Fuel Cell Developer Adaptive Materials On Finding Engineers and the Company’s Future

4/28/10

Yesterday, we ran Part 1 of my interview with Michelle Crumm, co-founder and chief business officer for fuel cell manufacturer Adaptive Materials of Ann Arbor, MI. We discussed how it took a decade of old-fashioned hard work to get to a point where the company is signing deals to supply the military with the fuel cells needed for unmanned aerial vehicles and robots helping to fight the war in Afghanistan. Today, in Part 2, Crumm talks about how, despite the 7,100 resumes she received for nine open engineering positions, the company has had difficulty finding workers who fit her company’s culture.

Xconomy: I’ve not only been reading about these recent contracts Adaptive Materials has been getting, but also the fact that you’re hiring new engineers.

Michelle Crumm: If you can put that in there, I’d love to have a great systems engineer.

X: Absolutely. You know, the way I first heard about your company was that it had been Tweeted a few times that you were on a resume-gathering blitz, looking to hire nine new engineers. How many resumes have you collected?

MC: We had 7,100 resumes during that resume blitz. We pulled in 90 people to come in for short interviews, then we pulled in 20 of those to come in for day-long interviews, and we ended up hiring five people. So, we still have four open positions that we’re trying to fill.

X: You must have a pool of a lot of qualified candidates. There are a lot of talented engineers in the area who are out of work. How was the quality of the resumes?

MC: Well, I think the biggest challenge is that there are a ton of really smart engineers out there—and some of them are employed and some of them are not employed, unfortunately. The biggest challenge is can we find the right cultural fit, and that is a lot harder than just having a smart engineer that’s out of work. You know, it’s so much bigger than that. Do they have the right attitude? Can they come in and make decisions? Are they an empowered thinker? How quickly can they learn? So, it’s all those things that we’re interviewing for. It’s the core values of the company that’s our weed-out process. They’re all intelligent, they all have their plaques on their walls, there are great, talented, wonderful people out there, but just because they’re great, talented, wonderful people does not mean that they’re a great cultural fit for our organization. We’re still small enough that every single person, you know, they have to fit in culturally. Otherwise, they can tip over the apple cart.

X: Sounds like you still have that startup mentality. People have to be flexible, think on their feet.

MC: Yes, that’s the way we hire. Our technicians out on the floor, they may have a high school diploma but they need to have a strong enough personality to push back to the engineers and say, “This is not a manufacturable design. Let’s work on this together to try to get something that I can actually put together a lot easier.” I don’t need a technician. I need a technician that’s confident enough that they can stand up for themselves, that they can talk to the engineers and work together to get these products so they design for manufacturability. So much of it is just a personality issue.

X: Let me broaden the conversation a little more and talk about the funding environment. Venture capital in this area has been pretty dismal for a while. It’s improving a little bit, maybe for early stage companies or companies right out of academia. But you’ve mentioned before that there is gap for companies like yours. What needs to be done, culturally, to change that in this area?

MC: I’ve never thought that it made sense to have venture capitalists—we always call it OPM around here, Other People’s Money. Well, Other People’s Money, to me, is something that you take … Next Page »

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