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In Focus: Mina

Date: 03 November 2020   |   Author: Jack Carfrae

One of the youngest and most promising companies in fleet, technology start-up Mina claims to have solved the problem of accurate EV billing, as co-founders Chris Dalrymple and Ashley Tate tell Jack Carfrae.

The fleet industry has had electric advisory fuel rates for two years, and it had to fight tooth and nail to get those - even though the government continues to issue them for little-used LPG. They represented a step in the right direction but are by no means a silver bullet, as the administration and reimbursement of energy used to power employees' vehicles is often immensely complicated. 

Logistical and infrastructure issues aside, the actual billing is perfectly straightforward if you have, say, a series of plug-in vans that only ever charge at a depot. Throw in any sort of off-site charging point and/or a mixture of business and personal use and you have officially entered still-unchartered waters. A decade after the Nissan Leaf's launch, tracking the energy used by whom and for what, and working out how much to pay them back, remains a tricky business and underdeveloped compared to time-honoured methods for petrols and diesels. 

To put it bluntly, fledgling tech firm Mina has more or less solved the problem, at least for vehicles charged at employees' homes. The company is not yet a year old - it was founded in December 2019 - and has applied techniques cultivated in other sectors to the electric billing conundrum. 

Chris Dalrymple, one of the company's two founders, explains how it works: "We integrate with the charge point at the driver's home . and get the usage data out of it. If it's good enough we can actually control the charge point itself - set smart charge times and things like that - if it allows us to do it. We integrate with the National Grid, so we get the carbon intensity of all the energy that's going into the charge point at any given time, every half hour." 

Employees are contacted either by email or text message depending on the type of fleet - Dalrymple says the likes of van drivers are usually more accustomed to an SMS - and asked to take a photograph of their energy bill and upload it to an accompanying link. 

"We then integrate with the energy supplier of the driver," says Dalrymple. "The driver [tells us] if they're on British Gas, Octopus etc. - they give us their account number and their tariff. That allows us to put a price to every charge." 

The clincher, though - at least as far as a fleet operator is concerned - is joining the dots between the amount of electricity used and the employee's own energy bill, to calculate a precise figure and bundle everything onto one invoice.

"I suppose the most interesting bit is, come the end of the month we send an invoice to the fleet manager that says: 'Here are all the costs of all your charges across your fleet, plus all the charges in their [drivers'] homes.'" 

The firm also handles the reimbursement of drivers after the fleet has paid the bill, effectively negating the need for manual expense administration. 

"We make a series of smaller transactions," continues Dalrymple, "but not to the driver - directly to the driver's energy supplier - and that's the important differentiator. In essence, what you're doing is cutting the driver out the cycle. They see, at the end of every month, a credit going to their energy account for all the energy that they've used to charge the company vehicle, but they don't have to do an expenses claim - they don't have to estimate their mileage, give a reading for that 4p a mile to come back or anything like that. 

"They're not given the money, so they are not reimbursed - that's quite an advantage from a tax point of view, both in terms of VAT and National Insurance. It's much more accurate than 4p a mile - which pays some drivers too much and pays some drivers too little - and what you're paying is the actual cost of the energy, rather than a kind of a theoretical rate."

Fleet operators get a piece of software comprising "a dashboard that shows each of the charges on an aggregated view. You can see the carbon intensity, you can see if it's a dual-rate tariff, you can see the cost of it over a period and how it changes." 

Drivers can also keep an eye on what's happening with their billing via "a lightweight app where they can just see that, at the end of the month, we've credited this amount to their energy account". 

The company was born out of Dalrymple and co-founder Ashley Tate's respective backgrounds. The former specialises in e-commerce and digital marketing and was previously director of product and innovation at online travel agency On the Beach. The latter established Split the Bills, which is not dissimilar to Mina in that it allows housemates to evenly divvy up domestic utility costs. 

The pair applied the same concept to electric vehicle charging, initially with the idea of simplifying billing for Joe Bloggs, rather than for fleets. 

"We actually started with more of a consumer angle," says Dalrymple. "The original idea was, can we offer someone who has just bought an EV fixed-price charging? And that would include the charge point that goes on the wall and all the energy that goes into that charge point as kind of a nice, easy and predictable subscription." 

Though it morphed into a business service, the pair still believe there is a future for a similar, consumer-facing offering - which more or less exists as the company's small business product. 

"We didn't have a small business proposition six months ago," says Dalrymple. "We had the consumer and the fleet one, then we had a chimney sweep in London ring up. She said: 'I want a charge point installed for my driver because he's just getting [a Nissan] e-NV200 van and I want to pay your fixed monthly fee.' 

"We said 'right, we can do that', and since then we've had a handful of others - plumbers, cleaners, those kinds of fleets - where they might be running between one and five vans, maybe in the ULEZ or low-emissions zones. It's a fixed price and we can get the charge point installed for them - which we don't tend to do for the large fleets because they have their own contracts with charge point manufacturers."

The firm's business model is a transaction fee on the energy used, which, says Dalrymple, is "a few pence per kilowatt". Tate believes the saving to fleets is potentially twofold, starting with the obvious administrative clawback: "No one has scaled EV reimbursement to their entire fleet yet, so we don't really know what it costs in admin. There's the tangible 'I'm paying someone full time to sit in an office and do this', and then there's the intangible 'if all these drivers have got to do their own admin, how much of that comes out of a productive day?' or 'do they do that in the evenings?' But there is some basic desktop analysis that, we reckon, shows it's about £4 per driver, per month, to do that exercise.

"We spoke to a fleet a few weeks ago and they were doing it manually. They said that, of their total cost to reimburse the drivers and manage the home energy payments, only 60% of that goes on the energy itself - the rest is admin and other headaches. So we're confident that there is a cost saving, but I suppose it goes back to the idea that some people are doing 4p per mile, some are doing 5p per mile."

"I spoke to some people the other day who were doing 5p a mile because someone had complained," adds Dalrymple. "They said 'we had to go from 4p to 5p because some drivers said they were getting short-changed'." 

The second prospective saving is VAT, which, pending approval from HMRC, looks extremely promising. 

"We haven't officially got the rubber stamp from HMRC yet, but we've written to them and we're very confident we'll get assurance that, if fleets use our system and we create the paper trail, they can confidently recover VAT on domestic energy - which could be huge, because that's 5%," says Tate. "If anyone's recovering that on domestic energy at the moment, it's very risky because it's not as clean cut as 'here's a receipt for the energy that's gone into my EV', because that doesn't exist [elsewhere]."

Mina was recently valued at £2m following an investment round that saw backers from the energy, charging infrastructure and leasing sectors throw their cash behind it. To add a dash of pedigree, fleet EV sage Chris Chandler - better known to Business Car readers as Lex Autolease's principal consultant - is also working with the firm as an advisor. 

Its biggest footprint in the corporate sector so far is a pilot with outsourcing and energy services firm Mitie, which plans to have its 5,500-strong fleet fully electric by 2025. "They've got 550 electric vehicles currently," says Dalrymple, "so once we've passed this initial phase there's quite a lot to go on, and we're talking to four of five other fleets where we are close to trials."