Kiwi entrepreneur aims to revolutionise rubbish collection

Wrightspeed Inc founder Ian Wright

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).

(BusinessDesk)

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Now if the Wellington councils would give up on across town buses and have a dedicated electric fleet servicing the golden mile we could get rid of noisy and smelly diesel buses out of the main shopping areas.

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Leaders, visionaries and founders of fast-growing, money-losing companies pushing tech. onto starry-eyed government officials should make tax and rate-payers very nervous.

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Except NZ Bus is a private company. I don't think there would have been much in the way of starry eyes around their board table nor that of their main shareholder.

Otherwise I agree with you about govt officials who invest in tech risk being overwhelmed - their incentives and accountabilities are not the same as commercial incentives and accountabilities and this affects everything in the decision making

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Why don't we start with picking up rubbish when its ready to be picked up, rather than running this massive over capacity of vehicles on the road.

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Good idea. Like an Uber for rubbish?

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I've thought about this and I don't think multiple on demand trips to same street to pick up full-only bins will win out against a weekly single trip to same street for a mix of part and full bins. The stop time for full and part full is the same.

Picking up biweekly may seem to assist but in reality twice as many 'truck-now-full' trips would need to be taken to the transfer station on each bi-weekly round

Etc. Can't see it stacking up

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This is simply National City Lines round 2. What City in their right mind gives up a perfectly good Electric Transit system for this rubbish? I tell you, a City with no future. Mr Wrightspedd is getting rich off the stupidity and gullability of the Public. We dont want our trolleys taken down. We want our electric trolley system retained in place, and the buses to be used, electric trolley buses. If the Wrightspeed system is that good, why are Seattle and Shanghai, reinvesting in new electric trolley buses for?

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This is good news, reducing harmful (CO, NO) diesel engine emissions in Wellington and ideally suited to heavy good vehicles and steep inclines. An electric only (rechargeable battery) version of, the soon to be phased out, trolley busses would be preferable for public transport, making use of improved battery technology. Either option better than diesel only. Less noise pollution an added bonus.

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