Making Batteries in Germany

8 min read
11 Jun 2024

Interview with
Dr. Stefan Permien,
CEO at UniverCell

Serendipity can often play an interesting role in a founder’s life. As a passionate and former professional kitsurfer, Stefan chose Kiel, with its beautiful beaches, as the location for his studies back in 2006. He didn’t know back then that the Kiel region was also where he and his cofounder, Marius Strack, would find the perfect site for their battery production with UniverCell. 

“Once we managed to finance the project, finding a place for our production was one of the hardest hurdles to overcome,” he says. For battery production, it’s necessary to find a fully equipped production hall. “You could build your own, but it takes many years to get there.” After searching all over Germany, they found a space in Flintbek, a short 25-minute drive from Kiel. “It was a lucky strike. The place was equipped with all the climate control (especially humidity) that we needed for our battery production.”

Before founding UniverCell, Stefan first came across lithium-ion batteries while doing material synthesis in his inorganic chemistry studies. “There were two applications for my learnings,” he says, “one in medicine and the other in batteries. That’s when I decided to start a PhD in the area.” After his PhD, he joined Custom Cells, a startup company (with just six employees at the time) that was developing energy-storage solutions. In two months, he was promoted from project manager to chief technology officer, and soon Custom Cells had over fifty employees. “I learned a lot,” he says. “The job was very fast and extremely intense. While still in the lithium-ion battery field, we did mostly research and development and building prototypes for automotive original equipment manufacturers. However, not every project moved forward, and I found that a bit sad. Our prototypes and developments never came into the market or made it to mass production.”

Dr. Stefan Permien — Photo by Holger Marten

Young people are interested in starting their own business here, and new startups can receive a lot of support in this region.

At the time, there were no large-scale lithium-ion battery production facilities in Europe or North America, only in Asia. So, he thought, “Why not make it bigger, go into battery production? I wanted to go beyond research and development, but that wasn’t the point with Custom Cells.” That’s when he came up with the idea for UniverCell. 

They didn’t need much to start developing their UniverCell idea. “Marius and I were sitting together on the upper floor of my house, where we had our small office. Everything was new, and we were very excited,” he remembers. But there were also plenty of struggles, including long discussions with banks, angel investors and venture capitalists. “Banks didn’t like our risk assessment, and investors didn’t want to put that much money into it. Financing the project was a lot of work.”

But now, five years after funding, UniverCell mass-produces custom-made electrodes and cells for various customers. Marius and Stefan are pushing the limits of cell production and bringing mass production to Europe. They have a clear vision of a world powered exclusively by innovative, renewable energies, and their vision was ahead of its time: According to market research by Electrical Energy Storage (EES), production capacities for lithium-ion batteries are growing faster in Europe than in any other region of the world. Current forecasts predict Europe’s share in the sector will increase by up to 25% by 2030, and production capacity could achieve between 300 to 400 GWh by 2025. The German market alone will account for more than 170 GWh of production capacity by then (Europe’s current production capacity is around 30 GWh). 

At the moment, UniverCell’s factory in Flintbek is ready to scale up beyond its current 1.5 GWh capacity. “Producing these cells here, you can lower the CO2 footprint, because you reduce the transportation emissions. But it’s difficult to overcome the Asian market; they are fast, and all the established players are there. In Europe, we have to hurry up and move forward.”

I’m always describing Kiel as a region where people come to spend their holidays. This is all you have to imagine.

After ten years in Kiel’s startup ecosystem, Stefan has seen the region grow and expand. “There’s great development in the region,” he says. “A lot is happening. People are excited about founding a company here in Kiel. There are amazing events like the Waterkant Festival, more workspace alternatives for startups, and we have the universities too. Young people are interested in starting their own business here, and new startups can receive a lot of support in this region.” 

But in terms of startup investments, the region is still overlooked compared to the more established German ecosystems in Hamburg, Berlin and Munich. “That is the small drawback of being in Schleswig-Holstein,” he says. In 2018, the state’s gross domestic product (GDP) was €62.7 billion, which is 1.9% of German economic output. Its GDP per capita adjusted for purchasing power was €30,400, the lowest of all Germany’s states. “The Northern states don’t have a lot of money or funding for special projects, so you have to look for funding programs from the European Union, or nationwide alternatives.” 

However, that doesn’t mean that the region can’t offer some interesting perks for startups. “There are a lot of shared offices,” he says, “which is really nice because you can expand your network quite naturally and connect to other companies in an easy and fast way; for example, if you need flyers for your marketing. Coming from a technology-research background, I can say that there are university programs where you can combine your PhD’s research and commercialize your work via founding a startup. These combinations can offer very capital-efficient methods to grow a new enterprise. There are also ways to found a company directly after university. This connection to the universities, to education in general, makes the region quite successful and is important for every technology startup.” 

The connection between scientific research and entrepreneurship is one of the highest points of founding a company in Kiel, but it’s not the only one. “Before the pandemic, everyone wanted to move to the big cities,” says Stefan. “Now, the mindset has shifted, and more people are interested in living better, more comfortably, in smaller cities. If you find a very big and bustling city attractive, you might not be the ideal candidate for Kiel.” 

Dr. Stefan Permien — Photo by Jan Konitzki

This leads us to the easiest part about being a founder in Kiel: “The employees, definitely,” he says. “We have three universities in the city, and hiring young people is particularly easy. New people are coming here all the time. When people are happy, in a startup or in a city, they tell their family, their friends.” And this is how UniverCell found many of their team. “The best employees we have came to us via word-of-mouth, from hearing that UniverCell is a nice company to work for and that it develops interesting products for future technology. People are interested and come to us naturally.” 

For young founders preparing to start their own businesses, Stefan’s advice is to plan carefully. “While you still have a full-time job, do your planning well. Look at the offers that your region is making. It took me years to hear about some of the opportunities we could have used at the beginning of UniverCell. They would have been the perfect fit two years ago, but now it’s too late. So get all the possible information as early as possible, and you’ll have a solid foundation for when you actually jump into your startup full-time.” 

The most valuable lesson he has learned so far is to stay relaxed, even through tough moments. “Keep calm if things are not happening the way you thought. There are so many surprises in the life of a founder, good and bad ones. It helps if you stay relaxed and focused on the objectives instead of being anxious about all the bumps along the journey.” 

The advice to stay calm and focused is easier to follow for founders who live in a beautiful coastal city. “For me, coming from the Northern German area, Kiel has always been my favorite city. If I had to move away, it would be hard. But if I had to choose between no startup or having a startup somewhere else, I would have to go for the startup, given our vision. It would be sad though.” One of the big draws is that Kiel offers a perfect environment to balance of work and play. “Kitesurfing is my passion, so when I have free time, I go to the beach, hoping the weather is good, and do a little bit of kitesurfing. I’m the founder of a company, so I obviously work a lot, but when I’m not working, there’s so much to explore. The beach and the sea are nearby, so I don’t have to drive for hours just to relax by the ocean. For me, that makes it the perfect region.”

[Flash Q & A]

What’s your favorite book?
It’s about batteries and called Advances in Lithium-Ion Batteries [laughs].

Favorite podcast?
It changes, but I like Kassenzone. I had the honor of being featured, too.

What’s your favorite place to go for deep work or creative thinking?
My shower. I have the best ideas in the shower.

‍[City Recommendations]

Restaurant recommendation:
Indian food at Haveli. It’s very nice.

Coffee shop recommendation:
During my studies, I was always at the Campus Suite. It was very cheap when I was younger.

Favorite thing to do on the weekend:
Go to the beach for some kitesurfing.

Local food that a newcomer has to try:
Taste some local Baltic Sea fish.

One thing everyone needs to get when arriving in the Kiel Region:
A bike. You can travel everywhere in Kiel by bike.