By Sigurd Neubauer
He is an adventurer and explorer. Together with his wife, Sophie Darsy, Ryan Ellison has sailed about 30000 nautical miles to over 15 countries. In 2016, they started out by venturing into the Baltic Sea from Stockholm, Sweden. They have since sailed around Western Europe; in the Mediterranean; the Caribbean; and across the Atlantic Ocean three times.
Ellison is also an entrepreneur and co-founder of Clean Republic which is the holding company of Dakota Lithium. While Dakota Lithium specializes in customized energy solutions, it seeks to establish a manufacturing base in the U.S. as the company courts investors.
Together with his wife, – along with their puppy, Barnacle, – they live an unconventional lifestyle. From aboard their sailboat, Polar Seal, he serves the Director of Business Development and Chairman of the Board of a company with 52 employees while his wife is documenting their travels around the world on her YouTube channel.
How it all started.
Ellison reveals that he and his co-founders, Michael Shope, and Young Hou, had met at the University of North Dakota where he earned a degree in commercial aviation in 2004.
Ryan Ellison and Sophie Darsy have been living on their boat, Polar Seal, since 2018
Ellison the entrepreneur enjoys mountain climbing, polar exploration, endurance sports, and sailing
In 2007, the three launched Clean Republic in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Shortly afterwards, Ellison and Shope moved to Seattle, Washington, where they partnered to develop an electric bike conversion kit. “Because ‘everyone’ has a bicycle, we decided to take off the front wheel and make it electric. The following year, the company developed a battery pack, which eventually would become Dakota Lithium.
“Clean Republic helped inspire the electric bike revolution by developing a simple-to-install bike wheel that allowed anyone to transform a regular bike into an electric bike,” Ellison recalls.
Ellison and Shope, along with Hou, who is from China, then decided that they would import lithium batteries from China. “Hou had experience dealing with a Lithium battery factory in China, which is from where we import our batteries.”
In 2014, Dakota had recognized that a market existed for replacing lithium batteries. The premise of the Dakota Lithium brand rests on the idea that customers would prefer the lifespan, safety, and lower cost of lithium batteries.
Responding to how the company name was chosen, Ellison reveals that the bike kits and batteries for Clean Republic – the holding company – had been manufactured in North Dakota.
But Ellison’s partnership with Shope goes back to the 1990s.
“We started at the cusp of the e-commerce revolution – when Amazon launched in 1994 – by selling online. If we wanted to sell online, we needed a good brand, which Americans could really understand and relate to,” Ellison recalls. Because of their time in North Dakota – which is “close to our hearts’ ‘ – Ellison and Shope wanted to develop a brand for selling batteries that is associated with Dakota ruggedness and toughness. 80 percent of all sales are still made online, he says.
“Today, we consider ourselves more of an engineering company. We assemble what goes into the battery in the U.S., but the battery production is contracted out to a Chinese company.”
While 90 percent of all Lithium batteries are made in China, Dakota has developed a plan to bring a significant portion of its manufacturing back to America, he reveals.
At a time of intensifying geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China over access to rare earth minerals and natural resources, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to ease regulations on domestic lithium mining. In February 2021, the Biden-Administration launched an initiative to secure a Made in America supply chain for critical minerals.
The push comes as rare earth minerals needed for critical technologies are presently – and primarily – controlled by Russia, China, and other nations that are not Western allies. The Biden-Administration also wants American companies to be able to access these minerals as they are critical for succeeding with the energy transition towards renewables and reaching climate goals.
America enjoys large deposits of Iron, phosphate, and lithium minerals. While the EPA has strict regulations for the extraction of lithium, Ellison predicts that they will be eased as access to rare earth minerals is becoming of strategic importance because of geopolitical competition with China. “95 percent of battery production is in China, which presents a big risk for the West,” the entrepreneur says. But under the Biden-Administration’s Build Back Better Framework, “billions of dollars have been invested into this space but it takes time for companies to set themselves up and start manufacturing in the U.S.,” Ellison adds.
“Sailing has taught me to become an electrician, a mechanic, and a plumber”
While Lithium batteries are at the forefront of the energy transition, they are especially needed for electric vehicles. But the technology can also be applied towards other industries, including for lifestyle companies, the entrepreneur points out. “We see ourselves as a lifestyle brand that helps people living the lives that they want to lead.”
“Dakota Lithium provides batteries that allow those living on a boat to be off the grid longer, and the same goes for those living in a campervan or in a recreational vehicle (RV),” Ellison explains, adding that the company also supports recreational sports such as ice fishing.
“Because our batteries last longer and are lighter to carry, a big market for us has become ice fishermen who are now able to maximize their experience,” the entrepreneur says. The same goes for fishermen using trolling motors on their boats as the batteries allow them to extend their fishing time. Dakota’s technologies can also be applied to kayaking as it has become trendy to insert fish finders on them. “Our technologies are impacting people’s lives,” Ellison notes but reveals that his company has also contracted with the U.S. defense industry and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for various scientific research projects.
Ellison and Darsy have also experimented with the Dakota battery technologies on their own sailboat, which is a Beneteau Oceanis 40. They have applied their battery technologies to power a dishwasher; a hairdryer; and run hot water. “Before we installed the batteries, it would have been impossible to enjoy these types of comforts onboard,” Ellison says.
In the process, he’s learned how to become an electrician, a plumber, and a mechanic. “Before we started our adventure in 2018, I wasn’t that handy,” he says with a hearty laugh.
There are many types of Lithium batteries, Ellison explains, pointing out that Dakota’s version is very safe because it is made with Lithium iron phosphate – as opposed to ones made from the combination of lithium and cobalt – which are more prone to fires. Consumers often band all lithium batteries together; Ellison says, but points out that the technology itself is about 20-30 years old but notes that it has taken a long time to commercialize it.
Dakota is about to start manufacturing in the U.S. “We have done lots of research on products that we want to reintegrate into the supply chain. Since Dakota already has a brand – and a website where its batteries are being sold – the next phase of our strategy centers on building factories,” Ellison says, revealing that he’s in talks with investors. He is not quite ready to divulge its details yet.
“We decided when we launched Dakota to go into a different space because ‘everyone’ went into the car space. Instead of that, we decided to focus on ‘the millions of devices’ that ‘everyone’ needs on which this technology can be applied.” Next, the entrepreneur and his team spent a significant time focusing on the safety aspect of developing lithium batteries for boats. “If a fire erupts on a boat, it is catastrophic,” Ellison says but points out that Dakota spent significant time explaining to the market that its technology is safe.
Commenting on the future of the technology, the entrepreneur points out that it took 20 years to develop the lithium battery and it took 20 years for people to use it. “It takes a lot of money and time to develop a new technology and bring it to market, which is why we believe that this technology will be the best available for the next 10-15 years.”
Dakota Lithium is about to start manufacturing its batteries in the U.S.
Living on a sailboat…
“It has been a journey,” the entrepreneur says with a laugh, pointing out that he and his wife started their sailing adventure in 2018 – two years before ‘everyone else’ started to work remotely because of the global pandemic of 2020 – by “taking remote work to an extreme.” In 2018, it was the first time that Dakota decided to raise external capital with the goal of “growing the business a little larger and a little faster,” he explains.
At the time, Ellison had managed to raise capital through a network that he had in Sweden where he lived from 2010-2018. “It took a lot of convincing to investors about our desire to live on a sailboat, but we had given ourselves six months.” But, because “the entrepreneurial spirt lives within all of us,” a reference the Dakota co-founder is making to his investors, he secured the financing.
But living on a sailboat turned out to be advantageous for Dakota – and not only for Ellison. “What we learned from living in a sailboat directly impacted our research and development as it enabled us to apply the batteries and how they worked in real time.” Dakota has since extended that benefit to other employees who can live in a recreational vehicle (RV) so that they can learn how its batteries work.
One employee, the entrepreneur reveals, lives in a camper van: an Overlander. “We also spend several days with the brands that we sponsor – either on their boats or RVs – so that we can better understand what their lives are like.”
When it comes to Darsy’s YouTube channel, Ellison reveals that “this has allowed us to learn more about who to choose to represent our brand as we’re also operating in this space.”
While Darsy wanted to document their adventures, her following grew quickly. “I put out technical videos, which could be applied to lithium brands. We took the ‘Ryan and Sophie brand’ and pushed it over to Dakota batteries,” the entrepreneur explains. While the YouTube channel wasn’t established to support Dakota, it has nonetheless helped create awareness of the brand especially in the sailing world, he admits.
On why they fly a Swedish flag – as Darsy is French and Ellison American – the entrepreneur reveals that they both met in Stockholm where they maintain a home; they also became citizens, he exclaims with obvious pride.
All images are credited to Dakota Lithium.
While the Darsy YouTube channel wasn’t established to support Dakota, it has nonetheless helped create awareness of the brand especially in the sailing world: Ellison