Selling the power of sustainability

Six years ago, with the rise of battery-powered vehicles, Ajay Kochhar (ChemE 1T3) and Tim Johnston recognized that the world had a new environmental challenge. Specifically, what happens to the batteries when they’re no longer useful? It is estimated that more than 15 million tons of lithium-ion batteries – popular for vehicles, consumer electronics, and stationary energy storage – will reach the end of their useful lives by 2030!

With a goal to recycle lithium-ion batteries at a global scale, Li-Cycle officially launched in November 2016. The startup co-founded by Kochhar (President and CEO) and Johnston (Executive Chair) went straight into action equipped with a proprietary and validated process to improve the recycling process. Today, their technology recovers up to 95% of the critical materials found within spent lithium-ion batteries. Additionally, Li-Cycle has expanded from one facility in Kingston, Ontario to presence in the United States, Europe, and Asia Pacific. Since its inception, Li-Cycle has raised $1 billion USD to fund its build-out.

Kochhar’s experience in the University of Toronto’s Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry (ChemE) had a profound influence on him. “U of T embedded the core concepts of sustainability in my approach to business and life,” he says. “It rooted my ideas about sustainability in practicality.”

ChemE provided Kochhar a chance to work with people who had experience developing sustainable solutions, as well as help him understand the vital link between sustainability and industry, a link that is evident when he talks about sustainability.

“Sustainability means leaving a positive world for future generations to live in. Environmental, societal, and economic vitality are all important,” explains Kochhar. That makes working toward sustainability complex. It means ensuring that natural resources are replenished and that waste is reduced; it means ensuring that everyone has access to basic rights and necessities; and it means making sure those goals work within the current financial context. One of the major challenges is convincing business owners that environmentally sustainable options are also economically sustainable. “Businesses often associate ‘green’ practices with increased costs,” says Kochhar who notes that sustainable technology needs to be developed in a way that is marketable, and that companies need to work to convince businesses and consumers to change their habits.

Kochhar recalls that when he and Johnston began looking for investors, they quickly learned that they needed to refine their pitch. “One of the early discussions was with a contact from an investment group who had ample feedback. Our printed investor presentation was full of redline markups. We reorganized and eliminated pages after the meeting.”

The pair learned how to simplify their message in a way that was appealing to investors and potential partners. “This can be a challenge for complex topics like sustainable chemistry, but is extremely important to get traction. It turned out to be a really pivotal moment for us.”

As President and CEO, Kochhar is responsible for strategic oversight of Li-Cycle’s various functional business units, which includes Commercial, Technical (Health, Safety, Environment and Quality/HSEQ, Operations, Commercialization, Research and Development), and Shared Services. Additionally, Kochhar supports the development of international growth initiatives for the company in collaboration with Li-Cycle’s Corporate Development team.