Oorja's CEO Talks About The Future of Fuel Cells

We’ve been hearing about stealthy fuel-cell startup Oorja Protonics, since word got out in mid-2006 that the company was one of Sequoia’s first cleantech investments. Well, after recently surveying Sequoia’s potential killer cleantech batting average, and chatting with Sequoia partner Pierre Lamond, we thought we’d take a closer look at the Fremont, Calif.-based startup, which is making methanol-based fuel cells.

Oorja Protonic’s CEO Sanjiv Malhotra tells us that the company’s methanol fuel cells have a power range of .5 kilowatts to 5 kilowatts, and that initially, the company will target the battery market. Malhotra calls that power range the “sweet spot,” and says that compared to methanol fuel cells currently under development for consumer electronics, Oorja’s fuel cells will be “20 to 100 times more powerful.”

The company’s key technology is making the fuel cell that is powerful, but in a more compact system. So basically a very high-power density. While Malhotra says the company isn’t targeting vehicle batteries, an interesting application in that space could be for “material handling” for something like a forklift.

A major hitch for fuel cell technology has been that it seems perpetually a couple years away. Companies like MTI are developing methanol-based fuel cells for consumer electronics, and working with manufacturers like Samsung, but the company says the earliest their product will be out is 2009.

In contrast, Malhotra says Oorja is already selling its fuel cells to customers and working with OEMs (though he won’t name names). As we noted, Sequoia’s cleantech strategy is to invest in companies that already have a product ready. Malhotra says 2008 is the year that Oorja will make the shift from initial customers to mass commercialization.

It won’t be that easy to get people to buy fuel cells. They have had a hard time becoming mainstream because they rely on a supply of hydrogen, which can be difficult to handle and hard to develop an infrastructure around. The technology has also been prohibitively expensive. Malhotra thinks that if these two problems are addressed, it could be the tipping point for fuel cells, and he says cryptically that “Oorja will provide the complete solution.”

Malhotra, who has spent more than a decade researching fuel cells, founded the company in April 2005. The company has now raised around $21 million, led by Sequoia and DAG Ventures.

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