batteries are needed anyway, as IIoT sensors and other devices require tiny amounts of energy that can be provided by harvesting the abundant energy in a device's immediate environment.
It's a simple idea, but developing the technology has been a complex process involving a large team of scientists and engineers. Brisson said that although energy harvesting isn't brand-new, it was crucial that the device use the most "bleeding edge" technologies — such as the solar ink — to guarantee reliability for future customers. With profits on the line, companies need to know the power going to their IIoT networks will be as consistent as that of traditional lithium-ion batteries.
"The work that the team has done has been unbelievable — and the sacrifices that they've made to make it happen," he said.
The company has mainly bootstrapped its way to this point, and is now hoping to raise a pre-seed round of funding. Brisson told Startup TNT's Investment Summit V top 20 pitch night that he was hoping to raise $500,000, and that he could imagine a future where the company would either be acquired or go public. "We feel like the need for this technology is global," he said in his pitch.