Bruneian entrepreneur on a mission to transform energy supply is generating interest with a battery-powered system that is clean, affordable and reliable
(MA XUEJING / CHINA DAILY)
Bruneian Brandon Ng is just 29 years old but he has already cofounded an innovative startup that aims to solve one of the world’s biggest problems — intermittent power supply.
“The word innovation is overused,” said Ng, who is now based in Hong Kong. He believes it is most deserved when referring to solutions that are a little ahead of their time.
“If you have a problem and someone proposes a solution that doesn’t make sense today but could make sense in two, three, five or 10 years, then there’s a much higher likelihood that is innovative, because that’s probably genuinely new,” he said.
In 2014, Ng, together with engineer Luca Valente, cofounded Ampd Energy. The startup developed Ampd Silo — an energy storage system which uses advanced, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries to generate reliable backup power supply.
Ampd Energy was first runner-up for the prestigious Engadget Best Startup Award at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and Ampd Silo is already generating interest among buyers in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Ng himself was included in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Asia 2017: Industry, Manufacturing & Energy.
Despite such early success as a startup founder, Ng did not set out to be an entrepreneur or to solve the problem of power supply disruption. Ampd Energy, in fact, was established because of an electric motorcycle.
In 2012, Ng was using an electric scooter to navigate the busy streets of Beijing. Working at that time as an investment banker, Ng was on a one-year career break, learning Mandarin at Tsinghua University.
He was planning to return to his life in banking in London after mastering Mandarin. But his curiosity over the steep price of fully fledged electric motorcycles pushed him in another direction.
He could not understand why electric motorcycles were retailing for US$13,000 each, while a gas-powered one sold for just US$8,000. So Ng, who has an engineering degree from Imperial College London, partnered with Valente and another engineer. They pooled their savings and produced a prototype of a cheaper electric motorcycle.
“We wanted to make electric motorcycles that were both price and performance competitive with gas motorcycles,” Ng told China Daily Asia Weekly.
“The issue with electric motorcycles at that time was always price. How do we get the price down? The biggest issue is (the) batteries — the most expensive component in the finished vehicle.
“We spent a lot of time on (developing) these batteries: How do we make the batteries cheaper without compromising safety, reliability, power and packaging?”
Ng said standardization of components helped in lowering cost without sacrificing quality. He added that being in China, with its immense manufacturing capacity across various industries and market verticals, gave him access to suppliers that produce high-quality materials at lower prices.
The partners’ success in developing more affordable electric motorcycles encouraged them to market their products to the Indonesian police force. But the blackout that interrupted a meeting with their distributor in Sumatra sparked a novel business idea.
Ng recalled: “We joked with our distributor at the time: Wouldn’t it be funny to power the whole building with our motorcycles? But then we thought: Why do we need the motorcycles? Why don’t we just use the batteries?”
Changing the direction of the business made a lot of sense to Ng.
“From a business value standpoint and from an engineering standpoint — because that is what engineers do, solve the big problems — (unreliable power supply) is a huge problem that affects 3 billion people and many enterprises globally. So we decided to shift our vision-mission to solve (the problem of) unreliable power supply,” he said.
Ng and his partners went back to the drawing board and raised US$3.8 million in seed funding, mostly from angel investors.
In 2014 they relocated to Hong Kong to join the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park’s Incu-Tech incubator program — for handpicked, high-potential individuals — and to work closely with their contract manufacturers in the Pearl River Delta.
“We want to be close to our suppliers. We want to design a component in the morning, send it to our suppliers in the afternoon and it will be ready for the next day,” Ng said. He added that being in Hong Kong, with its open economy, gave his startup the credibility and network support it needed to grow.
Over the next two years, Ng and his team worked to develop a battery-powered energy storage system that can be used when there is a power outage. The result of this research and development was Ampd Silo.
Ng said his company aims to sell Ampd Silo to hospitals, telcos, banks, government agencies and shopping centers — sectors in which power disruption can lead to significant costs and lost opportunity.
The first orders were shipped in mid-June to Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital. Ampd Energy will also deliver Ampd Silo to Nigeria, South Africa and Vietnam in the next few months.
The unit, which starts at roughly US$8,800, is more expensive than a diesel-powered generator which sells for US$7,000 to US$8,000. And Ng believes Ampd Silo’s premium price is justified on the basis that the system requires almost no maintenance: There is no need to change the batteries regularly to ensure it runs smoothly.
Ampd Silo is also more eco-friendly: It emits no fumes and does not use lead acid batteries. Such batteries are often disposed of poorly, and lead is an extremely toxic material. He added that Ampd Silo’s batteries are recyclable, thus reducing waste.
“You can continue to use Ampd Silo’s batteries even after the end of its life — in lower intensity applications, for example,” he said.
The emphasis on Ampd Silo’s eco-friendly attributes is in line with the company’s core vision-mission which Ng said is to “provide power that is clean, affordable and reliable”.
“The very existence of this company depends on the well-being of people and that includes the environment,” he said.
To stay true to the vision, Ng said he measures Ampd Energy’s return on investment (ROI) beyond potential monetary returns.
“We are a growing company and we are investing in growth.” He said Ampd Energy’s ROI will be based on whether or not it has achieved its “goal of transforming global energy supply in terms of reliability, environmental impact and cost”.
“We’re hoping to achieve that goal in five to 10 years,” Ng said.
CEO and cofounder, Ampd Energy
2005-09: Master of engineering, chemical engineering, first-class honors, Imperial College London
2012-13: Certificate, Chinese language program, Tsinghua University, Beijing
2014-present: CEO and cofounder, Ampd Energy, Hong Kong
2009-11: Equity finance trader, Barclays Capital, UK
2017: Named in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Asia 2017: Industry, Manufacturing & Energy category
2009: Governors’ Prize in Chemical Engineering, Imperial College London
Who are your role models?
My father grew up poor, but through education, a lot of hard work, perseverance and slogging it out for very, very long hours when I was a kid, he was able to build the (accountancy and advisory firm) Deloitte office in Brunei. He is my role model from the standpoint of education, hard work, perseverance and not quitting even when the world tells you to quit.
My business role model is Bill Gates. There’s no question that Microsoft transformed computing as we know it today. He’s gone on to the second chapter of his life with what he’s doing with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He’s transforming billions of lives globally across medicine, education and women’s rights.
How do you relax and unwind?
I spend a lot of time reading patents, what other people are inventing, watching YouTube videos of engineering topics and trying to understand the energy sector.