Kiwi-born tech pioneer Ian Wright has a simple vision: he wants to rid garbage trucks of diesel motors within five years.
Wright is the founder of Wrightspeed Inc, a manufacturer of range-extended electric vehicle powertrains, which has a $US43 million deal with Infratil-owned NZ Bus to retrofit existing and new buses with its electric powertrains to replace conventional piston engine and transmission systems.
The New Zealand deal is California-based Wrightspeed's first expansion into mass transit beyond its main focus on garbage and delivery applications. The first retrofitted buses should be on the road by Christmas and 60 trolley buses, which had been doomed to be taken out of service, will be converted by mid-next year.
Wrightspeed was chosen in June by the World Economic Forum as one of the world's 30 most promising technology pioneers. Mr Wright gave a TED talk in Christchurch late last year entitled "How jet-powered garbage trucks can save the world" and is also a key speaker at this year's Morgo conference for entrepreneurs being held in Queenstown next month.
The speaker line-up includes Howie Xu, a co-inventor of network virtualisation technology who helped build VSphere, VMWare's cloud computing virtualisation platform, from zero to $US6 billion in turnover and Brendan Roberts, chief operating officer of 9Spokes, which listed on the ASX this year.
While many new Kiwi companies are being formed, there is still a problem with scale, said conference organiser Jenny Morel. "It would be good to see more companies being formed by teams. I think 9Spokes is one of these, which is why it's scaled so fast," she said.
When Mr Wright spoke at Morgo three years ago he was celebrating the first successful trial with US delivery company FedEx of his disruptive automotive technology.
Wrightspeed is now moving into full-scale production though is not yet profitable, with orders for FedEx, NZ Bus, and The Ratto Group, a big Californian garbage and recycling company. The 80-year Italian founder of the family-owned group read about the FedEx trials and thought his company could save money by Wrightspeed adapting the powertrains for its fuel-guzzling fleet of garbage trucks, Mr Wright said.
The Route powertrain was showcased in June at the Waste Expo in Las Vegas in Mack Trucks, one of North America's largest manufacturers of heavy-duty garbage trucks. Mr Wright is hopeful of signing a deal shortly with Mack to include powertrains in its manufacturing process.
Mr Wright was the first employee of Tesla in 2003, charged with developing a high-performance electric car, before leaving two years later to set up his own company. He gained widespread publicity in late 2005 by developing the world's fastest street-legal electric sports car, the prototype X1, which could hit 60 miles per hour in 2.9 seconds.
However, venture capitalists weren't prepared to back the X1 and at one's suggestion, Mr Wright pivoted the business to focus on a powertrain that could be retrofitted into an existing fleet. He then narrowed it to commercial truck fleets where the highest fuel savings could be achieved.
Wrightspeed has received $US7 million in grants from the California Energy Commission and $US37.23 million in venture capital backing to date, which has reduced Wright's stake to just under 20%. A further capital raising round is now under way for $US15-20 million in working capital to scale up production. He expects to be making 5000 to 10,000 powertrains a year within three to four years.
Mr Wright says other Kiwi entrepreneurs should not fear losing majority ownership when raising growth capital.
"In the first round raise by entrepreneurs, VCs typically take half the company, so you have to give that up. By having a smaller slice of a much bigger pie you are better off because, if not, it can take double the time to grow your company."
Mr Wright's personal measure of success will be removing diesel engines from garbage trucks, a goal he thinks achievable within five years if his company "executes well." He likens it to when turbine engines replaced pistons in aircraft.
Trials show the powertrains reduce garbage truck fuel consumption by half and have sufficient grunt to climb a steep 40% grade, which was a winning feature for buses in Wellington. The turbine generator charges on-board batteries which provide power to turn the wheels and give the vehicles unlimited range without refuelling.
More trials are pending in New Zealand and Australia, though non-disclosure agreements prevent Mr Wright from naming them. "Generally in New Zealand you pay three times more per gallon for fuel than in the US so that makes it a very good market for us – the savings per year are three times higher than in the US," he said.
(Fiona Rotherham will attend Morgo courtesy of the organisers).
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