It was the second of September of 2009. I was at the tail end of, at the time, was a rather lengthy commute of about 10 minutes (assuming all of the lights were green). After the usual barrage of annoying radio ads, we were at the top of the news hour. “Today the Obama Administration has approved a loan guarantee to Solyndra for the amount of $535 million dollars”: I was speechless. Not only because I was driving alone but, at the very notion that a startup company, being as risky of an investment as it is, could acquire such a loan from the United States government. And that’s ignoring for the moment that the US was deep in the worst recession since The Great Depression. Granted, if the cylindrical solar panel company were able to successfully offer clean energy to the masses, then just maybe it wouldn’t have been such a call, after all, everyone get’s plenty of sunlight: for free.
Then months went by. And being not far from the site of the new Solyndra building in Fremont, California, I had the privilege of seeing this monument being erected. But, even after the building was completed, very little was reported about their progress. Then in early 2011, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Obviously the failure was quite unfortunate, but the real travesty was that half a billion was fast-tracked into this highly risky venture with one key ingredient missing: accountability. Yes, accountability, which sadly is a foreign concept for some and viewed as a proverbial white elephant for others. With accountability: your neck is on the line — produce, or die. Without it — well then, as they say “anything goes”.
Let’s turn back the clock about ten years. The Month is October and K.R Sridhar of Bloom Energy had a meeting with John Doerr from the large venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. It was this meeting that led to the green startup receiving more than $400 million of startup funding. For those who are not aware, Bloom Energy is the manufacturer of “Bloom Energy Servers” which process a variety of bio-mass energy sources to generate electricity. From the surface, this appears like a much more far-fetched idea than cylindrical solar panels, yet eBay has reported that Bloom Servers have saved the company $100,000 in electric bills since mid-2009. And just recently Apple has announced that they will be using Bloom Boxes for their new North Carolina Data Center.
So, what is it that makes The Bloom Box different from Solyndra, and what does this mean for the Saab bidding process? Aside from vast differences in the technologies themselves, a key difference: is the source of funding and its oversight. The funding for Solyndra was fast-tracked to delivery despite the explicit disapproval of a White House Budget Analyst. Whereas, the Bloom Box was funded by venture capitalists, who invariably have the incentive to ensure that the recipients of the money are held accountable. This is key, since so many venture capitalists in the Silicon Valley were burned by poor performing startups: accountability is now a requirement.
With Saab’s bankruptcy serving a massive blow to the economy of Trollhättan, and government officials facing newfound scrutiny as a select few are tasked with determining the fate of Saab: were are now down to the wire. The bankruptcy administrators are now being held personally responsible for their final decision of who gets to purchase Saab. This level of accountability is not to be taken lightly. Furthermore, once a Saab purchase has been completed, a group of key Saab staff members will spring into action — armed with all their skills, ingenuity and experiences from the past. That is something that the future owner of Saab will have to be prepared for, as the company prepares for a restart. The parallels that I draw between Bloom Energy and the Saab bidding process, isn’t necessarily intended to imply that NEVS is the best choice.
This is a question that continues to be hotly debated. But, what I ask for us to consider is that NEVS could very well turn out to be the choice that invariably leads to Saab’s comeback. This takes me to the final aspect of accountability, which leads to innovation. The instinctive response to accountability is fear. But, as an engineer, I can say from personal experience, that something magical happens when this accountability becomes transformed into a personal challenge. A challenge that inspires one to think outside of the box. Before you know it, fear fades away, and the engineers finds themselves feeling a sense of euphoria, as they overcome technical obstacles. Consider eXWD, for example. I can easily envision this working in rather exciting ways. Perhaps one could have multiple operation modes: “eco-sport” (where the engine has reduced power or is shut-off completely and power is provided solely by electricity to the back wheels), “dynamic-sport” (power is dynamically attenuated between front and back axels depending on slippage detection on each of the wheels to improve traction) or even a “speed-sense” mode where the engine is utilized more at speeds where gas mileage is optimal. As you can see adding electricity to the Saab powertrain opens the door to some truly exciting possibilities.
Whomever wins the bid, rest-assured that the ones building Saabs of the future will be the same talent that was behind cars that we know and love. Whether it be Saab veterans, and/or future apprentices thereof, if there is anyone that I have confidence in, to inject passion and ingenuity in the Saab cars of the future: it would be them.