Productizing clean-tech redeaux

We’ve talked with a gaggle of clean-tech companies over the past couple of years, and worked with a handful.  Lots of interesting technologies but a lot fewer manufacturing ready products. It’s a challenging area as the incumbent technologies are cheap and mature and have been long since productized.

Last year I also blogged about Productizing clean-tech, concerning the state of clean-tech in general and here in Colorado in particular. At a macro level not that much has changed: the world is still warming, politicians are still avoiding making tough decisions, and fossil fuel alternatives are still cheap.  From a business point of view however, clean-tech seems like its a tougher sell.  The failure of Solyndra, while not unusual for VC backed companies–maybe 2 in 10 such make it typically–has been so publicized as to cast a pale on the industry, and given succor to the resurging drill-baby-drill crowd. Competition from China has also heated up in almost any sector of the clean-tech world (see our blog on What businesses worry about on Main Street ), from LED lighting to solar.  So there is basically competition not only from low cost fossil fuels but also from low cost China.

Which does not mean despair, but it does mean that to succeed in clean-tech a very cost optimized product is needed.  Which is where Zebulon Solutions (warning: shameless plug) can help: we’re experts at getting the cost out of a product’s design, out of the supply chain, and out of the manufacturing process. We’ve optimized the mechanical enclosure of a human-powered generator; established supply chains for a novel product that reuses CO2 for its cleaning solvent properties, and helped redesign smart lighting controllers for cost and performance.  We’re supporting a program at the University of Colorado to investigate the feasibility of a solar wafer processing technology coming out of the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) here in Golden, Colorado. We’ve conducted DFMEAs on water purity monitoring systems and hybrid generators, and we’ve set up inventory management processes for an electric bike company. It’s a tough slog,  but we’re doing our part.

Oh yeah, and we still drive my little green Prius to meetings. Not as fancy as a company Beemer, but it gets us there and helps just a touch with the environment.

Chuck

2 Comments

  • Ski Milburn

    Chuck,

    I hear you. My company, VAIREX air systems, builds a critical component for the fuel cell industry, focused on immediate markets such as fuel cell forklifts, telecom backup systems, and residential combined heat and power.

    We entered the industry with several million dollars of funding from the US DOE, were acquired by a UK VC-backed holding company in 2008 that went into liquidation in 2009. Our customers funded the Chapter 11 process with advance orders, and the managers acquired the assets of the old company and started the new one in 2010. It would be a real understatement to describe it as a “rough road” but we’re still here.

    The market is small, roughly 20,000 such systems were sold in the world in 2011, but growing rapidly. We’re the technology leader, and growing faster than the market as fuel cell products get more sophisticated and what we’re good at becomes more and more important.

    Despite our small size, we’ve had to sell globally to survive, so we have a sales office in Tokyo and have product in two dozen countries around the world. But, not many companies can claim to manufacture a high technology product in a high-cost area like Boulder, Colorado and export it to China.

  • Chuck

    Excellent. The only thing better than designing and manufacturing stateside is doing that and then exporting.

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