ZENN logo. (Zero Emmsion No Noise)
After selling digIT Interactive Inc. in early 2000, Ian Clifford was ready for a new venture, one founded on a philosophy of capital growth tied to social and environmental responsibility: the essence of the ecopreneurial spirit. Along with Probyn, Ian drafted Marek Warunkiewicz, a marketing and branding expert to help build a company that was about creating a sustainable business that declared open war on climate change. In keeping with this philosophy the company name, Feel Good Cars, was inspired by the guilt-free experience of driving an electric car.
Their plan was to convert the French economy car, the Renault Dauphine, from a gas car into an electric one. During the 50’s and 60’s over four million internal combustion Dauphines were sold worldwide. It was a fairly straightforward matter to restore the car bodies, remove the internal combustion components and substitute a lead-acid battery energy system. The company called them "Dauphine Electrics" and their target price was about twenty five thousand dollars.
They began prototyping the Dauphine Electric in the fall of 2000 and by February 2001 they were showcasing their electric car at the Toronto International Auto Show. They printed 5000 brochures in anticipation of modest interest. Extensive media coverage drove consumers to their booth and before the end of the show, the company had 10,000 requests for additional information and 1,000 requests for test drives. They printed an additional 12,000 brochures during the show and sold 15 cars from the first 30 test drives!
The timing was right in Toronto. Year-round smog alerts had become the norm, gasoline prices were rising and global warming was morphing from an alarmist’s issue to one of mainstream concern. It was clear that the company’s current business model based on the Dauphine could not possibly meet pent up demand. They needed a mass production platform. Enter the Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, or NEV.
A NEV or low-speed vehicle (LSV) is a category of vehicle in the United States and Canada that has a governed top speed of 25 mph (40 km/h) and kept to roads with posted speed limits of 35 mph (60 km/h) or less. These vehicles are designed as city cars, able to negotiate their way through heavy traffic and as a neighborhood runabout – where freeway speeds are not required for a trip to the local grocery store.
This is the vehicle category in which the company wanted to initially play. To develop a freeway-capable car was possible – to do so in a way that was affordable to the masses was not. With NEVs, it was possible to design a safe, affordable car, even as a second vehicle, with existing battery technology.
The company did not want to design a vehicle from the ground up. Aside from being overly ambitious, they believed it was an unnecessary expenditure and risk of capital. They searched for a suitable host vehicle to utilize as a proven platform to ensure quality and reliability for their customers and found one in Microcar of Europe.
Microcar manufactures an exceptionally lightweight diesel-powered city car – a proven chassis in use for over 20 years and a perfect platform for an electric car. Feel Good Cars brought ten gliders (body without the internal combustion engine, transmission, exhaust system, fuel tank etc…) over to Canada and installed the company’s well-researched electric drive train. They discovered through numerous generations of prototypes that the two systems together offered a well-engineered electric vehicle: a solid all-weather car at a competitive price.
The company worked painstakingly for two years, developing the engineering necessary to create an efficient, safe, mass production electric vehicle. Now the challenge would be marketing a paradigm-shifting LSV into the North American market, starting with the United States.
Critical to their long-term goal to build highway capable electric vehicles was seeking out battery technology that would provide growth and platform flexibility in the future. Ian was still committed to changing the world by bringing electric cars to the masses. To that end, radical advancements in battery technology would be required. Ian understood that the company that controlled the rights to the most innovative and advanced energy storage technologies could potentially determine the future of transportation on a global scale. He was about to meet a like-minded individual, Richard Weir, founder of EEStor, Inc.
EEStor, Inc. is a Texas-based developer of energy storage devices founded in 2001 by Richard Weir and Carl Nelson, former senior managers in disk-storage technology at IBM and Xerox. EEStor was developing an ultra-capacitor that if proven successful, would revolutionize the automotive industry, enabling high-speed, long range electric cars that could be recharged in minutes.
It goes without saying that this piqued Ian’s interest in a very big way. EEStor’s patents reveal objectives that are nothing short of "replacing the electro-chemical battery" in almost every application and ultimately eradicating the internal combustion engine. A proposed 300 pound 52 KWH EESU (Electrical Energy Storage Unit) would have a projected charging time of 3-6 minutes, use no hazardous materials and unlike traditional batteries, its storage capacity would be negligibly impacted by cold temperatures. It could power a mid-size sedan for several hundred miles at highway speeds. The EESU would be akin to "the holy grail" in terms of battery technology.
EEStor was looking for an investment partner and FGC was looking for technology that would bring electric cars to the masses. After extensive due diligence, FGC determined that EEStor had a viable storage technology and the two companies negotiated an agreement that granted ZENN worldwide exclusive rights to use EEStor’s solid state technology in electric cars mid-size and smaller (approximately 40 million cars a year are sold worldwide in this category). as the Company also acquired a global license to all aftermarket conversions of any internal combustion passenger vehicle to electric drive.
As a testament to the viability of this venture in energy storage, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers - a leading venture capital company who were early investors in Google™®, Amazon.com® and Palm® also made an investment in EEStor. It should also be noted that Nobel laureate Al Gore, a fan of the ZENN, has recently joined Kleiner Perkins as a partner.
In 2005 the company met their future investment banking firm, Toronto-based Paradigm Capital and a future investor and chairperson of the board, Rick McGraw. Rick and other investors had created a Capital Pool Company or CPC on the TSX venture exchange (tsx.v). A CPC is like a SPAC (Special Pool Acquisition Company), which is specifically created to search out investment opportunities in private companies who are interested in going public. As an automotive industry veteran, Rick McGraw saw a unique opportunity in the company’s market proposition and had his own "ah-ha" moment behind the wheel of an early ZENN prototype. By January of 2006, Feel Good Cars Corporation was a public company on the TSX.V.
The company concluded that the time was right to commercialize its prototyping and research. The exciting opportunity attracted top professionals to the organization including Brian Cott, President and COO, a seasoned management executive from the high-tech industry; Michael Bergeron, VP Engineering, a former engineer at Global Electric Motors, the largest NEV manufacturer in the United States; Larry Schreiner, CFO, also a seasoned management executive from the high-tech industry; Gilles Allard, VP Production, a veteran of the automotive industry with over 20 years of assembly and manufacturing experience; and Dennis Hancock, VP Sales and Marketing, an expert on all aspects of automotive marketing.
The company had amassed an impressive amount of expertise in the industry. In June 2006, the first model produced won the Michelin Bibendum Challenge in Paris for the Best Urban Vehicle. The car performed exceptionally well in all categories including excellent overall design, acceleration, braking, lowest power consumption and lowest noise levels. Part of their go-to market strategy included a re-branding and overall name change. It was during this period that Feel Good Cars became ZENN Motor Company.
The ZENN car has met with immediate consumer interest and sales are ramping up across the United States. Increasingly, consumers are beginning to re-think their transportation needs and ultimately what legacy they want to leave behind in terms of environmental impact.
Al Gore’s campaign to raise awareness of climate change is also helping to bring environmental technology and the concept of the electric car from the ‘socks-and sandals fringe’ to the mainstream.
By mid 2007, 18 months after the company went public; cars were being delivered to a network of over 30 retailers in 20 states. The Company was successfully executing against its marketing plan by building up its national retailer base in key target markets.
And what about EEStor? EEStor has successfully delivered on every milestone to date. The company is confident in EEStor’s stated commitment to deliver "the holy grail" in 2008.
ZENN Motor Company evolved out of an idea, a passionate reaction to the irrational situation that many of us find ourselves in everyday – battling the daily commute and poisoning the planet as we do so. It is now a growing company poised to take advantage of the massive wave of green awareness and eco-activism. The ZENN car offers consumers a guilt-free driving experience. Drivers reap the benefit of helping to dramatically reduce air pollution while saving money on fuel. The ecological imperative that motivated Ian and the vision he initiated – creating a safe, non-polluting mode of travel – is now shared by millions.
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