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Silicon Valley Forum Quarterly Meeting – notes from Jerry Pohorsky

Silicon Valley Forum is a non-profit group that promotes partnerships between entrepreneurs, investors, and businesses. They hold a quarterly Venture Breakfast. The most recent one was held on December 3, 2013 and the topic was Electric Vehicles. The meeting took place at the Law Offices of Pillsbury in Palo Alto, CA.

Allison Leopold Tilley works at Pillsbury and has represented buyers and sellers as well as venture capitalists in mergers and acquisitions. She was the moderator of the discussion. Eric Wesoff of Greentech Media was one of the other panel members and also a “self proclaimed” moderator. He engaged the other panel members in a wide ranging and fast paced series of questions and answers about electric vehicles.

Eric’s opening statement mentioned that in 2012 there were 17,000 plug-in cars sold while in 2013 that number jumped to 52,000. He also said the Rocky Mountain Institute predicted that EVs will make up 50% of the vehicle fleet by 2050. Later he said that the Rocky Mountain Institute forecast for the number of EVs being sold in 2020 is only 1.5 million while current vehicle production rates are around 80 million per year. We still have a long way to go.

The other two panel members were John Suh of Hyundai Ventures and Mark Platshon of Birchmere Ventures. One of Mark’s clients is BMW which is introducing the “i” line of EVs and Hybrids such as the i3 and the i8 models.

John’s focus is on investing in companies that complement the EV experience such as integration with wireless devices that guide the driver to nearby charging stations, etc. He also shared that Hyundai is planning a Fuel Cell car in 2014 that would be a lease-only offering that included the Hydrogen fuel. He wasn’t sure exactly how this would be implemented commenting that the Hydrogen infrastructure is a “big headache”.

Eric was quick to pounce on this announcement asking “Why do you insist on fuel cells? John responded by saying that he was a proponent of diversity in the alternative fuel vehicle market and that fuel cell cars are still EVs. John was optimistic that some technical breakthroughs may eventually make Fuel Cell EVs more practical.

The discussion moved on and Mark had the following observations to share:
Every major automaker is designing their platforms to be a hybrid. Tesla is disrupting BMW and during one quarter Tesla’s sales of 5,000 Model S EVs exceeded the sales of several luxury car makers combined. This included the BMW 7 series cars as well as similar cars from Mercedes and Audi. Luckily BMW’s “bread and butter” product line is the 5 series. The new BMW i3 is targeted world wide as a smaller vehicle well suited to crowded areas like Hong Kong where parking spaces are a problem. The i8 is aimed at a different market and is not intended to directly compete with the Tesla.

When asked about opportunities for start ups in the EV market, Mark said that he thinks electric delivery vans will be a big growth area. Frito-Lay is already testing these.
EV enabling technologies are another market where startups can thrive. One example is grid storage systems that can power the big DC fast chargers to minimize their impact on the utilities.

Another example is “Green Driver” technology that receives wireless signals from traffic lights. Since most traffic lights are controlled by computers, such a system could let a driver know how many seconds it will be before a light changes from green to yellow to red. That way if the driver is close to the intersection they can speed up a bit and make the green light. Or if they are farther away, they can coast or slow down so that the light will be green just as they get there. Mark said that a field trial of such a system is currently underway in San Jose, CA.

Mark mentioned another “Green Driver” application for gasoline and diesel fueled cars. Modern cars are now being equipped with start/stop systems that will stop the engine when the car is idling and instantly start it again when the driver steps on the gas pedal. If the car had information from the traffic signal computer that the light will turn green in 3 seconds, it can just leave the motor running while if the light will stay red for a longer period, it will shut it off. This would save wear and tear on the starter motor.

After the panel discussion concluded, the attendees met with the panelists for further discussions. The general consensus is that this is a good time to invest in selected areas of the EV market that are poised for rapid growth.


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