As college students in Brabant, they won the Solar Challenge with the Stella, a solar-powered family car. This led to Lightyear. The challenge: successfully sell this car to the public! The information presented in Brabant Brand Box is offered free-of-charge for positive stories about Brabant.
One of the most innovative start-ups in the Netherlands has its office at the Automotive Campus (Helmond). The name is Lightyear. Post-its on the walls, desks covered with schematics and drawings. About thirty young people are putting the finishing touches to the consumer version of the world’s first family car to run entirely on solar power. ‘The One’ will be ready for sale at the end of 2019. The car is clad with solar cells from front to back. The company predicts that The One will have a huge impact on environmental conservation.
The founders of Lightyear have known each other for several years. When they were still students at Eindhoven University of Technology, they competed in the Solar Challenge in Australia as one of the university teams. Co-founder Martijn Lammers: “The Solar Challenge is the equivalent of Formula 1 for solar-powered cars. This race was organised for the first time in 2013, and we returned home as world champions at our first attempt.” Dutch engineers have earned global respect for their advanced solar car designs for many years and also won several long-distance races. The students from Eindhoven attracted attention because their car, the Stella, bridged the gap between blue-sky engineering and practical use in everyday life.
Lammers: “You can drive 800 km with a fully charged battery. When there is enough sun, the Stella is not only energy neutral, but actually energy positive: it produces more electricity than it consumes. It is a spacious, comfortable car that can accommodate four people.” And the latter feature is perhaps the most important for Lammers. “We wanted to show people that it really is possible: building a car that can drive anywhere in the world with nothing more than the sun as its power source, and which is also perfectly practical at the same time. The Stella has been approved by the RDW, the Dutch vehicle and driver licensing authority that decides whether or not vehicles are admitted to the market. So everybody will have to accept that solar-powered cars are no longer science fiction.”
After their victory, the students travelled all over the world to present the Stella. Lammers remembers how the Chinese immediately understood its potential impact. “Air pollution is a major problem for the people living in large Chinese cities. Because most city-dwellers in China live in skyscrapers, a concept based on charging stations is not practical. So our self-charging car is of real interest to them.”
The worldwide journey to present the Stella was funded by companies like NXP. “NXP makes several automotive products so we were a good showcase for them.” Everybody asked us whether the car was for sale. ‘No, it isn’t’ was the answer that Lammers and his friends were forced to give. Much to their frustration.
In 2015, the lads came together for a discussion. “We knew that we had something good, but we wanted more. Not just to inspire others, but also to have a real impact on the car industry and positively influence the environment”, says Martijn Lammers. An innovative, sustainable concept that works well, a world championship, interest from all over the world ...... What could possibly stand in the way of success? Even so, the future of the solar-powered car is anything but guaranteed. “The car industry was not interested in our concept. Self-imposed conventions meant that companies were reticent, just as they were in respect of electric cars and the charging infrastructure.” A great pity, even though Lammers can understand that caution. “Designing from zero is a leap into the unknown. And you have to be prepared to invest.”
The team members all wanted to innovate without restrictions, so they decided to start their own company. “Because we really can add value with this product.” The name was soon chosen. Lammers: “The distance we all cover on fossil fuels each year is equivalent to about 9,500,000,000,000 kilometres. That is one light year.”
Lightyear started in 2016: five designers at the kitchen table, some of whom had just left college. The company expanded quickly. “There were already ten of us by the summer of 2017. That was when we relocated to the Automotive Campus in Helmond. We have all the facilities we need for designing a car here. For example, a crash wall and an environmental test chamber.” Lightyear has refined the Solar Challenge design in order to make the transition to a commercial product.
The workforce has tripled now. But finding good employees is not easy, says Lammers. “Our biggest challenge is building the company itself. Marketing, sales, accounting – we have no experience in those areas. It’s difficult to attract talent; people are afraid of changing jobs or feel that the company is too young.” What Martijn Lammers calls ‘the ecosystem of companies in Eindhoven’ is a major plus point in that respect. “We know our way around Eindhoven, and have a good network. There is a great deal of expertise here, both in the region and at the University. As a result, we know enough people who are prepared to help on a voluntary basis.”
In addition to business expertise, Lightyear mainly needs money to ensure that the first cars roll off the production line at the end of 2019. The network is also helpful in that area says Lammers. “We have a group of investors who support us and believe in us personally. They are aware of our track record. We are well on the way to achieving our goals and producing a volume of one thousand cars a year in the medium term.” In the meantime, Martijn continues to look for investors and travels all over Europe on his quest for funding. By train. For now.
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