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photo: Think

This post first appeared on Grist.

“Honey, could you run down to the store and pick up some milk, tofu and one of those new Think City electric cars?”

That could be a conversation you’ll be hearing soon in Switzerland (in French, German Italian and Romansh, of course) now that Norwegian electric automaker Think has struck a deal with Swiss retailer Migros to market the City.

Sort of a cooperatively owned Costco, Migros is Switzerland’s largest supermarket chain and operates more than 600 stores across the country. In a deal announced Wednesday, Migros will sell the battery-powered Think urban runabout through a new division called M-Way.

“We have the key central retail locations all over Switzerland and beyond, now we want to use these bases to spread the news and sales of electric vehicles such as the Think City,” Herbert Bolliger, President of the Federation of Migros Cooperatives, said in a statement.

The announcement caught my attention because it’s a reminder that, one, not all green tech innovation is destined to happen here in California, and two, business model innovation will be just as important as technology itself in transforming electric cars from a niche to a knockout.

From its reincarnation a few years ago under the leadership of then-chief executive Jan Olaf-Willums, Think sought not to sell so much a car as mobility. Internet-enabled and connected to your mobile phone and the power grid, the plastic-bodied City was designed to plug into the transportation and electric power networks rather than be just another isolated hunk of metal rolling down the road.

You might buy the City but lease it’s battery or drive one when needed through a car-sharing service like Zipcar. Or from your neighborhood grocery store.

James Andrews, a Think spokesman, told me that sales of the City will begin this summer at Migros supermarkets. M-Way will initially set up retail outlets at Migros stores in urban areas.

It’s a smart strategy to expose consumers to electric cars. After all, how often do you casually stroll through car dealerships, which, in the United States at least, tend to be isolated in “auto rows” off the beaten path.

Now how often do you pop down to Whole Foods or Safeway for a gallon of milk? You’re probably likely to check out the City or another electric car if you pass it on the way to the wine aisle. Maybe you’ll even take one for a test drive around the block.

Migros’ M-Way already has sold a fleet of 60 Citys to Alpmobil, an eco-tourism company that will provide them for the use of its guests at a resort in the Swiss Alps.

Back in the 1990s, Think leased a previous version of the City to San Francisco Bay Area residents as part of a pilot project that let them plug the cars in to charge at train stations. Among the Think early adopters was a guy named Sergey Brin.

San Francisco is likely to be among the first U.S. cities to receive shipments of the latest City when Think begins selling the car in America later this year. Who knows, you might even be able to buy one at the farmer’s market one day.

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photo: Think

Norwegian electric car maker Think has exited bankruptcy protection and brought on board new investors. As I write in the New York Times Green Inc. blog today:

Norwegian electric car maker Th!nk is back on the road.

The company on Thursday said it has exited bankruptcy protection and secured $47 million in new funding to restart production of the Think City, a highway-capable urban runabout with a range of about 112 miles.

Think had shut down its assembly line outside of Oslo late last year when the global financial crisis cut off access to new capital.

But is Think still a Norwegian automaker? The company did get some local street cred Thursday: Among its new shareholders is Investinor, an investment fund backed by the Norwegian government.

Still, in another sign of the globalization of the nascent electric car industry, the Think City will now be made in Finland at the plant of one of its new investors, Valmet Automotive. (Valmet assembles the Porsche Boxster and Cayman and will begin producing the Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid electric sports sedan.)

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Think

Not too many car factories are getting built in the United States these days, especially in the midst of a global economic meltdown. So the prospect of landing Norwegian electric carmaker Think’s North American plant will have Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski and Senator Ron Wyden turning out Tuesday to take a test drive of the Think City in Portland with company CEO Richard Canny.

Oregon is one of eight states Think is considering for the assembly plant. The company has been coy about identifying those states and has only said that Michigan and Oregon are in the running. About Tuesday’s media event, Think said in a statement that “the future of electric car manufacturing in Oregon will be the topic of a news conference.”

When it comes to electric car factories, there’s a certain Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown risk for prospective hosts. Silicon Valley electric car company Tesla Motors, for instance, so far has signed and then canceled agreements to build a factory for its new Model S sports sedan in New Mexico and San Jose. Los Angeles, the latest factory site, hopes the third time’s a charm.

Nothing nefarious at work here, just the tenuous economics of startup electric car companies. Think, for example, is on the hunt for additional capital so it can restart its assembly plant in Norway. It idled the factory and laid off workers late last year when the credit crunch dried up funding. The company has some heavyweight backers, including General Electric (GE), and marquee venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Rockport Capital have invested in its North American operation.

Think says it will  apply for a low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Energy under its Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program to help pay for its U.S. factory. Undoubtedly part of the bake-off with the eight states under consideration is to see which can offer the best tax breaks and incentives.

After the first-year startup phase, the U.S. factory will initially employ 300 workers and is projected to produce 16,000 cars annually, according to Think. Capacity would eventually be expanded to 60,000 cars and a workforce of 900. A research and development center will employ about 70 people.

Green Wombat is betting that Think will try to locate the assembly plant on the West Coast. So far Think has targeted densely populated, environmentally friendly cities — London, Amsterdam — to roll out the Think City, a two-seater urban runabout that goes about 112 miles on a charge.  Former CEO Jan-Olaf Willums told Green Wombat last year that the San Francisco Bay Area was a likely gateway market in the U.S. In November, the mayors of San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland inked a deal with Better Place to build a $1 billion electric car charging network in the Bay Area.

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Präsentation der Studie „Auswirkung von Elektrofahrzeugen auf die Stromwirtschaft“

photo: Think

Norwegian electric car maker Think has started shipping its City urban runabout to an Austria utility as part of a government project to test the impact of EVs on the power grid.

The €4.7 million ($6.3 million) Vlotte initiative is placing 100 electric vehicles with companies, municipal governments and individuals in Austria’s Bregenz region. The project is being managed by utility Vorarlberger Kraftwerke and will evaluate how well the cars perform in an area where most people drive an average 50 kilometers (31 miles) a day. The Think City has a range of about 180 kilometers (112 miles).

Solar arrays will be used to charge the plastic-bodied cars to ensure they remain carbon neutral, according to the utility. In 2010, Vlotte will offer electric cars for lease if there is sufficent demand from local residents.

Think CEO Richard Canny said Think is expected to supply most of the cars for the project.

It’s the latest deal for Think, which continues to seed the City across Europe despite financial problems that have stalled its Norwegian assembly plant. Earlier this month, Think signed an agreement to supply 500 cars to a Dutch auto leasing company and announced plans to open a factory in the United States in 2010.

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photo: Think

For a company in the breakdown lane of near-bankruptcy, Norwegian electric carmaker Think keeps hitting the accelerator. On Wednesday, Think said it has signed an agreement to sell 500 of its City electric cars this year to a subsidiary of Mobility Service Netherlands, a Dutch automotive leasing company.

The deal follows Think’s announcement last week that it plans to open an assembly plant in the United States by 2010 to produce the urban runabout.

Think sales director Richard Waitz told Green Wombat that the company will supply cars to ElmoNet, a subsidiary of Mobility Service Netherlands that will lease only electric cars. Earlier this year the Dutch government launched a 10 million euro ($13 million) incentive program for electric cars.

“We’ve entered into a similar agreement in Austria,” Waitz said. That deal, signed last month, calls for Think to supply up to 100 cars to a consortium of Austrian companies.

First, however, Think must raise the capital to resume full production of the City. The Oslo company idled its Norwegian assembly plant and laid off workers late last year as the financial crisis cut off funding. Think obtained a $5.7 million bridge loan in January and said last week it expects to raise more money from its existing European and U.S. investors.

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photo: Think

Norwegian electric car company Think announced Thursday that it will open a factory in the United States in 2010 to produce its City urban runabout.

Think CEO Richard Canny, a former Ford executive, is in Ann Arbor, Mich., this week meeting with officials from eight states vying for the factory. But don’t put in your order just yet – only 2,500 cars will roll off the assembly line the first year and they will be reserved for demonstration projects and fleet sales.

“The U.S. is quickly overtaking Europe as an attractive market for EVs and is an ideal location to engineer and build EVs,” Canny said in a statement. “We see ourselves playing a small but potentially growing role in re-inventing the U.S. auto industry by bringing back new manufacturing jobs to the U.S.”  Think has not yet responded to Green Wombat’s inquiry about which states, other than Michigan, is in talks with the company for the factory.

How Think will finance its North American expansion remains an open question. Just three months ago the company was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy as the global financial crisis cut off capital and forced Think to idle its Norwegian factory and lay off workers. The company obtained $5.7 million interim financing in January and recalled some workers. A report on Treehugger Thursday cited sources that said Think was contemplating relocating to Sweden or the U.K.

Think spokeswoman Katinka Von Der Lippe told Green Wombat on Thursday that the interim financing has been extended but that the company is still seeking a new infusion of capital to resume full production of the City, a two-seater that goes 112 miles on a charge with a top speed of about 62 miles per hour.  Update: Think’s U.S. spokesman, Brendan Prebo, tells Green Wombat that Think will raise most of the new capital from its existing European and U.S. investors, which include General Electric (GE), so it can resume full production of the City in Norway.

The company said that it will apply for a low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Energy under its Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program to help pay for the factory. Prebo declined to reveal the size of the DOE loan the company will seek but noted it “will be a substantial investment for Think” but small compared to what some of the big automakers want.

After the first-year startup phase, the U.S. factory will initially employ 300 workers and produce 16,000 cars annually, according to Think. Capacity would eventually be expanded to 60,000 cars and a workforce of 900. A research and development center will employ about 70 people.

But calling a Think facility a factory is somewhat misleading. It’s really an assembly plant and the one Green Wombat visited in 2007 in Aurskog, Norway, was more Ikea than Henry Ford, with plastic-bodied Think City models quietly gliding through clean well-lighted spaces.

The question for Think, Tesla Motors other EV startups is whether they can gain a foothold in the market before the major players big-foot them with their own electric and plug-in electric cars. Ford (F), General Motors (GM), Honda (HMC), Toyota (TM), Renault-Nissan and other global automakers all are accelerating plans to introduce electric vehicles.

Thursday’s announcement follows the formation of Think North America, unveiled in April 2008 at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference.  A bicoastal group of venture capital firms – Silicon Valley’s Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Boston’s Rockport Capital Partners – signed on as lead investors.

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photo: Think

Here’s a bit of good news from the otherwise dreary alternative automotive world: Norwegian electric carmaker Think has put 44 laid-off employees back to work following the completion of a round of interim financing.

In December, Think halted production of its City battery-powered urban runabout and laid off half its workforce as financing to expand the company’s operations dried up. Then last week Think announced that it had obtained a $5.7 million bridge loan from investors led by Ener1, a battery maker who is supplying the City with lithium-ion power plants.

The financing has been completed and Think said Friday that it had rehired 44 workers in management, sales and supplier operations. But Think is hardly out of the Norwegian woods yet. The company still needs to raise around $40 million to resume full-scale production of the City and proceed with its plans to sell the electric car in select European markets outside Norway before expanding to the United States. Think has raised more than $100 million from European and U.S. investors, including General Electric (GE) and Silicon Valley and East Coast venture capitalists.

“We are very content that this first visible step in our plan towards restart now is in place,” said Think CEO Richard Canny, a former Ford (F) executive, in a statement. “We still need to raise the permanent capital, but this first call-back signals both internally and externally that Think is committed and able to turn the situation into a positive direction for the company.”

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