It was a year ago that venture capitalist and solar energy entrepreneur Jan-Olaf Willums appeared at the Cleantech Forum in San Francisco shortly after taking over Think Global, a Norwegian electric car maker once owned by Ford (F). Willums and his partners had just secured their first round of funding and unveiled plans to revive Think and a zippy urban runabout called the Think City. This week Willums made a return appearance at the 2008 Cleantech Forum and showed just how fast an automotive startup can move amid the lumbering dinosaurs of Detroit.
Green Wombat caught up with the ever-cheerful Willums over coffee Wednesday (unlike his American counterparts he meets the press without the PR minders that seem to accompany every exec everywhere). A day earlier on a panel about alternative transportation he dropped something of a bombshell: At the Geneva Auto Show on Tuesday Think will unveil its next-generation car, a sleek five-seat sedan and a collaboration with an unnamed Fortune 100 company. (See correction at the end of the story.)
Willums, who has raised $93 million from U.S. and European investors, was keeping mum on the identity of its big-league partner until Tuesday but he did say that new model was not just a concept car. “We have designed a five-seater show car but it really is much more than that,” says Willums (photo above). “It is very much a car that can be produced and it looks like the car that will produced.” The plan is to offer the next-gen Think in 2011 as an all-electric as well as well as a so-called series hybrid that uses a small engine to charge the battery and extend its range. (The current Think City has a range of 180 kilometers –112 miles.)
The drawing Willums briefly displayed on the panel showed an stylish aerodynamic four-door sedan. He says Think is planning to later produce a crossover SUV and coupe version of the car. Silicon Valley electric car startup Tesla’s next car also is a five-seater sedan, code-named White Star. “We won’t compete with Tesla,” says Willums. “The Tesla will be more a BMW; we’ll be more the Volkswagen.”
In the meantime, the two-seater Think City is rolling off the production line at the company’s factory outside Oslo and the first 500 cars are set for delivery to customers in March. (For the Think back-story and my 2007 Business 2.0 magazine feature on the company and its innovative business model click here.) Production will be fully ramped up by the end of 2008 and Think aims to produce 10,000 cars a year.
Willums, who will appear on a panel I’m moderating at Fortune’s Brainstorm: Green conference in April, also tells Green Wombat that Think later this week will introduce the City to London and Paris. Think’s strategy is to pursue urban markets that offer incentives for electric vehicles. For instance, for electric cars London waives the $15 congestion “congestion fee” charged for driving into the city and offers free parking. France gives EV buyers a $7,500 rebate. Think plans to begin selling the City in those markets in early 2009. Think has also established a subsidiary in Denmark
The company’s North American plans are still in flux. “We hope to have a plant in the U.S. in 2009,” he says. As with Europe, Think will target urban markets in the U.S., such as San Francisco and New York.
Think has markedly picked up the pace since I last met Willums in Oslo. That’s due in part, he says, because of the big automakers’ more aggressive moves to get into the electric car market, such as General Motors (GM) with its Chevy Volt electric hybrid.
It also seems increasingly clear that innovative startups like Think will survive by making strategic partnerships with bigger players and moving nimbly into select and potentially profitable markets. Whether Think will be a drive-away success remains to be seen but its clear Willums is hitting the accelerator.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Think was collaborating with an unnamed Fortune 100 automaker. In fact, Think was collaborating with a Fortune 100 company, General Electric.