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

4/27/10

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are, “How do I package a product to ship” vs. “How do I develop a product that will work twice?” So, you know, it’s a much different feeling 10 years into this game.

You know, it’s the supply chain now. We’ve never cared about the supply chain as much. As long as we were able to buy what we needed, cost was not the biggest issue. It was reliability of the product. Now cost is becoming a big issue. So, developing it as far as pricing is the hot topic for 2010 for us. Our needs have really changed over that period of time. And it’s not as fun to fund second-stage companies, I think. Everybody likes to throw their dollars at the early-stage, brand-new idea, guys in the garage. So, you know, we just have different challenges.

X: Yeah, you’ve moved out of the garage and out onto the front lawn.

MC: Right. We have a lot more mortgages that I worry about at night. You know, a 48,000-square-foot facility. It’s just a bigger game.

X: Tell me a little bit about the founding, where the technology comes from.

MC: My husband [Aaron Crumm] and I, we got this idea back in 1998, ’99, 2000. If you think about what was going on then, there were a bunch of startups—provider-Internet-industry type companies.

X: Right, and we know what happened there.

MC: We were probably too cocky and confident and not knowing any better, so we decided to start the company based on Aaron’s, my husband’s, Ph.D. thesis, which was microfabrication by coextrusion, which is just a really big way to talk about the process we use to make our fuel cell technology. We also partnered with the University of Michigan, his Ph.D. adviser and some other founding partners so the three of us put together the business plan and went after funding through DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], which is kind of the cowboys of the Department of Defense. They fund some wild and crazy ideas. They funded our wild and crazy idea.

X: And so, 10 years later, you’re helping to support the war in Afghanistan. These contracts with the Air Force and with the Pentagon, they didn’t just happen. They must have happened over a series of years in terms of building relationships.

MC: I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a Department of Defense funding map, but it would take up an entire room just to spread this map out in front of you. No, these relationships are very entrenched with our customers. We’ve worked with them for the entire 10 years. We started with DARPA, and then branched out through all the other procurement and research and development agencies within the Department of Defense. I think, at this point, we’ve touched almost all, if not all, of them. I was just looking at a map earlier.

It’s telling, it’s retelling your story. It’s performing on all of your programs to get one baby step further. And, you know, over 10 years we’ve just been able to take enough baby steps forward that it looks like a great story right now.

Part 2 of Xconomy’s interview with Michelle Crumm of Adaptive Materials will run later this week.

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