Should you seek publicity for your company or shun it?
It's a legitimate debate. Tesla Motors lets the public and press examine its cars, and helped pioneer the use of blogs to keep the world informed. This openness brought it massive amounts of worldwide attention and goodwill.
But when it began to miss deadlines, Tesla's every misstep became a headline.
On the other hand, the Silicon Valley graveyard is filled with companies that were too hip and sophisticated for mere mortals. Montalvo Systems, a chip outfit that had hoped to take on Intel, used to worry about whether competitors could figure out who worked there by studying the cars in the parking lot. The company raised over $100 million and never made public statements. That is, until its life as an independent company ended. Sun bought it for a fraction of that amount.
Overall, the dark energy consumed in paranoia seems to outweigh the damage caused by saying too much. It's not like Howard Hughes started saving his urine in jars and watching Ice Station Zebra all the time because he was listening to the fan base.
Still, that hasn't stopped these companies from drawing a cloak over their operations. Here's my list of my favorite paranoid green companies. And if any of you guys listed call to clarify a point, I'll give you a merit badge.
1. EEStor: "The Da Vinci Code" of the automotive parts business. The Texas-based company has devised an ultracapacitor that will put the oil companies out of business overnight, claim fans (see Sounds Like EEStor Will Delay Again). Detractors say the company's products violate the laws of physics. EEStor, however, says very little about itself. Occasionally, CEO Richard Weir answers the phone and says a few sentences to a reporter, but that's it. Most of the time, partners such as Zenn Motors or rabid fans that are completely disconnected from the company do the talking. Conjecture-does Kleiner, Perkins regret the investment? Is former Dell chairman Mort Topfer deeply involved?-often rules.
All the public really knows is that it keeps delaying its products. If the company got renamed Redrum Components, it wouldn't surprise me.
2. Bloom Energy: Another Kleiner company. Bloom tends to have a selective form of paranoia. If the New York Times or Tom Friedman come knocking, the doors open. All others use the service entrance. Unfortunately, the obsequious gushing coverage of the company has yet to hit on one of the most important questions how come over six years of work and $250 millions in capital has resulted in virtually zero commercially available solid oxide fuel cells from the company? Inquiring minds want to know.
Fun side note: Bloom used to be called Ion America, which made it the only company in greentech to have a name that you could confuse with an afternoon TV talk show.
3. First Solar: The thin-film solar company is a favorite of Wall Street, but try to get a factory tour. Visitors are not allowed to see the machinery in action, I'm told. Investors-who have lots of money in the company and wouldn't know a chemical vapor deposition system from a hot dog cooker from Sharper Image-have been adamantly refused tours of the factory, some have told me. Still, First makes a lot of money so call this Highlights Paranoia. It's fun with a purpose.
4. Solyndra: In the past few months, Solyndra has flipped 180 degrees. Now CEO Chris Gronet speaks openly about the company's plans and technologies. But earlier this year, a reporter at another publication told us that the company threatened legal action if he didn't leave the parking lot. He was trying to figure out how many people worked there. (Hey, maybe Montalvo had a point.)
Just a few weeks ago, Solyndra's Website and "for inquiries, call here" number were dead-ends. In a way, it was fun. You could call up and leave, "I'm just confirming that your COO shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," as a message, and you knew someone at the other end was listening.
5. The Quercus Trust: The Website redirects to Google. Founder David Gelbaum doesn't give interviews, and the company has invested $2 million into a technology that will try to pinpoint the location of Bigfoot. Still trying to confirm that last one (see The Secret Life of the Quercus Trust).
6. Makani Wind: Makani Wind isn't completely paranoid. We know that Google invested around $10 million into the company and that it wants to do high-altitude wind energy. But it has all of the cryptic trappings: the vague, uninformative Website, the stunning performance claims ("...produce energy at an unsubsidized real cost significantly below that of the least expensive coal-fired power plants...") with zero technical backup, and then there are the fashion photographs of the management team. The Website looks more like an ad for a new type of shower gel.
7. Planktos Science: Sometimes paranoids are secretive and charmingly delusional. Sometimes, they are angry and bitter (see Planktos Mounts a Comeback). Here's an open letter earlier this year from Russ George, the president of Planktos Science, which wants to capture carbon dioxide be seeding the oceans with iron:
Tragically some environmental organizations have attacked this field of ecorestoration science in an attempt to prohibit further ocean research. ... They have chosen to engage in a classical 'strawman attack' demonizing their opposition through the publication and spreading of 'spin doctored' press releases replete with obvious lies and propaganda suggesting that there is no scientific basis and that there are no laws governing this field.
He may be right. My ancestors have almost all been peasants since 1823. Before that, we were monkeys. Schooling does not run deep. But that doesn't mean I can't scoff in the present.
8. Zap: Disclosure. I like Steve Schneider, CEO of the electric transportation company. But the company's communication department goes AWOL if you make fun of its three-wheeled car that tops out at 35 miles an hour.