Posted: April 01, 2009

Small biz tech-startup: Lightening Hybrids Inc.

Hybrid car company out to make 'something that's sexy'

Eric Peterson

INITIAL LIGHT BULB:

Brothers Dan and Sam Johnson, formerly chief executive officer/founder and chief technical officer of Loveland’s SA Robotics, teamed with Colorado State University’s Tim Reeser to launch a hybrid car company. Dan sold his equity stake in SA last year and began looking with Sam for a new entrepreneurial opportunity.

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Bonnie Trowbridge, Tim Reeser, Dan Johnson and Sam Johnson

After discovering hydraulic hybrid truck technology by sponsoring a team of CSU engineering students, the Johnsons came up with an idea for a startup that would not only pursue the $10 million Progressive Automotive X Prize (www.progressiveautoxprize.org) but also commercialize the resulting prototype vehicle into a niche car that gets the contest’s required 100 miles to the gallon with a minimum top speed of 100 miles an hour.

“There has been a great deal of interest in using hydraulic for energy storage in trucks,” Sam says. “With all of the stop-and-go traffic, they are able to recover about 70 or 80 percent of the energy and then re-use it when they start accelerating again. It’s turned out to be very cost-effective technology.”

Lightning Hybrids now employs more than 10 full-time people in Loveland; Reeser serves in an advisory capacity, Dan Johnson is chief executive officer and Sam is chief technical officer. Their engineer father — also Sam Johnson — came out of retirement to work with his sons. “Dad keeps us in line,” the younger Sam says.

IN A NUTSHELL:

Lightning Hybrids will utilize hydraulic energy storage and other design innovations to bring an ultra-efficient next-generation vehicle to market. “We’re working on a hybrid car technology that uses hydraulics and biodiesel,” says Lightning Hybrids Director of Marketing Bonnie Trowbridge. “It’s a very clean technology. On top of that, we want something that looked really good.”

The company is slated to unveil its prototype demonstration vehicle at this month’s Denver Auto Show. The longer term horizon for Lightning Hybrids is to raise outside capital and start manufacturing about 1,000 cars a year by 2012. The target sticker price for the vehicle is $40,000 to $60,000.

Besides the hydraulic energy storage, Lightning Hybrids is utilizing carbon fiber, aerodynamic design and a small, efficient engine to hit the speed and gas mileage targets. “Instead of a 3,500-pound car, you’re going to have an 1,800-pound car,” the younger Sam Johnson says. “Instead of a coefficient drag of 0.3 or 0.35, it’s got to be below 0.2.”

And while the company is going after the Auto X Prize, Lightning Hybrids is not in business for the sole sake of the contest. Says Trowbridge: “Whether or not the company wins the X Prize or not, we’re going to produce the car.”

THE MARKET:

Trowbridge says the target markets are individual auto enthusiasts (i.e. “people who want to look good and make a statement at the same time”) as well as organizations looking for fleets of ultra-green vehicles. “I’d love to get the state of Colorado driving these cars around,” she says.

FINANCING:

Along with their friends and family, the Johnsons self-financed the launch of Lightning Hybrids, but they aim to land a round of venture capital in the future. “We had to rethink our funding strategy, because the normal sources of angel and venture capital sources dried up in October,” Sam Johnson says. “That was our initial launch date.” He says the target for outside capital is $3 million to $10 million to build the first several prototypes.

WHERE: LOVELAND   |  FOUNDED: OCT. 2008  |  WWW.LIGHTNINGHYBRIDS.COM

Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com

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