Fuel Cell Developer Adaptive Materials Is Michigan Success Story; Maybe Too Successful

4/27/10

Something strange has been happening over at Adaptive Materials, a fuel cell developer based in Ann Arbor, MI. During the past few months, as everybody talks about how to get things moving forward in Southeast Michigan, Adaptive has been, well, actually moving forward.

A contract worth a few million from the Department of Defense here, an award worth another few million from the Air Force there, and more money to develop a product for the recreational vehicle market.

And then there’s the company’s recent resume-gathering blitz, hiring nine new engineers. That’s news in these parts (the company received an amazing 7,100 resumes for those nine plum jobs). So, I decided to find out what kind of magic is going on over at Adaptive Materials. I talked to Michelle Crumm, co-founder and chief business officer, and found out that there is no magic happening there at all. The success is the result of a decade of old-fashioned hard work and building of relationships.

Crumm also tells me that Adaptive just might be a victim of its own success now. The company made a decision 10 years ago not to seek angel or venture capital funding. She did not think it was right to use what she calls OPM (Other People’s Money) to fund a “wild and crazy idea.” A decade later, it’s no longer a wild and crazy idea. It’s a business getting ready to move from manufacturing a few hundred units to thousands. And the company could really use some non-government funding at this point. Trouble is, they’re just not wild and crazy enough to attract VC-style investors.

I’ll let Crumm explain what she means in her own words. Here’s an edited transcript of my recent talk with Crumm. Below is Part 1. We’ll run Part 2 later in the week.

Xconomy: First, let’s talk about your company, then we can broaden the conversation a little bit. Can you tell me the “elevator pitch” version of what your company does?

Michelle Crumm: Adaptive Materials started 10 years ago, and we’ve been focused on solid oxide fuel cells development. So, we’re an alternative energy development company. Our focus is portable power. In our early stage, we were primarily focused on military portable power for soldiers. Early successes in those programs, in the early 2000s, led us to getting to other power ranges—enough to power robots and airplanes.

ami50So we provide [products] to “eyes-in-the-sky.” They get more power  when they’re flying unmanned aerial vehicles and longer duration capabilities when they have robots in the field. So, to protect them from IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices], they can send robots out. About 12 hours is our most recent demonstration. So, about 10X longer mission for a robot in the field than a battery.

X: Is that being used in the field now?

MC: We have a small number of units out in different locations throughout the world for unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned ground vehicles.

X: From what I’ve heard, there’s more of an emphasis on small, portable robotics in Afghanistan because of the mountainous terrain.

MC: Exactly. That’s been significant, just the change between the two wars. There’s definitely … Next Page »

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