Small is Beautiful: Helix Power’s Weinbrandt Sees a Small Wind Turbine On Every Rooftop

Scott Weinbrandt spent 25 years working in computer technology, including 10 years as an executive at Dell, the direct-sales computer giant, as well as time as a senior vice president at Gateway, the onetime San Diego computer maker that is now part of Acer. During that time, the computer industry moved from centralized mainframes to distributed personal computers.

Now Weinbrandt says he’s seeing the same trend emerging in the renewable energy sector as the president and chairman of Helix Wind, a San Diego startup that specializes in vertical-axis wind turbines. “Big wind is getting a big pushback,” Weinbrandt says.

While many companies are still pursuing big centralized wind farm projects, such as the one near Palm Springs, CA, there’s also a movement to install smaller wind turbines in backyards and on rooftops.

Helix Wind's turbineIf he’s right about the trend, Weinbrandt has positioned Helix Wind (OTC: HLXW) to catch the prevailing breeze by targeting urban residential and commercial customers. “If you look at what we’re doing, our goal is to be the No. 1 small wind solutions provider,” Weinbrandt says.

The helical-shaped turbines developed by Helix Wind founders Ian Gardner and Ken Morgan are visually stunning—they look so much like spinning sculptures that Weinbrandt says some customers are buying them for the product’s aesthetic value. So-called Savonius turbines, such as Helix Wind’s iconic design, are usually considered less efficient at generating electricity than propeller-driven turbines with a horizontal axis. But Weinbrandt says a key benefit of the helical platform is its ability to operate at high torque in lower wind speeds—and to continue operating at high wind speeds.

“What we’ve done is take it to another level,” Weinbrandt says, noting Helix has 43 IP filings in the U.S. and elsewhere, with one patent pending at two trademarks received. “This technology has been refined and one of the key components is the ability to start up in light winds and still sustain high winds without shutting down. Most of our competitors have to shut down at 40 miles per hour.” The cleantech company says it competes with a variety of other vertical-axis turbine makers in the U.S., including Oregon Wind of Portland, OR, and Mariah Power of Reno, NV.

While Helix counts more than 250 different types of small wind companies, Weinbradt says, “We see a consolidation happening. The small mom and pop outfits out there that have technology but no management are falling by the wayside.”

Gardner and Morgan founded the company in 2006, using private funding, and Helix Wind became public through a reverse merger in February with an inactive shell corporation that had no specific business plan. Gardner, who holds a 36 percent stake in the company, continues to serve as CEO and a board member, according to SEC filings. Morgan is no longer involved in Helix Wind, although he continues to hold a 31 percent stake in the company.

Scott Weinbrandt

Scott Weinbrandt

Weinbrandt says he also sees opportunities in using Helix Wind’s turbines to power wireless communication base stations that may or may not be connected to local power grids in remote areas of South America, Africa, and the Middle East. The company says its wind turbines also are ideally suited for pumping water in developing nations, and could be used in conjunction with compressor technology for injection pumps used by the petroleum industry to increase oilfield yields. Helix said last month it had signed a joint development agreement with a Marrero, LA, company called CheckPoint Fluidic Systems to develop an advanced wind turbine pneumatic pumping system for the oil and gas industry. Helix says it has developed a unique wind turbine rotor and CheckPoint has certain technology in precision chemical injection pumping systems.

Weinbrandt tells me it’s been easy to raise capital for Helix Wind among green investors, but the company’s financials look more like a briar patch. In financial results for the first quarter that ended in March, Helix disclosed a working capital deficit of $827,193 (excluding a $15.2 million liability) and an accumulated deficit of more than $25 million. That’s enough, the filing adds, to “raise substantial doubt about the Company’s ability to continue as a going concern.”

Helix also estimates it will need $3 million for operations over the next year, and the company “presently does not have any available credit, bank financing or other external sources of liquidity.” To raise additional capital, the company says it may need to sell additional shares of its common stock or borrow funds from private lenders. The company notes in its SEC filings it is authorized to sell 1.75 billion shares of its common stock. As of May 4, Helix says it has about 37.4 million shares outstanding.

Despite such ominous language, a couple of recent announcements suggest a brighter outlook for Helix:

—Helix said on June 25 it is acquiring Venco Power, a German maker of so-called Darrieus turbines, which often resemble giant egg-beaters. In a later regulatory filing, Helix says it’s paying 2.8 million Euros (about $3.9 million at current exchange rates), with 33 percent paid in shares of Helix stock. Helix says it will immediately begin selling three Venco models, which range in price from $4,000 to $250,000, and which range from a small 300-watt unit to a 50-kilowatt unit, capable of generating enough electricity for scores of homes.

—Helix unveiled new “smart grid” technology on June 30 with the introduction of a wind turbine monitoring system capable of recording and reporting a variety of performance metrics, including a wind turbine’s speed, energy output, inverter data, generator frequency and other variables. Weinbrandt describes the system, which reports data to Helix Wind’s network operating center, as “the first phase of smart grid technology solutions to come from Helix Wind.”

With its stock currently trading at about $3 a share, Helix has a market valuation of roughly $100 million and Weinbrandt says, “It’s all been good news. We’ve just added three new products and our business continues to ramp.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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