Editor's note: In this interview with independent reporter Zong Xing, Jim Poss, president and CEO of Seahorse Power Company, talks about the BigBelly, a clever invention of a solar-powered trash compaction system.
(R: Reporter; P: Jim Poss)
R: Let me delve a little bit into your early years. I know your ecological interest began in high school. Was there any particular influence on what you are doing now, say Physics or Chemistry? And while at Duke, you had a ¡°full-fledged dedication¡± to the subject. How was that like?
P: As a child, I visited the Boston Museum of Science a lot. My parents enrolled me in a Saturday science class there and I loved it. I had an influential mentor ¨C geology teacher in high school. Then in college, I tried environmental studies and when I took a few classes and realized the magnitude of the problem we have to solve, I got very committed.
R: After your graduation, you have worked for different energy companies, like Solectria Corporation and Spire Corporation. What have you learned from these experiences? How do you think these experiences benefit you?
P: I learned how all the components work from a realistic perspective, meaning: not only how a motor/battery/gearbox/solar panel/auxiliary electronics works, but how much they cost, where to get them, what kinds are appropriate, etc. I also learned how a small manufacturing company works, or how it should work.
R: Generally speaking, what is ¡°clean-energy¡±? What is your conception of ¡°clean-energy¡±? What is the uniqueness of your idea?
P: Clean energy is non-polluting, or at least, less polluting. A clean technology might be made with clean inputs like wind power, or it may reduce pollution elsewhere. My idea is clean because it enables trash collectors to collect less often, which means they drive garbage trucks less often. This reduces pollution because garbage trucks are very fuel consuming. They get only 2.8 mpg. They burn 1 billion gallons of diesel fuel annually in the US alone.
R: How would you tell a layperson who knows nothing about BigBelly how you initiated this idea? What turns you on about it and what is the biggest challenge that BigBelly is facing?
P: I say, this idea is simple: we produce a trash compactor. Everyone knows that when you compact trash, you can pick it up less often. But with my trash compactor, you can compact anywhere, because it is solar. So that means all the garbage cans out there can be trash compactors. And that allows collection to happen less frequently anywhere, which means big time and fuel savings. The biggest challenge is to get collectors who have established methods to change them for efficiency. Sometimes changing the status quo is the hardest thing.
R: I am sure every entrepreneur will encounter numerous difficulties in the startup stage of their company. Have you experienced difficulty and even failure? How do you convince people about your ideas so that they can make investment or accept your product?
P: We have made mistakes, maybe I would call them small failures, but the idea is solid. It makes sense. We simply increase the efficiency of a very expensive process. This means we save money, thus people will buy our products and any smart investor will invest. We have raised over US$4m so far.
R: Fortune magazine published a series of teamwork stories not long ago. As we know, teamwork is essential for the success of a new company. My question is, how do you choose a team, manage it and motivate people? What is your philosophy of leading?
P: I chose a team in the beginning based on who wanted to help. Later, you can get more picky, so you can get the ideal people to help. We are motivated in part because we care about the environment, and in part because we know this can be financially successful. My philosophy of leading is to keep people excited about coming to work. I ask them what is wrong, what can be better, how can I help, what do they need ¡ I hear them and I try to give them what they need to do their job well and like it.
R: What is your vision for the energy industry and the future of renewable energy?
P: Fifteen years ago, I decided to get into this industry because I thought it was critical and that it would unquestionably grow. Now I believe this only more powerfully. Energy WILL become greener and more renewable. Oil prices and the cost of pollution will only rise, making everything else more competitive. I think clean technologies have a very bright future. I only hope that they take hold fast, before the world sees too much misery from draughts, floods, disease, fire and hurricanes that arise from our pollution.
R: Does BigBelly have any ambition in the Chinese market? What do you think is the main challenge? I know your company is already embarking on the Australian market.
P: We do have ambitions to go to China. We would like any introduction to an appropriate player there who could manufacture and distribute there. We also seek a manufacturing partner from China for much of our components. The main challenge will be to get our product designs completed, tested and ¡°design-stable¡± before going to China. Once that is done, there will be a forecasting challenge -- I have to be able to forecast demand many months into the future because lead time will be longer if we source from China. This challenge is not insurmountable by any means, but it will take some work.
More about Jim Poss:
Jim brings over eight years of experience in renewable energy technology manufacturing and product development. In 1994, he developed his first clean energy concept, a 1/2 KW ocean-wave powered generator, funded by the Pew Foundation and tested at the Beaufort Marine Lab at Duke University. He continued his pursuit of clean energy technology at Solectria Corporation, providing drive systems for electric, hybrid-electric, solar-electric and fuel cell vehicles. Subsequently, at Spire Corporation, a 30-year publicly traded solar energy company, Jim worked with top management to develop business plans and performance reports for Spire Solar Chicago and the overall Spire Solar division. He brings highly-relevant experience to the Company's current endeavors, and a history of innovative product development experience that will help carry the mission forward.
Jim holds BA degrees in Environmental Science/Policy and Geology from Duke University, and an MBA from Babson College.
(Zong Xing is a PhD student at Duke University and former president of the university's Chinese Students and Scholars Association.)