Sunday, May 06, 2007

The wrong way to sell fuel cells, or any technology for that matter

Grant Jackson at The State relates the conversation below that occurred at the 4th Annual FuelCellSouth Conference in Columbia last week. Sam Logan, CEO of fuel-cell company Logan Energy, asked an audience of potential customers how many planned to buy a fuel cell. That's the wrong question from someone enamored with his technology. When no one was chomping at the bit to buy his whiz bang product, he had the audacity to tell customers, "“I’m ashamed of you.”

Logan is an entrepreneur with a solution in search of a problem. This is a classic example of the wrong way to sell any technology, and it is one of the best ways to lose lots of money.

The question Logan should ask is where is it that customers are trying to accomplish something and finding all of their available options difficult, inconvenient, or expensive. If he can use his fuel cell technology to help customers do a job they already trying to get done cheaper, easier, or more conveniently, then he has found a beachhead to a very successful company. Word of mouth from satisfied with attract other customers to his door.

I don't know anything about Logan Energy. Perhaps it is a great company, and its CEO was just having a bad day. Let's hope so.

My bigger concern is that there's lots of hype in South Carolina about fuel cell technology. Indeed there is tremendous potential. But that potential will only be realized if we get beyond hyping the technology and find customers not currently well served for whom we can use fuel cells to deliver distinctive solutions.

Conversation reported in Why should fuel cells be a hard sell?

In a room full of people working to create a fuel-cell and hydrogen industry, Sam Logan posed the question:

“How many of you anticipate buying a product in the next year that will be powered by a fuel cell?”

Silence.

Not a single hand went up during the first session of the 4th Annual FuelCellSouth Conference.

“I’m ashamed of you,” said Logan, chief executive officer of Logan Energy, a Roswell, Ga.-based fuel-cell company.

“There are products out there today that are commercial. If you have the ability to make purchasing decisions, you really should consider that.

“Before long, you will be able to buy all sorts of devices that are powered by small, portable fuel cells, so look for them.”

4 comments:

Garry Golden said...

Agreed it was the wrong strategy. And that hopefully he was just having a bad day - or slipped into a shock style approach.

Despite the current tone of skepticism - I do believe that fuel cells hold great promise for decentralized and local energy production. South Carolina does have momentum there... or at least they have a vision!

As far as fuel cell needs that do exist- reliable streams of electrons is number one. Opportunities for stationary power systems will continue to grow.

But where mainstream audiences might find value is in micro fuel cell technology and the ability to unplug all objects from the grid - only to 'refill' packets (likely solid state sponges of H2). Consumers might rejoice in cutting the cord and have the freedom to put any object in any location.

When I speak of fuel cells- I point out the benefits related to design and convenience. I avoid environmental reasons and focus on value added elements of consumption.

Anyway- glad your post/blog came up in my reader. I follow research developments related to energy on my blog. And have had my eye on S.C. for several years as a place exploring new visions around the future of energy... good luck!

Garry
www.garrygolden.net

Tom Strange said...

Golly, where to begin? Surely a poor job of selling, but more importantly, a continuation of the myth of energy production from fuel cells. They can be a reasonably effecient energy storage device, but do not produce energy in and of themselves. Hydrogen comes from electricity, utimately pulled off the grid. The catalyst is quickly poisoned by heavier fuels, and hydrogen storage is far from technically solved. So much misinformation and politics surround the concept of a hydrogen economy that we will be decades stripping it back, while SC invests heavily into what is currently science fiction. We need to focus on energy production, and that is an even tougher challenge, but one with an actual payoff in the end.

Dave Bode said...

As is so often the case, a person's comment has been taken out of context and used as the basis to express a personal abeit misguided opinion. You chose to excerpt only a small portion of Grant Jackson's article on the difficulty of creating a positive public awareness for fuel cell and hydrogen technology. You isolated Sam Logan's exhortation to the audience and used it to castigate the fuel cell industry for being enamored with its technology and hyping its wiz bang products. I find it interesting that you chose to ignore the inciteful observations cited in the article that were made by Shannon Baxter of the South Carolina Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Alliance and Russ Keller of the South Carolina Research Authority. The hype that surounds the hydrogen and fuel cell industry is indicative of the same outsized expectations that people have about biodiesel and ethanol and previously had about wind and solar energy.

It's too bad that you haven't taken the time to learn anything about Logan Energy and Sam Logan. If you had, you would have found that Logan Energy is a highly successful company and that Sam Logan is recognized throughout the world as a leader in hydrogen and fuel cell technology.

It's too bad that you haven't taken the time to attend FuelCellSouth. If you had, you would have learned that dedicated private and public individuals and companies in Clemson, Greenwood, Columbia and Charleston have gone beyond the hype and are delivering distinctive hydrogen and fule cell solutions for real-world customers.

If you had taken the time to attend FuelCellSouth, you would have learned that Sam Logan wasn't having a bad day. Instead, he was passing on some of his passion and dedication to a receptive audience.

Next time you form an opinion, it might be a good idea to base it on first-hand information.

Swamp Fox said...

Dave

Thanks for your note.

I didn't just selectively lift a small part of Grant Jackson's article. The quote is from his lead to the article. Logan's comment's made a tremendous impact on Jackson, and presumably on others at FuelCellSouth.

I confessed that "I don't know anything about Logan Energy. Perhaps it is a great company." I also acknowledged that I believe "there is great potential" with fuel cell technology. But even you acknowledged "the hype that surounds the hydrogen and fuel cell industry..."

South Carolina politicians are stating that "hydrogen can be to South Carolina what oil is to Texas." That's just slightly over the top, given the current state of the science.

Above, Tom Strange expressed his concerns about the hype surrounding fuel cells. Tom has a pretty good nose for technology that is commercializable, with a long list of patents to his credit. Other scientists in major research and development facilities in SC that I know have also expressed serious reservations with the long term viability of fuel cells technology.

I'm at the ThinkTEC Innovation Conference in Charleston this week. (Fortunately South Carolina has reached the point where it is almost possible to attend every event any more!) Many people a ThinkTEC have commented to me that they share the concerns expressed in my post.

So while I wasn't at FuelCellSouth, my observations are not completely uninformed either. (In fact, FuelCellSouth spun out of the Carolina Crescent Coalition that I formed several years ago, and this is the first FuelCellSouth conference that I have missed.)

The state does have significant assets in hyrogen technology, especially in hydrogen storage, and it is appropriate that we make investments to attempt to establish a leadership position. At the same time we need to be realistic about setting appropriate expectations and focusing on "delivering distinctive hydrogen and fule cell solutions for real-world customers." In that you and I agree.