EcoMotors Founder Peter Hofbauer Says Company Is Inking Customer Deals, Eyeing Production Facility in Michigan for Its “Opoc” Engine

1/24/11Follow @xconomy

Peter Hofbauer spent nearly a decade in advanced propulsion system research and nearly another decade in power train development at Volkswagen. After creating and developing the automaker’s first diesel engine, he was ready to relax.

“In 1997, I moved to Santa Barbara, CA, and my main idea was to retire—and that did not work,” says Hofbauer, founder, chairman, and chief technology officer of EcoMotors International, an Allen Park, MI-based engine developer funded by Bay Area and Seattle investors led by Sun Microsystems-cofounder-turned-venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, and Bill Gates.

Instead, he continued working on engine innovation and started his own company, Advanced Propulsion Technologies, in Santa Barbara in 2003. The company developed what’s called opposing piston, opposing cylinder technology that would eventually form the intellectual property of EcoMotors. (As I wrote last fall, the company sees the engine as a way to make cars cleaner and cheaper, and would involve an easier infrastructure transition than revamping fleets of vehicles with hybrid technology, according to CEO Don Runkle.)

APT worked on creating the engines for military applications, but needed a different setting, Hofbauer says. “We started to design it, but you cannot develop an engine in Santa Barbara,” he says. So he moved the company to work out of an engineering firm in Detroit.

In 2006 APT firm signed a deal with defense firm L3 Communications (which has a subsidiary in Michigan), creating a joint venture called Combat Advanced Propulsion, to continue working on the technology for military uses. Two years later, EcoMotors kicked off with $10.5 million in funding from Menlo Park, CA-based Khosla Ventures to continue advancing the opoc engine for civilian vehicles.

The opoc is named (as you no doubt guessed) for its opposing pistons and opposing cylinders, which have a single crank in the middle and together work to create a combustion event with every revolution. The design, which allows the units to be stacked to scale up to meet bigger engine needs, involves fewer parts and provides more power per size and weight than existing engine technology, according to Runkle.

EcoMotors’ plan has been to license its technology to automakers or engine suppliers, who would then develop opoc engines for specific vehicles. The company has already gained some traction on this strategy. Last year, it signed a deal with Chinese automotive parts maker Zhongding Holding Group. The firm will build an opoc engine development center in Shanghai, first focusing on truck engines, then on passenger cars. Because China has … Next Page »

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