10 Things to Know About Bloom Energy

Eight years and close to $400 million later, ultra-stealthy fuel cell maker Bloom Energy is finally ready to officially launch and ditch its “stealth-mode” status. The company started its first ever media blitz on Sunday with a video on 60 Minutes, an article in Fortune, and soon to be followed by the unveiling media event on Wednesday.

But while the public is just starting to hear the Bloom Energy name, greentech watchers have been scrambling for every little bit of information about Bloom Energy for years. Founder K.R. Sridhar told Fortune that the company is going public now because its Fortune 500 customers want to be able to brag about it as a green move. Here’s 10 things that you should know about Bloom Energy:

1). It’s doing something that many are tackling: While Bloom Energy is now positioning itself as revolutionary — that will replace the power grid no less — fuel cells have been under development by endless amounts of companies for decades. Any consumer electronics company from Samsung to Sharp, or auto maker, from Hyundai to Toyota, has researchers developing fuel cell technology. Fuel cell patents have consistently remained at the top of the list of out of greentech patents filed every year according to Clean Energy Patent Growth Index (CEPGI). The problem is that fuel cells have remained too expensive. We’ll see if Bloom can get those costs down.

2). It’s far from a residential play: Bloom’s first customers are big tech companies like eBay and Google that have been using the large Bloom Boxes, which cost between $700,000 to $800,000, to power campuses and data centers. But Sridhar tells 60 Minutes that in 5 to 10 years the company hopes to deliver a smaller Bloom box for under $3,000 for the residential market. Both that price tag and that time frame seem waaay too optimistic — I’d say at least double both estimates for a more realistic plan.

3). Kleiner’s Big Bet: Bloom Energy was famed venture capital fund Kleiner Perkin’s first foray into greentech and Sridhar tells Fortune that he was “the evangelist who opened the company’s eyes to its huge potential.” Kleiner needs a successful company in greentech to justify its investments post-dot com — will Bloom be it?

4). Bloom Energy IPO?: Even when Bloom was still in stealth an IPO was being discussed. Kleiner partner John Doerr said at an event late last year that he’d wager Bloom will take “nine years to a successful public offering.” So, I guess that means one more year to go?

5). Bloom Financials: While Doerr said late last year that Bloom now has “substantial revenues and orders,” Fortune reports that according to its VC sources Bloom lost $85 million in 2008. Well, profits haven’t stopped other greentech firms from eying IPOs (Tesla). Bloom has reportedly raised close to $400 million in funding.

6). In With Google: Bloom’s first customer was Google, and the search engine giant is reportedly using 4 Bloom Boxes to power a datacenter. It’s easy to see why Google would be eager to test out the technology: Google has been very interested in the energy industry (just recently it was approved to buy and sell electricity) and has been aggressive on innovating on energy efficiency technology for its data centers to reduce costs (see GigaOM Pro Report: Green Data Center Design Strategies). Connections also help, too: Doerr and the Kleiner folks were early backers in Google.

7). Former Mars Mission Tech: Sridhar originally came up with the idea for the Bloom Box after developing a device for NASA that would be able to create oxygen on Mars. After NASA ditched their Mars mission, Sridhar had the idea to reverse the oxygen-creating Mars box and use oxygen as the input instead. Voila the Bloom Box. Side note: that is the best founding story I’ve ever heard.

8). Political Connections: Former Secretary of State Colin Powell joined Bloom Energy’s board of directors last year reports 60 Minutes. Doerr himself is a member of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. If Bloom is looking for loans or loan guarantees from the federal government, as well as government customers, Powell and Doerr will be very handy.

9). Cali Subsidies: It’s been an easier sell to the tech companies in California because 20 percent of the cost of a Bloom Box is subsidized by the state. Add that to a 30 percent federal tax break, and the price is cut way down.

10). Magic Box: 60 Minutes reports that the magic behind the Bloom Box starts with the company baking basic sand and cutting it into little squares that are turned into a ceramic, which are then coated with green and black “inks.” Using a special process Bloom creates these ceramic discs and stacks them together interspersed with metal plates of “a cheap metal alloy.” The bigger the stack the more power the Bloom Box will create.

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