Adrian: As a number of electric vehicles grows in New Zealand, the need for greater charging availability is also in increasing. In this episode of EV Quest podcast, I’m talking with Stephanie Smits O’Callaghan, Co-founder of Hikotron. Hikotron is a Hamilton based company focused on providing smart electrical charging solutions that are designed and built in New Zealand.
Adrian: Hello, Stephanie.
Stephanie: Hi. Thanks for having me. Great, great, great, great to have you here.
Adrian: I guess maybe just start off, what made you want to start the business? And in Hamilton?
Stephanie: Yes. That’s a very good question because I think you’ll tell straight away from my accident. I’m not actually from New Zealand originally.
Stephanie: I’m from the UK, but I have married a Kiwi, so that’s why I’m here. But I guess the story goes back to when we first started driving electric vehicles. That was actually in, London, in the UK. And we sort of experienced that EV adoption wave over there. Myself and my husband, who’s also a co-founder of Hikotron
Stephanie: and when we came to New Zealand it was a little bit like stepping back in time. Not to sort of hint anything there, but it was sort of an opportunity that we saw a real gap in the market here in the EV charging space, specifically in destination charging as we call it. So charging why your car is parked.
Stephanie: And so we went about sort of investigating what it would take for us to sort of set up a business. I’ve probably always underestimated when you start a start-up how much work goes into it. But yeah, as I said, we saw that gap in the market and we, yeah, started this company in 2020 basically.
Adrian: I’ve seen a lot of your work already out there in media. For example, the council.
Stephanie: So I guess since 2020, again, a bit of a journey to get to for our first council contract, but the journey sort of started when we got here was to sort of go about finding a provider that could supply us with an EV charger that actually didn’t work.
Stephanie: We spoke to a lot of providers and. We found very quickly out that we wanted to supply something that was very different to what was on the market. So true Kiwi fashion. My husband was like, well, we, we’ve gotta build it ourselves. So I guess that sort of took us to Hamilton where, well, we were based in Hamilton anyway, but.
Stephanie: There’s a lot of sort of building and fabricating going on Hamilton. So it was actually a really amazing place to start a business like that. He also was trying to get someone to do all the smarts and the software because with EV chargers, they need to be smart. They need to have all that sort of backend system.
Stephanie: And he said, you know, it can’t be that hard. I think my friend Larry could do it. And so I said, well, why don’t you ask Larry? And so that’s the third co-founder. So between the three of us we sort of design and build the charges in Hamilton and my background’s in town planning and real estate.
Stephanie: And so I was able to sort of set out and find sites speech councils, like you said. To basically say, can we use land to install charges so that we can provide public charging infrastructure? And so I guess between us, we have the full capabilities to design, build, and then also install and manage charges going forward.
Stephanie: So we’re quite an efficient little team. Really. Yeah. How many in the team now? So we have a three co-founders, but we also have a sort of team of partners that we work with. So quite still quite lean, considering we’ve got about a hundred charge points in operation at the moment. So we’re very proud of that achievement.
Stephanie: And so yeah, still quite lean, but so a lot of it is sort of outsourcing. So fabrication is done by Foster engineering, for example, we get our lids made in Tauranga and we assemble everything in Hamilton. Still quite lean. The big bottlenecks are really sort of getting sites agreed and sort of getting new connections with, with EDBs and things like that.
Stephanie: Lines companies. So the bottleneck at the moment isn’t really with production. We still kind of on top of that. And as we grow, we’ll just scale that with outsourcing to sort of large companies, but we are really keen on keeping it in New Zealand. The reason being is, one, it’s all about charger reliability.
Stephanie: When you go into public Charging infrastructure in, I think in Europe and even in New Zealand. Now we’re going away from range anxiety. I think everyone that has an EV. After about two or three weeks, they get over the range anxiety. You know, your EV will make it there, but the next problem is charger anxiety.
Stephanie: So, yeah. Yeah. Will the charger actually work when we get there? And that’s literally what we’re trying to build our business model around us.
Adrian: I’ve heard a few people say that that’s worried about the car now. It’s just they’re worried about the charger they’re driving up to. Exactly. Yeah.
Stephanie: Yeah. And so our key focus is availability and reliability. Yeah.
Adrian: And you’ve got a partnership with, is it with Mercury?
Stephanie: Yes. So Mercury, we’re really keen and interested in what we’re doing. I guess we’re in the business of selling on selling power because we’re sort of installing charging infrastructure and charging users to use the infrastructure.
Stephanie: And so Mercury was yeah, like I said, very interested. So they’re helping us promote. The charging infrastructure, EV sort of information, but also finding new sites and leads like that. So they’re just keen to support a start-up, basically, which is great. Sure. Yeah. That’s good.
Adrian: Was there been any sort of major challenges from, for, for building locally?
Stephanie: I think actually building. We, that was actually an advantage, especially through Covid, all the supply chain problems, things like that. We actually were at an advantage also because we build them all ourselves. We can change suppliers if we needed to. If there was sort of, we’re not getting on with certain suppliers, we could very quickly pivot.
Stephanie: And I guess that’s the beauty of being sort of vertically integrated. You can make those decisions quite quickly. And what is the union? What’s the power and, yep. All the, so we base our system on seven kilowatt at the moment, but we have got a new version coming out, which is gonna be up to 22 kilowatt.
Stephanie: So very much staying within the AC charging space for our units. And that really is perfectly suited for destination charging. So things like workplace destinations, car parks really charging anywhere where you’re gonna be parked anywhere. And that’s the locations we’re targeting. And those sorts of speeds match that perfectly.
Stephanie: So within three to four hours you’ll get sort of a really. Significant charge, basically. Yeah. Are they relatively easy to install? Yeah. That’s another thing is that I think AC Charging’s a lot more easier to install in terms of the cost, but also the power requirements when you compare it to things like fast charging DC Charger, it’s just a whole nother level of cost and complexity when you’re looking at that.
Adrian: And you’re coming to Tauranga as well, was that? Is that right?
Stephanie: Yeah, we are. So we’re just we’re actively looking for sites. We’re speaking to a few landowners. And I guess we’re sort of, yeah, we’ve focused our efforts on the, what we call the golden triangle. So Hamilton, we’ve really sort of expanded there.
Stephanie: We’ve got a few sites in in Auckland, and yeah, Tauranga is our next focus as well, which is quite good.
Adrian: And which kind of takes us onto another reason you’re in Tauranga, is the Shift Hub yes. Which is a partnership with several players. I’ve got a couple Priority One,
Adrian: UBCO Locky Dock Farmer Autovillage. Go-to Car share, and yourselves. What is the Shift Hub? What’s your involvement with that?
Stephanie: Yeah, it’s a very exciting project. Sort of all coordinated by priority one. They had this real vision to basically showcase two businesses options for improving your sustainability within your business today.
Stephanie: Basically, what can we do today that can really nail it. And I think the Shift Hub was a specific focus on the commute, I think. Targa, there is a lot of sort of congestion, there’s a lot of sort of, there’s definitely congestion Yeah. And dirty vehicles to support that. Obviously And orange cone. Yeah, exactly.
Stephanie: A lot of, lot of infrastructure going in. Obviously EVs don’t help with congestion, but if you’re gonna have to use a car, we sort of want to promote that you’re using a clean, clean vehicle as well. And as part of that comes EV charging. And I think a lot of the time when we talk about EVs, there’s a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
Stephanie: And I think having. A place where you can go experience solutions, be it car share, be it EV charging EVs, electric bikes, scooters. Really kind of alleviates that sort of anxiety if you can go and test them, speak to people on the ground. And these are some solutions that we can implement today.
Stephanie: You know, these aren’t just future. They’ve all been going a while. Exactly. Yeah. Did you get gain any insights yourself from Yeah. So it’s gonna be running for a whole month so businesses can Yeah. Book in to have a, have a go on all these sort of solutions. And yeah, the insights being is that I think there is a real hunger for change.
Stephanie: But again, like I said, there’s that uncertainty, so, I think the more businesses can do about, you know, getting more information about the options, the better really. So it really gives them that opportunity. It’s brilliant.
Adrian: What questions do you get from businesses who are looking at, what’s the sort of the main questions you get?
Stephanie: Yeah, so EV charging is kind of one what product to install. There’s a lot of different types of charger. You can have quite simple chargers, but then, you know, there’s also smart chargers that can do things like load management. So there’s very much sort of that uncertainty about what, what to go for, but also you know, how do we get them installed.
Stephanie: Where’s the best place to put them in a car park. You know, you don’t want to be running cables from one end to the other if you don’t need to. So having that sort of guidance and expertise on where’s the best puts them is really, really important. So those are the most common questions, I’d say.
Adrian: Traffic is a problem in this town. It, it is.
Stephanie: But I think there’s definitely things we can do. And even if it’s not an everyday solution, even if you do it one or once or twice a week you know, people should just do, do something small. Yes. It all adds up. Yeah.
Adrian: And could you maybe talk about destination charging more?
Stephanie: Destination charging is really our big push. I think we’re quite lucky in New Zealand in the sense that we can look to other markets, more developed markets and see, you know, what’s going on there and what’s sort of, you know, that’s almost like a crystal ball into what property is gonna be coming to New Zealand.
Stephanie: And what we see over there is a lot of sort of fast charging hubs. So big, almost like petrol station charging hubs in terms of fast charging. And then everywhere and everywhere is dotted sort of destination charging that is charging while your car is parked. I guess the problem with fast charging is that it’s never gonna be that fast.
Stephanie: It’s never gonna be like a five minute petrol fill up model. I think if we look to the future, The far, the always faster charger is not gonna happen. So we are always gonna have to deal with that 20 minute fill up. And 20 minutes isn’t actually that convenient. It’s, you know, not a lot of people could have that time.
Stephanie: So if we can charge while we’re doing other things, that’s actually way faster. Cause I never have to wait then. So that’s the real motto we’re pushing is A, B, C always be charging. Always be charging. And the, your other question was the vehicle to v vehicle to VTH. VTG. Yeah, so vehicle to grid which is where we can use our cars to basically support the grid.
Stephanie: I think there’s, that’s probably a little longer way off because there’s a lot of things that need to line up for that to happen. So cars need to be abled. Chargers, but also the grids need to be able to sort of handle that. We can’t just be sending powered back into the grid if they’re not ready for it.
Stephanie: And then also, so, but then I think vehicle to home is way more exciting and almost something that could be implemented a lot sooner. And that is when we use our EVs to basically supplement peak times of in our home or, or any time, any type of sort of energy required in the home. So, For example, you could come home with your EV it might be sort of pretty full and you could almost supplement your home cooking or heating in that peak time where energy’s very expensive with any, using a small portion of your battery and then that can recharge overnight.
Stephanie: So I think that’s really exciting. I think when we look at EVs, it does open up that sort of possibility for all these new technologies. And there’s some exciting stuff on the way,
Adrian: What’s happening in the UK then?
Stephanie: I think at the moment there’s just been absolute massive push with getting charges in the ground. And real sort of big infrastructure with hubs and, and hubs attached to sort of meeting places as well. Cause I think a lot of the time where there is a petrol station might not be the perfect location for an EV charging hub.
Stephanie: Because there just needs to be a little bit more to do. There needs to be more space to charge a lot more cars at the same time cause it is gonna be around about that 20 minute stop over. Are they sort of all on board over there or is it true resistance? You always got the two, two sides, I think you can say all on board, but I’m trying to stop that.
Stephanie: It is a little bit different driving an EV to a petrol vehicle. You know, you don’t have to go fill up at the petrol for court. You can do it in a lot of other places at home, at work. And that takes a bit of a habit change.
Stephanie: Mini Yes. How’s that? BMW Mini. Yeah, I love it. I actually started off my EV journey. Well, my husband has a Tesla model S. That was our first vehicle we got in 2017. And That’s great. You know, it’s a sedan. But that was very much his car. And when I was living in London, I didn’t really have to drive that much.
Stephanie: There’s a lot of public transport. It wasn’t, he was the one that was commuting with the vehicle. So, although I sort of drove the Tesla, I didn’t really sort of experience the charging infrastructure and things about as much as him, and I probably wasn’t as sort of savvy with all the terminology. Came to New Zealand and got a Nissan Leaf, which is, Probably one of the most popular vehicles here.
Stephanie: Loved it. But yeah, my very quickly saw that the mini electric was available. And you know, being from the UK I’ve got my mom’s German, I was like, this is the car for me. So yeah, it’s much, much different driving experience. It’s really got that BMW feel. I think I was saying to you earlier, I think the specs are a bit similar to the John Cooper works.
Stephanie: It’s really nippy. Really sticks to the ground. It’s great on those New Zealand curvy roads, head corners. So yeah, no, I love it. That’s good.
Adrian: Is it practical?
Stephanie: Is it practical? So I think if I was comparing it to like, say the model three, I think it’s a bit more practical because you’ve got the hatchback.
Stephanie: So I can get quite a lot in the boot with all the sort of chairs folded down. Everything. It’s, it’s, it’s okay. In terms of carrying people, probably not so much cause I’ve got the, the two doors for access. But yeah, I still love it. And it’s, it’s pretty capable, pretty efficient.
Stephanie: I think this, this sort of kilometre racy on the dial is a little bit too conservative. It always says it’s way under, but I’ve pushed it and it, it does. It does stay quite efficiency.
Adrian: So today you’ve driven from Hamilton to here?
Stephanie: Yep. And I’ve topped up in between while I was at another meeting. Just, just to be sure to get back cuz I think Yeah, I probably wouldn’t quite make it back.
Stephanie: Our app is very simple. You can download it you sort of sign up a bit like an Uber or Lime scooter app with an email address or password, and then it’s a credit based system, so you top up with some credit on the app and then you can pay for your charging sessions.
Stephanie: Just through the app basically. And, and that’s really important because you don’t wanna have to have a dongle or, or have to pre-sign up to use the infrastructure. You wanna be able to sign up there and then, so no dongles, no nothing, no. Just the app for now.
Stephanie: You know, those things are sort of within our capability to change. So yeah. Is it getting more competitive in the. In that EV charger. Yeah, there’s always competition, but I think because we’re vertically integrated and we build everything ourselves we have that capability to really pivot and change what we do.
Stephanie: And like I was saying to you earlier, availability and reliability is gonna really be the sort of turning point for customers in the future. Just because I would travel a little bit further if I knew I could go to a charger that was reliable and always available. So, so that’s really what’s gonna turn people’s heads when we in charging infrastructure and people will rely on the ones that are working.
Adrian: Is there anything else you wanted to cover off?
Stephanie: I guess yeah, maybe just talking a little bit about our other side of the business. So not only, so we do install EV charging infrastructure, so that’s the public charging network, so anyone can turn up and use those charges.
Stephanie: We also have another side of the business that’s our lease model, so that’s where we sort of help fleet and commercial charging. So if you want full control over the charger, you might also want to, you know, for fleet charging might be. Offering free, free power to your fleet, then we can install the charges on a fee for a monthly fee, basically.
Stephanie: We act as your EV charging partner. So we do two sides. So we lease the charging infrastructure and we also install public charges as part of the network.
Stephanie: So we offer that basically just the charger, the installation does have to be covered by the landowner, because that’s just cabling and wires that stays with the property.
Adrian: And may we just finish on maybe one tip for the potential car EV buyer or business about charging? What’s one the most important thing?
Stephanie: Yeah, I’ve got a bit a good top tip. So once you get your EV or even before I would. Take time to try out charging infrastructure when you’re not in a panic or not under pressure.
Stephanie: So do it. Do it on a Sunday afternoon where you’ve got ample time, you’ve got ample charge in your battery, you’re not stressed and go have a play. You know, sign up to the apps. Get them working. Get them, you know, get them, get yourself charging. In no pressure because it’s, it’s the worst thing if you’re under pressure, you’re literally on, nearly on like 1% and you’re trying to get these things going and it’s just so much stress.
Adrian: Okay, Stephanie, thank you for your time. That was great. Thank you so much for having me.