It was founded nearly three decades ago, before the World Wide Web and the commercial launch of mobile phones, and only a few years after the creation of software titan Microsoft Corp.
Ballard Power Systems Inc. of Vancouver, British Columbia, is arguably the daddy of the fuel-cell industry, spurring excitement back in the late 1990s about a not-so-distant future of hydrogen-powered buses and cars powered by high-tech fuel cells. But by the turn of the century, much of the hype had been replaced by skepticism that the technical and economic challenges of getting fuel-cell cars on the road would take decades, not years, to overcome.
In stark contrast to Microsoft, Ballard has yet to generate a profit or commercialize the technology behind its international reputation. Still, its influence on the evolution of the fuel-cell market and the clean-technology sector at large is undeniable, even if creation of a hydrogen economy and the mass manufacturing of fuel-cell cars remains an elusive goal.
The company over the years has proven fertile ground for the next-generation of greentech companies, each having learned hard lessons from papa Ballard. You might call them "Ballard Babies," the high-tech spawn of Ballard alumni eager to make a mark on the world - whether it's to beef up power to mobile phones, such as Angstrom Power and Tekion, or to improve the economics of running forklift fleets, such as Cellex Power and General Hydrogen. A common thread to most is the potential to achieve profitability and commercial success on a shorter timeline than Ballard.
"Our experiences at Ballard catalyzed the formation of this company," says Neil Huff, president and chief executive officer of Tekion, formerly known as Renew Power. The company, founded in 2003, is on the verge of launching a micro fuel-cell product based on formic acid. It's designed to constantly charge the battery on a mobile device, similar to the way hybrid-electric cars operate.
Huff was CEO of Ballard's lithium-battery division between 1992 and 1997, a business that was eventually spun out to form BlueStar Battery Systems. After a brief stint at nanomaterials company Lightyear Technologies, he teamed up with former Ballard colleague David McLeod on the belief that portable devices needed a better, longer-lasting source of power.
"Certainly, in the early days of Tekion, we received a lot of credibility because of our roles at Ballard," says Huff, adding that the relationship has helped over the years with financing efforts. So far, Tekion has raised $19 million, and it counts cell-phone maker Motorola as both a strategic investor and customer.
McLeod, the first nonfounding employee at Ballard, joined the company in 1983 and, after 15 years, proved integral to nurturing partnerships with Daimler Chrysler and the U.S. military. Now, as vice-president of marketing and business development at Tekion, he's amazed that with just four years of research and development the startup is so close to product launch.
"That's a direct result of Ballard, really," says McLeod, who also gives due credit to the universities and research centers around the Vancouver area, which, because of Ballard, has earned an international reputation as a cleantech cluster and center of excellence for fuel-cell innovation. "At one point, Ballard was like a university for people, and we could tap that talent." Huff, in Toronto with McLeod to drum up a final round of financing, nods in agreement. More than half of Tekion's employees are ex-Ballard. "When you have a Ballard, it's like an engine creating engineers and scientists."
Even Geoffrey Ballard, the fuel-cell father in the flesh, has tapped the pool of talent from the company he co-founded so long ago. He left Ballard in 1997, giving up his role as chairman, and two years later founded General Hydrogen Corp. to advance the use of fuel-cell systems in forklifts. Ballard alumni Craig Greenhill and Ed Mufford joined him in executive roles, while Ballard co-founder Paul Howard became vice-chairman.