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[Korean Startup Interview] TCMS : Boosting EV Battery Separator Safety with Innovative Technology, Eyeing for Global Expansion

2024-04-09 7 min read


[Korean Startup Interview] TCMS : Boosting EV Battery Separator Safety with Innovative Technology, Eyeing for Global Expansion

Reading Time: 7 minutes
  • funding Stage : Series C 
  • Raising Amount : KRW 30B
  • Desired Fundraising Timeframe : 3~4Q 2024

As electric vehicles become increasingly popular, many people are purchasing them. However, concerns about the potential for electric vehicle fires persist. Such fires can have several causes, but a primary one involves the battery’s internal temperature rising. This increase in temperature can cause the separator—designed to prevent a short circuit between the cathode and anode—to melt, leading to a short circuit. This, in turn, raises the internal temperature further and can eventually result in a fire.

Consequently, battery manufacturers place a great emphasis on the separator’s quality. An ideal separator would be thin yet durable, thermally resistant, and porous enough to facilitate better lithium-ion movement, thus exhibiting high ionic conductivity. However, traditional separators, made from general-purpose plastics like polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP), are thermally weak and thus susceptible to melting, presenting a significant fire risk.

In response to this challenge, there has been continuous evolution in materials, with super engineering plastics like Polyimide (PI) offering a substantial part of the solution. TCMS, a Korean company based in the Daegu-Gyeongbuk region, specializes in producing core equipment known as “stretching clips.” These clips produce strong separators by thinning and broadly stretching polyimide materials.

Shin Taeyong, CEO of TCMS, transitioned from engineering at his father’s textile company to founding TCMS. Observing the decline of the textile industry, he left to explore new opportunities, eventually recognizing the potential in applying new materials to battery separator technology. TCMS was born from this vision, focusing on polyimide materials and a novel stretching technology.

The “stretching” process involves extending the raw fiber and film material, which has not fully developed its properties, to rearrange its molecules. This produces stronger fiber and film materials through various processing methods. Typically, stretching is done in either the longitudinal or lateral direction. However, TCMS’s innovation allows for stretching in both directions simultaneously, thanks to its “simultaneous biaxial stretching system” and “stretching clips.” This ability to grip the polyimide material firmly, stretch it thinly in both directions, and introduce porosity is TCMS’s hallmark.

Historically, this type of “stretching” equipment was predominantly imported, especially from Japan. The supply chain’s instability, exacerbated by the 2019 exclusion of Korea from Japan’s whitelist, underscored the need for domestic production of parts and equipment, propelling the establishment of TCMS.

Focused on domesticating the production of parts and equipment with its “stretching clip” technology, TCMS harbors long-term goals to produce separators directly. This would position them as key players in the secondary battery market, aided by support from the Kyungpook National University Technopark’s Startup Leap Package Program.

TCMS, embodying both ambition and technological innovation, has successfully attracted substantial investment. With plans to accelerate their path to success by securing Series C funding in the latter half of this year, it remains to be seen how much TCMS can advance the timeline for achieving a significant breakthrough in Korea’s materials, parts, and equipment industry.

What issue is TCMS addressing?

TCMS is tackling the complex challenges involved in sourcing the parts, equipment, and materials required for producing separators for secondary batteries. Separators, a crucial component among the four core materials of secondary batteries, have positioned Korea at a top-tier level globally in this field. However, a significant underlying issue is that the manufacturing process relies entirely on parts and equipment imported from abroad. Initially, TCMS focused on the domestic production of these vital components. The uncertainty in the supply of crucial parts imported from Japan, exacerbated by the 2019 Korea-Japan whitelist exclusion incident, highlighted the urgent need for the domestic production of separator components and equipment.

A key component in the production of separators is the “stretching clip,” which is used to stretch the separator fabric in the width direction, ensuring its mechanical properties while reducing the film’s thickness. This component is vital for about 50% of the entire separator production process. Given its nature, requiring maintenance annually and replacement every five years, the domestic production of this component was deemed crucial.

Another persistent challenge TCMS is addressing is the risk of fires in secondary batteries, an issue that remains significant. Separators are thin, porous films located between the cathode and anode, playing a vital role in safety by physically separating these components while allowing for ion transfer. Historically, separators have been made from materials such as polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), which only withstand temperatures up to 100 degrees Celsius. Although recent advancements in electric vehicle technology have seen separators made from PE materials coated with ceramic to enhance thermal stability up to 150 degrees Celsius, issues with thermal stability persist.

How does TCMS propose to solve this issue?

In the realm of separator production, customers seek a method that is broader, faster, and more efficient. Our company has successfully developed stretching clips with domestic technology, meeting these needs and offering a solution by providing a next-generation separator system.

Regarding thermal stability in secondary batteries, TCMS intends to tackle the industry’s significant concern—battery fires—by producing separators capable of maintaining thermal stability with a deformation rate of around 1% at temperatures as high as 250 degrees Celsius. This achievement utilizes polyimide (PI) materials alongside TCMS’s unique separator manufacturing technique.

What are TCMS’s competitive and technological advantages over its rivals?

TCMS distinguishes itself in the separator stretching domain with its unique capability to uniformly grip and stretch films as thin as 5 microns, providing a consistent stretching ratio. Our products are tailored for high-speed production, grounded in sophisticated modeling and analysis, which allows us to offer more than a 30% cost benefit over international competitors.

In the realm of thermal stability for secondary batteries, a standout advantage is our ability to swap existing separators with ours in the assembly process without necessitating new equipment or alterations to the current production system. Additionally, our materials inherently possess a thermal stability up to 350 degrees Celsius, negating the need for an extra ceramic coating. Coating the base film often leads to reduced ion conduction efficiency due to the blockage of internal pores, thereby capping the performance of the battery. However, our polyimide separators, requiring no coating, ensure uniform porosity and pore distribution, enhancing secondary battery performance significantly.

What products or services does TCMS provide, and what is their current status?

TCMS is actively supplying its stretching clips not just within the domestic market but across the globe. By 2023, we have successfully installed equipment for four separator lines overseas, which are now operational, with efforts this year focusing on automation and optimization for stable mass production.

The field of thermal stability separators is groundbreaking, lacking existing mass production equipment. TCMS has produced laboratory-level separators and confirmed their potential as next-generation batteries through coin-cell testing. Our initiative to develop equipment for continuous production was chosen in 2022 for the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy‘s project to develop a production line for thermal stability separators. With KRW several billion in support over three years, we are progressing into the third year of this project. Currently, we are manufacturing in film form, aiming to produce separators for pouch-type batteries by the latter half of 2024, and proceed with battery cell testing.

What is the scope of TCMS’s target market, and who are its primary customers?

The global battery equipment market is projected to grow at an annual average rate of 44% from 2021 to 2025, reaching a total value of KRW 51 trillion. With secondary battery separators recognized as a critical component in the North American IRA, TCMS is focusing on the U.S. market. Our strategy involves supplying our core product, the stretching clip, to both separator equipment and manufacturing companies.

Anticipated to satisfy the demand for the entire solid-state battery market, polyimide separators are seen as the future of separators. The market is expected to expand to 2.6 trillion won by 2025 and 9.2 trillion won by 2030, with an estimated compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 29%.

What is TCMS’s business model?

TCMS’s business model is straightforward and focuses on two main streams:

First, we sell stretching clips used in manufacturing new separators. These clips are essential for ensuring the consistent quality and performance of the separators.

Second, given that stretching clips are consumable items requiring annual maintenance and replacement every five years, this guarantees TCMS continuous business opportunities. Additionally, we see significant potential in directly supplying thermally stable separators to battery manufacturers, thereby positioning ourselves as a crucial player in the advanced secondary battery material market.

What achievements has the TCMS team made?

In 2022, we achieved a revenue of KRW 2.9 billion, including 1.8 million dollars from exports. This figure rose in 2023 to KRW 4.6 billion in revenue and 2.68 million dollars in exports. That same year, we also established an MOU with a Chinese agent.

In terms of intellectual property, TCMS has six registered patents in Korea and five pending, alongside five international patent applications. We’ve also registered a design patent.

Our technological excellence has led to selection for several prestigious Korean government projects starting in 2021. We were chosen for the TIPS program in 2021, graduating in 2023, selected for the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy’s material and component technology development project in 2022, and chosen for the Scale-up TIPS and the Startup Leap projects in 2023.

This innovative edge has enabled us to secure multiple rounds of investment: Seed in 2020, Series A in 2021, and Series B in 2023.

What is the TCMS team’s competitive edge?

Our executive team comprises specialists in separator technology. The CEO, Shin Taeyong, holds the patent for the separator stretching clip, our vice president is an expert in separator equipment development, and our technical director is a seasoned specialist in separator production processes. Our competitive advantage is bolstered by skilled employees with over a decade of experience in mass production and technical expertise in separator production and equipment.

Three reasons why TCMS needs to receive investment!

Firstly, since our founding in 2020, we have successfully commercialized the stretching clip, generating a revenue of KRW 4.6 billion in 2023. We are also preparing for the future with the development of high-efficiency stretching equipment and high-thermal resistance separators, utilizing government support for innovative technology development.

Secondly, leveraging our unique ability to develop and manufacture materials, parts, and equipment, we are in discussions with global separator companies for the development of high-productivity technologies. While we are currently recognized for our work with lithium-ion battery separators, our technology also extends to the forthcoming solid-state and lithium metal batteries.

Thirdly, from the beginning, we’ve prepared for an IPO with the mindset of conducting external audits. We aim for a clear exit strategy through an IPO in 2026, currently negotiating with several securities firms to select an underwriter.

[Korean Startup Interview]

스타트업 투자의 숨은 말 '다코스'
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