PLUG OK license plate
EnergyCS/EDrive profiled in Design News
Oct 24, 2005 (From the CalCars-News archive)
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Time to Take the Leap?
Obstacles abound, but the U.S. still offers plenty of opportunities for
engineer-entrepreneurs
Lawrence D. Maloney -- Design News, October 24, 2005

Start my own company. Most engineers dream about it, but relatively few will ever abandon a steady paycheck to launch their own business.

Yet think of some of the most admired engineers through the decades, and you'll find those names dominated by people who leveraged their technical know-how to spawn innovative companies. Among them:

  • Electrical engineers Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard founded the now global giant H-P in 1939 with $538 in start-up capital out of a Palo Alto, CA garage.
  • Engineer Steve Wozniak, 26, and technician Steve Jobs, 21, commandeered another California garage to form Apple Computer in 1976.
  • Burt Rutan took his boyhood love of planes and turned it into Scaled Composites, creator of avant-garde designs like SpaceShipOne-the first privately-funded aircraft to fly into space.

Evidence that the fires of entrepreneurship still burn bright are evident in the logjam of U.S. patent applications and the record number of people-some 2.5 million-who sought help from the Small Business Administration last year. "Take a look at the technologies associated with new patents, and you get a good idea of where the next flurry of start-ups will come from," says Chad Moutray, chief economist for SBA's Office of Advocacy.

To find out what it takes to become an engineer-entrepreneur, Design News looked at four companies founded by technical professionals. Their profiles give a glimpse of the exhilaration-and frustrations-of being your own boss.

EnergyCS: Pushing the Range of Hybrids

Hybr.0 2ehicles have definitely arrived. Toyota is selling its Prius gas-electric hybrid at the rate of 11,000 a month-more than the entire Mercury line-and is planning to build a U.S. factory to produce the coveted car. Other automakers also are ramping up hybrid introductions. J.D. Power-LMC Automotive Forecasting predicts that the number of hybrid models will jump from 10 today to 44 by 2012.

In Monrovia, CA, two electrical engineers think they can do a whole lot better than the 50 mpg that the Prius delivers. In the midst of doing contract projects for alternative energy systems at their R&D firm, Greg Hanssen and Pete Nortman managed to get their hands on one of the first Prius models to hit U.S. shores in the fall of 2003. "We immediately took it apart," recalls Hanssen.

A few months later, the engineers had their first prototype of a "plug-in" hybrid, a vehicle that has tested at between 120 and 180 mpg for the first 50 to 60 miles of driving-easily inside the daily driving range of many car owners.

What the engineers did was to swap out the stock Prius 1.3 kWh NiMH battery for a 9 kWh high-energy lightweight lithium-ion battery pack from Valence. They also substituted their own control system for the Toyota controller. Among the components in the EnergyCS design: cell monitoring and balancing for the lithium batteries, as well as pack voltage and current sensing, fan and charger control, user display, and flash data recording. The battery pack can be charged with the on-board 120-140V charger in less than eight hours. At lower speeds, the vehicle may run without burning any gasoline at all. When the battery is depleted, the control system emulates normal Prius operation.

The EnergyCS plug-in design proved its worth in May at the Tour de Sol's Monte Carlo-style rally at Saratoga Springs, NY, where the vehicle won first place in the modified hybrid-vehicle category for both fuel-efficiency and performance, achieving 105 mpg. What's more, it took only nine kilowatt hours of electricity to charge the Valence lithium-ion batteries-at a cost of less than a dollar.

While acknowledging that his tiny, 8-person company must still battle costs to make the system affordable, Hanssen describes the technology itself as a "slam dunk."

Earlier this year, EnergyCS joined with Clean-Tech, a Los Angeles systems integrator, to form a joint venture called EDrive, which will install retrofit kits of the plug-in hybrid system beginning in 2006. Projected cost: about $12K. Target markets include California's army of electric vehicle enthusiasts, as well as utilities and municipal fleets.

The engineers don't expect to get "Bill Gates" rich with their new operation, but they see alternative fuel designs becoming more and more mainstream as automakers introduce their hybrids. "Car owners won't change their habits unless they are given the choice," observes Nortman, whose engineering experience includes a stint with Paul MacCready's prestigious AeroVironment operation. "We may look like the lunatic fringe, but so were the people who put their cans out for recycling 15 years ago."

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