For Desmond Wiggan and Aubrey Yeboah, co-founders of Charlotte-based tech startup BatteryXchange, a recent partnership with Winston-Salem State University was a full-circle moment.
The entrepreneurs and fraternity brothers are graduates from the historically Black university, and in August, inked a deal that brings their portable battery rental platform to the WSSU campus just in time for the start of the academic year.
“That’s always been my dream to find a way to give back to the place where I gained my education from,” said Yeboah, who earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing in 2012.
WSSU will house five of BatteryXchange’s kiosks featuring two of its largest models. The latest model, Apollo, debuted in January and includes a 43-inch digital screen and 48 portable batteries. The slim tower kiosk, Hercules, comes equipped with a 24-inch digital screen and 24 portable batteries. Users download the mobile app and log in to locate a nearby kiosk. Then, scan the QR code to unlock one of the portable chargers and charge the device. Once charged, return the battery to available kiosks.
Black Business Matters
Haley Gingles, chief marketing officer at WSSU, believes the technology will be helpful to students, especially as campuses navigate a new school year with heightened safety precautions due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Along with offering portable batteries, the university can push customized content to the kiosk screens for students to see, from health alerts to upcoming events and other campus information.
“We were excited to be able to do this for our students because we believe in the product,” Gingles said of the young company.
Winston-Salem State University got its first introduction to BatteryXchange during Homecoming Week in 2019. The team hosted a soft launch on campus to share their entrepreneurship story and find student ambassadors.
“We decided to focus on showing students that looked like us and came from the communities we came from that they too could travel around the world, and with hard work, could build or create amazing innovation,” Wiggan, 31, said.
He continued, “We hadn’t even built our mobile app yet. We hadn’t even built these new kiosk machines yet.”
Also in the audience that day, WSSU Chancellor Elwood Robinson. In a recent interview with the BatteryXchange team on his “Future Focus Now” web series, Robinson pulled out a paper with Wiggan’s and Yeboah’s name written on it from that event, recalling how impressed he was by the young entrepreneurs.
Stranded without a way home
In the early days of BatteryXchange, the entrepreneurs didn’t know where the journey would lead. Yeboah, who doubles as chief marketing officer for the startup, says they had a dream and a vision “but there was just so much ambiguity.”
A moment of fear was a blessing in disguise that led the duo to launch BatteryXchange in 2018. During a night out in China, where Wiggan and Yeboah were completing part of their MBA in international business, they realized their cell phone batteries had died.
Phone chargers weren’t just laying around, so imagine being in a foreign country, barely speaking the native language and without a pipeline to get in touch with friends and family. That’s the situation the classmates were facing.
“I couldn’t call my family. I couldn’t call [China’s equivalent of Uber] to get home,” Yeboah, 31, explained. “That fear is there, and you want to be able to stay connected.”
It took hours before they found someone who spoke English and could borrow a phone to figure out the transit route to return home. A light bulb went off because of that experience. They could develop a more convenient way to charge portable devices on the go. And here they were, temporarily living in the “world’s manufacturing superpower” — China accounted for 28.7% of global manufacturing output in 2019, Statista reported.
“We ended up seeing a concept that worked over there,” Wiggan, CEO of BatteryXchange, told us back in 2019.
They started building relationships, including connections with people to fill in the missing experience of manufacturing the hardware and building out the software for a mobile app. A friend referred them to a Chinese manufacturer, where they visited the plant and met the team. Yeboah called them the perfect partners to help move BatteryXchange forward and bring the service to America.
Maneuvering around funding challenges
Black-led startups based in the U.S. received nearly $1.8 billion in venture capital funding through the first half of 2021, according to Crunchbase News. Though the amount represents only 1.2% of the $147 billion invested in startups during the same period, Crunchbase reports the uptick in funding tops the $1 billion Black founders received in all of 2020.
The average level of startup capital for Black entrepreneurs is just $35,205, according to Fundera. Recognizing the challenge of raising capital, the BatteryXchange team went the crowdfunding route with a goal of raising $86,000.
Wiggan, who also serves on NC IDEA’s Black Entrepreneurship Council, says he sees more doors opening for Black founders but, regardless of the accolades, investors “are not jumping out of the gate handing out checks.” When it comes to the Charlotte region, Wiggan says BatteryXchange has seen a lot more success outside of North Carolina with attracting investors.
“There weren’t real dollars going into the community supporting Black entrepreneurs,” he said before adding that initiatives like the Black Entrepreneurship Council and incubators like City Startup Labs are moving the needle in the right direction.
His co-founder, Yeboah, said support from friends and family was integral to meeting fundraising milestones.
“We needed our friends and family to be a part of it; they saw the vision. People were so surprised we were able to raise $125,000 from friends and family,” he said. “From there, we were able to build out our mobile application and get kiosk machines manufactured and shipped to us so that we can product test them at different locations right before Covid hit.”
As was the case for most small businesses, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic was a turning point for BatteryXchange. They relied heavily on the event industry to engage consumers, and when the pandemic halted events, it was time to go back to the drawing board.
“Prior to Covid, we were charging people who had the app to pay for the rental of the battery — $3, $5, $10 an hour, just testing to see where that sweet spot was for people,” Yeboah explained during a phone call from his home in Washington, D.C. “Then Covid hit, and we were like, ‘What do we do?’ We were so focused on customers, we neglected the businesses, and businesses were looking for ways to come out of Covid.”
The team of eight core members spent 2020 planning, manufacturing and building out a strategy on how to attract businesses. They became certified as a historically underutilized business (HUB) and pivoted their business model from B2C to B2B where businesses lease the kiosk machines through an annual subscription with the capability to run ads on the digital screens.
Yeboah says BatteryXchange now offers three subscription options:
- $79/month for one of their small kiosks that dispenses eight portable batteries. Those are ideal for bars, restaurants, coffee shops, etc.
- Hercules, the 24-slot kiosk with the digital screen, is $149/month and works for festivals, hospitals, community colleges and similar.
- Apollo is $199/month for the kiosks equipped with digital screens and 48 portable batteries. That model works best for large venues such as airports, stadiums and convention centers.
“We’re looking to also use our advertising platform to do revenue share,” he said. “Businesses may want to advertise on our kiosk, and that revenue can be split between BatteryXchange and the partnering business.”
To keep momentum, they participated in several accelerator programs, such as HBCUvc, and piloted a partner initiative with Howard University Hospital. In 2021, BatteryXchange has won funding from several grants and pitch competitions to continue making traction in the fintech industry. There was the $50,000 seed grant from NC IDEA, $7,300 in Black Men Ventures’ inaugural Black Founders pitch competition, an undisclosed investment from Charlotte-based Defiance Ventures and $45,000 through Mountain Dew’s Real Change Opportunity Fund pitch competition.
The Mountain Dew competition — part of parent company PepsiCo’s five-year, $400 million plan to fund several initiatives centered around racial justice and equality — opened the door to BatteryXchange’s partnership with Winston-Salem State University. As a Top 5 finalist, the founders’ HBCUs received a matching gift.
“We were so excited about our alum doing this that we wanted to see how we could partner here at the university and make them officially a part of our business model,” Gingles, the university’s CMO, said.
Grooming the next generation
Giving back to the next generation of technologists is also high on the priority list for Wiggan and Yeboah. They’re in talks with WSSU leadership to institute an internship program to provide STEM majors with college credits and the real-world experience of working in a fast-paced technology environment.
As first generation Americans — Wiggan’s family is from Jamaica; Yeboah’s family is from Ghana — they plan to take their knowledge and expertise back to their native lands.
Yeboah, who spent over a month in Ghana from Christmas 2019 through the end of January in 2020, shared that once BatteryXchange hits a few more goals, he plans to return to Africa and create hub technologies.
“We come from third-world countries where the things that we take for granted here, they will love to have — like us being a part of an accelerator program or able to crowdfund,” he said. “We want to create hubs like WeWork where people can come in after school and learn about technology or build something on their own because they should be able to fulfill their dreams.”
In the meantime, they’re keeping their eyes on the prize through the rest of 2021. With products in the market and user data, Wiggan and Yeboah are focused on securing funding from venture capitalists and angel funds. Currently, they’re seeking to raise $500,000 by the end of the year to manufacture additional kiosks. That will assist their aspirational goal of landing at least 100 kiosks in North Carolina with the feature to pick up a battery at one location and drop it off at another for added convenience. Also on the list is scaling BatteryXchange to include more universities, arenas and other larger venues.
“We now have a pipeline, a few different universities that are interested in bringing in our product, so it’s really just growing in that space,” Wiggan said. “We’ve gotten the bar and restaurant space to where we’re experiencing 45-50% growth month over month, so that’s consistent.”
On the hardware side, the team is figuring out how to create wireless chargers and solar power kiosks.
“We’re just always thinking of ways to be innovative,” Yeboah said.
Wrapping up the conversation, he put it like this:
”When Uber came out, people were so afraid to pivot into having a random person pick you up and take you to your destination. Now, it’s an afterthought. We’re looking to do the same thing. We don’t want individuals to think ‘Oh, I don’t have my charger or cable to stay connected, so I have to go home.’ With our product, we’re like, ‘If I forget it, I can easily download BatteryXchange, find a kiosk, charge my phone and be good to go.”