Wednesday, Sep. 24, 2008

Shai Agassi

Shai Agassi is part scientist, part visionary, with a lot of salesman thrown in. And he thinks big. By 2011, the Israeli-born entrepreneur wants to have 5,000 electric cars on the nation's roads; by 2015, he says, "I predict no more gasoline cars will be sold in Israel." Agassi envisions drivers plugging in their cars at night to recharge them with cheap electricity, topping up the battery while parked at work, then driving home with enough power left for a trip to the beach. For journeys beyond the 120-mile (190 km) range of the electric car, there will be filling stations where depleted batteries are replaced free of charge.

Right now, all Agassi has is loads of chutzpah, a prototype electric car made in collaboration with Renault, and a futuristic plan. Calm, athletic and self-possessed, Agassi, 40, is like his car: he goes from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in 8 seconds flat as he starts talking about "his mission." Says Agassi: "We're not trying to build a cool car, but to end the dependence on oil."

Several years ago, a speech of his caught the attention of Israeli President Shimon Peres, who later called to say: "You spoke so beautifully, you have to make this a reality." The opportunity came when Agassi, then a wunderkind at software giant SAP, was passed over for the top job. He quit, and in May 2007 launched Project Better Place, his electric-car start-up. Thanks to his connections and reputation, Better Place got backing from Renault and a promise from Israeli authorities to grant tax breaks to buyers of electric cars. He also secured $200 million in funding from Morgan Stanley, venture capital firms and Israeli industrialist Idan Ofer, who owns the country's biggest oil refinery. Their bet is that if Agassi's plan works in Israel, it can also be applied in other markets such as U.S. and Chinese cities.

Agassi sees Israel as the perfect testing ground for a network of electric cars. It's the right size — 150 filling stations will cover the country — it has closed borders, and there is an added incentive: some of the world's top oil producers are unfriendly to Israel. One of Agassi's innovations is to charge users not for the car or battery, but for the electricity they consume, much as cell-phone companies profit from how much customers talk. At current prices, electric cars will be 20% cheaper to run than gasoline engines, Agassi says, and will produce zero carbon emissions. "We environmentalists made a mistake," he says. "We ask people to pay more to be green, and we should ask them to pay less." If he can pull that off, Israel could be the first nation to junk its gas-guzzling cars altogether.