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Posts Tagged ‘Jan-Olaf Willums’

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photo: Think

Think Global, the innovative Norwegian electric car company, has temporarily halted production of its City urban runabout and laid off half its workforce as it considers a sale to survive the credit crisis, Think CEO Richard Canny told Green Wombat Tuesday.

“Think is in a situation where we can’t grow anymore,” Canny said from Think’s Oslo headquarters, where the management team was still working at midnight. “We have started an emergency shutdown to protect our capital and our brand. We’ll need a new and stronger partner, whether that is a 25% owner or a majority owner or someone who buys the company.”

The Norwegian government said on Tuesday that it would not make an equity investment in the automaker but is considering Think’s request to guarantee up to $29 million in short-term loans. “Even a small participation from the Norwegian government will give investors confidence,” Canny said, noting that the company needs to raise $40 million to continue manufacturing its electric car. “The financial crisis has hit at a very critical stage as we’re ramping up production and when external financing is hard to bring into the company and internal funding is limited.”

He said a rescue package might include aid from from the Norwegian government and an infusion of cash from new investors or strategic partners. “We’re putting a hand out. People who would like to work with us should pick up the phone.”

Ford (F) acquired the startup in 1999 and sold it a few years later. Norwegian solar entrepreneur Jan-Olaf Willums and other investors rescued Think from bankruptcy in 2006, aiming to upend a century-old automotive paradigm by changing the way cars are made, sold and driven to create a sustainable auto industry.

As Green Wombat wrote in a 2007 feature story on Think, “Taking a cue from Dell, the company will sell cars online, built to order. It will forgo showrooms and seed the market through car-sharing services like Zipcar. Every car will be Internet-and Wi-Fi-enabled, becoming, according to Willums, a rolling computer that can communicate wirelessly with its driver, other Think owners, and the power grid. In other words, it’s Web 2.0 on wheels. ‘We want to sell mobility,’ Willums says. ‘We don’t want to sell a thing called the Think.’

The company sells the car but leases the battery so buyers don’t have to fork over cash upfront for an electric vehicle’s single most expensive component – an idea subsequently adopted embraced by everyone from Shai Agassi’s Better Place electric car infrastructure company to General Motors (GM).

The failure of the new Think would be a blow at a time when the auto industry desperately needs to reinvent itself. While Think is a niche player and faces formidible competition as Toyota (TM)  and other big automakers go electric, it has pioneered  the idea of a new automotive infrastructure that includes tech companies and utilities like PG&E (PCG).

Whether Think can survive the global financial crisis remains to be seen, but Willums, who stepped aside as CEO recently but remains on the board, is a prodigious networker with deep contacts in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. In little more than a year he raised around $100 million from an A-list of U.S. and European investors that includes General Electric (GE), Keiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers and Rockport Capital Partners – the latter two marquee venture capital firms formed a joint venture with Think to sell the City in North America. Canny said the U.S. expansion plans are now on hold.

The question now is whether Think’s investors, absent a government bailout, will step up to save the company just as it has started to gain a foothold in the market. In a presentation made Monday, Canny, a Ford veteran, said eight to 10 two-seater City cars a day had been rolling off the company’s assembly line outside Oslo.  Think has a blacklog of 550 orders and 150 cars will be delivered by January.  The company was set to begin selling a 2+2 version of the City in mid-2009. (Think had planned to begin selling its next model, a five-seat crossover car called the Think Ox, in 2011.)

“There are limited possibilities of funding working capital through bank credits without extra guarantees in today’s financial market,” Canny said, noting that the company hopes to resume production in the first quarter of 2009. “Think’s automotive suppliers are severely hit by the overall industry crisis, leading to tougher terms of parts delivery to Think.”

Green Wombat will throw out one potential savior of Think: Google (GOOG). Many aspects of Think’s innovative business model were born at a brainstorming session that the search giant hosted in 2006 for Willums at the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif. Given that Google.org, the company’s philanthropic arm, has poured tens of millions of dollars in green energy companies and electric car research, an investment in Think would be another way to drive progress toward its goal of a carbon-free economy.

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photo: Think Global

Norwegian electric carmaker Think Global, once owned by Ford, has tapped Ford executive Richard Canny as its new president and chief operating officer. Canny previously served as president of Ford South America, president of Ford Argentina and managing director of Ford Malaysia.

Think also announced Tuesday that it has hired a veteran of Volvo and Saab, Mikael Ekholm, as executive vice president for engineering and manufacturing. The appointment of the Australian-born Canny comes as the Oslo company ramps up production of the City, it’s Internet-enabled, battery-powered urban runabout.

Green Wombat chatted with Think CEO Jan-Olaf Willums via e-mail Tuesday about the rollout of the City in Europe, its next model – an electric crossover SUV –  and the company’s plans for the United States market. (At Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference in April, Willums announced the formation of Think North America with marquee venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Rockport Capital Partners. Other investors in Think include General Electric (GE) )

“The factory completed its planned build of 100 cars for the local market prior to the Norwegian summer shutdown,” says Willums, a longtime entrepreneur and sustainability expert who made his fortune as a co-founder of Norweigan solar company REC Solar. “Of course, like any new vehicle launch we are having occasional new issues arise and teething problems to overcome.”

The cars are now on Oslo roads racking up high mileage under real-world conditions, he adds.

(You can still spot the previous generation of the City, built under Ford (F) ownership, tooling around Oslo, as I did when I visited in 2007 for a story I did on Think.)

Willums says Think will boost production in the second half of the year to support sales in Norway and elswhere in Scandinavia. “During 2009, we are planning a roll out to a number of other European markets with our plans for the major cities (Paris, Amsterdam, Nice, Zurich, Basel) being the priority,” he says. The order of the rollout, he notes, will depend in part on where the government and private sector incentives for electric vehicles are strongest.

To that end, Willums says that the timing of the City’s debut in the United States will be determined in part by state incentives and the policy of the incoming administration in Washington.

Think is in a race to get its cars on the road as the big automakers accelerate their plans for plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars for the mass market. General Motors (GM) is hurrying to bring its Chevy Volt plug-in electric hybrid to showrooms while Toyota (TM) is working on a plug-in version of the Prius. Mitsubishi will supply its i MiEV electric car to California utilities PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) for fleet testing.

Meanwhile, work continues on the Think Ox, the company’s planned five-seater crossover model. Think showed off a concept version of the electric car at the Geneva auto show earlier this year. The addition of Canny, Willums says, should help the company “grow and mature to a larger scale electric car producer.”

Along with gearing up production of the City, Think has been energizing its marketing efforts, judging by the slick promotional video it created for the Ox below. (For a higher-def version, go here.)

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PASADENA, Calif. — If you wanted a snapshot of the emerging alliance between utilities and automakers, the car park of the Langham hotel here was the place to be Tuesday morning. There was the CEO of one of the largest utilities in the United States putting the pedal to the metal of the battery-powered Think City with Think Global CEO Jan-Olaf Willums riding shotgun.

“I liked it a lot,” PG&E (PCG) Chairman and CEO Peter Darbee told Green Wombat after a few spins around the hotel in the electric coupe. “The acceleration was fast, it handled well and it has a European feel.”

We had just finished a Fortune Brainstorm Green session on electric cars (along General Motors’ (GM) executive Beth Lowery), where Darbee declared, “We want to replace the oil industry” as the fuel supplier to the automakers. Fuel in this case is electricity, though unlike Big Oil, regulated utilities such as PG&E and Southern California Edison (EIX) will not make windfall profits no matter how many electrons they push into Chevy Volts.

The topic at hand was the potential for vehicle-to-grid, or V2G, if electric cars go mass market. The big idea: electric cars are essentially mobile generators and rolling energy storage devices. When hundreds of thousands of them are plugged in, they can not only download electricity but return power to the grid from their batteries, allowing utilities to meet peak demand without firing up expensive fossil fuel power plants that often sit idle until everyone cranks up their air conditioners.

PG&E is working with Google (GOOG) to develop technology to allow a smart power grid to detect where an electric car is plugged in so the owner can be charged or credited with consuming electricity or returning it to the grid. The smart grid would also be able to detect power demand spikes and then tap the appropriate number of car batteries to smooth out the electricity supply.

Utilities like PG&E are eager to forge alliances with electric carmakers for other reasons. In California, electric cars could be charged at night when greenhouse gas-free power sources like wind farms tend to produce the most electricity but when demand otherwise falls off. Utilities are also interested in buying used electric car batteries (which retain 80 percent of their capacity even after they’re no longer good for transportation) to store renewable energy that can be released when electricity demand spikes.

Lowery, GM’s vice president for environment, energy and safety policy, said such interest from utilities is prompting the automaker to think how electric cars could spawn new markets. “We’re definitely looking at different business models for batteries,” she said.

On Monday, Think Global and venture capital powerhouses Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Rockport Capital Partners announced the formation of Think North America as a joint venture between the Norwegian company and the VCs that will bring the Think City to California next year.

Rockport managing general partner and acting Think North America president Wilber James was at the panel and suggested Think supply some cars to PG&E. As the session ended, Darbee, James and Willums headed to the parking lot where Willums showed off the car’s Internet-enabled interactive features, including a video screen with a button already labeled “vehicle-to-grid.”

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PASADENA, Calif. — Norwegian electric carmaker Think Global is bringing its zippy urban runabout to the United States.

On Monday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference, Think launched its North American operation with Silicon Valley venture capitalist heavyweight Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Boston’s Rockport Capital Partners as lead investors.

Think North America will sell the Think City, its two-seater battery-powered car, as well as a forthcoming five-seater called the Think Ox.

“We thought this would be a wonderful vehicle to bring to the U.S.,” said Kleiner partner Ray Lane. He’ll serve as chairman of Think North America, which will be a 50-50 joint venture between Think and Kleiner/Rockport. They declined to put a price tag on the investment but Lane said “we’ll invest what it takes.”

The Think City began rolling off the production line in Norway earlier this year and Think already has announced it will sell the car in France, the U.K. and Scandinavia. With its current battery, the City can go about 110 miles on a charge at a top speed of around 62 miles an hour. Lane said Think North America aims to sell the car in the U.S. market for less than a Toyota (TM) Prius, which retails for around $25,000. Batteries being developed by Think’s partners A123Systems in collaboration with General Electric (GE) will boost the range and top speed, Willums has noted.

“This is not just a one-off kind of deal,” says Rockport’s Wilber James, who is serving as Think North America’s president while a CEO search is underway. “Being venture capitalists, we’re on the cutting edge in battery technology. We’re not just passive investors; we’re very active in this company.”

Think CEO Jan Olaf-Willums, who appeared on stage with Lane and James, said he hopes to sell a few thousand cars next year — starting in California — and then ramp up to 30,000 cars. “We can put assembly plants anywhere in six months,” said Willums, referring to Think’s $10 million modular factories.

James and Lane seemed taken with the little electric. “I had the privilege of sitting in back of the City while Ray Lane drove the car with Jan-Olaf through the streets of Geneva,” said James. “It’s a fun car to drive.”

Green Wombat can confirm that. I drove a Think City last year when I visited Willums in Norway for a story I wrote for Business 2.0 magazine. The stylish two-seater with the roof-to-bumper glass hatch accelerates like a sports cars, thanks to the instant transmission of power from the electric motor to the wheels.

Willums brought two Thinks – one a sporty orange convertible, the other a black coupe — to Pasadena. “That will be a big seller in Los Angeles,” Lane told Green Wombat as a crowd gathered around the cabriolet in the Southern California sunshine outside the Langham hotel in Pasadena.

Since I drove the City last, it’s been been upgraded with an interactive, Internet-enabled touchscreen. The City will sync with your home computer, download your schedule, your shopping list and monitor your battery usage and driving habits, according to Dipender Saluja, whose Silicon Valley startup, Automatik, is developed the the technology to create what Willums calls a “computer on wheels.” The onboard system is designed to communicate with a smart utility grid so that the owner can be charged or credited for the electricity consumed or returned back to the grid from the car’s battery.

On Monday, I got behind the wheel of the Think City that sported a large sunroof and took a quick spin around the hotel grounds with Willums. Version 2.0 of the car was a more refined iteration of the pre-production car I drove last year in Norway but still a blast to drive.

Lane and Willums said Think will begin by selling a few thousand cars to corporate fleets. He also said Think North America is in discussions with utilities like PG&E (PCG).

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