Although natural gas is an attractive transportation fuel, the high cost of the compressor systems necessary for its use as compressed natural gas (CNG) is limiting widespread adoption. Onboard Dynamics solves that problem by taking natural gas compression and integrating it into the automotive engine. I had a fascinating discussion with Rita Hansen, CEO from Onboard Dynamics, on how they are taking this technology that originated at Oregon State University-Cascades to market. My guess is Rita’s ability to obtain capital ($6.6 MM), understand the market, find the right partners and employees, and attract attention (White House Demo Day) will provide Onboard Dynamics the right formula for taking great technology into the market place.
Susan Neylon – Can you give our readers a summary of your technology?
Rita Hansen – Usually you need a compression system to utilize natural gas in the automobile. In our system the engine does the compression. We adapted a standard V8 automotive engine so one bank fires normally to provide power and the other bank provides multistage compression of natural gas. It does not require electrical power and therefore can be used where there is no standby power.
Susan Neylon – How was the technology funded?
Rita Hansen – We were very fortunate. In 2014, ARPA-e provided $2.88 million with a 20% cost share largely coming from two state-funded programs called Oregon Best and ONAMI for a total $3.6 million investment. This allowed Onboard Dynamics to develop from spin-off research occurring at Oregon State University-Cascades into a growing early-stage company. In April of this year, the company secured an additional $3miilion in public and private funding from ARPA-e, Portland Seed Fund, NW Natural and other utilities, and private investors. This funding will help us get over the valley of death and commercialize the technology. We are expecting to start generating revenues in 2017.
Susan Neylon – What are your plans to commercialize the technology?
Rita Hansen – In the beginning our focus was to integrate it into the engine of a vehicle, making that vehicle capable of “self-refueling” from the low pressure natural gas distribution network. This onboard system has been demonstrated on a test stand and will soon be integrated into a vehicle operating on the road. We have already approached automotive OEM’s and companies that own and operate fleets, such as Frito Lay, to adapt the system. However, recently, we have been approached by the utility companies and others as they would love to have a portable, trailer mounted, self-contained CNG compressor station which could be used for pipeline operations, new fleet conversions, existing customers that need backup capability, and recovery of renewable natural gas from landfills and farms.
Susan Neylon – What sort of partnerships have you formed?
Rita Hansen – We have developed multiple partnerships over time. First and foremost, we worked with Oregon State University to license and transfer the technology. Then, we partnered with many different collaborators, for example Czero, to further develop our technology. Now, we are turning our attention to partnering with Utilities and local manufacturing to commercialize the technology.
Susan Neylon – One of the things I noticed in your literature is that your company was highlighted at the White House. Can you tell me about this?
Rita Hansen – President Obama hosted a Demo Day to highlight entrepreneurs from various backgrounds and regions. Onboard Dynamics was one of the 32 companies that were chosen to exhibit their technology in rooms around the White House. We had an opportunity to speak with investors, foundations, strategic marketers and visiting entrepreneurs. We were able to share our company’s vision and get feedback for potential markets. It really was an experience of a lifetime.
Susan Neylon – What keeps you up at night?
Rita Hansen – What doesn’t keep me up at night? There are so many details to running a business and I am always worrying about things that aren’t getting done. The hardest thing is making decisions about hiring staff. We realized we have been blessed with the commitment of both public and private funding. We need to deliver and therefore it is important that we get the absolutely best talent available.
Susan Neylon – Well it sounds like you are well on your way to success.