Horizon wants to power every home with fuel cells
March 29, 2012 by Julian Abraham CHUA
We just love hearing stories of regional startups that’ve made it big internationally. Southeast Asian companies like Charles & Keith, Banyan Tree Holdings and 77th Street have held the limelight in recent years and are still going strong.
Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies, a Singapore company dealing with ultra-light and low-cost energy storage solutions, is right up there with the best of them.
Making hydrogen fuel cells, which are essentially long lasting power generators that generate electricity from gas, has been a global challenge for decades now and this was where Horizon decided to step in and make fuel cell their main focus.
That was in 2004. Eight years on, they are now the world’s largest producers of micro-fuel cells in consumer and industrial applications. It has successfully brought a wide range of products out into the market, with sales spanning 65 countries in total.
We spoke to Taras Wankewycz, Executive Director and one of the co-founders of this green technology company, on its success formula and what it takes to be on top of their game.
SGE: Tell us more about your company.
Taras: The company was started in 2003 in Singapore and under it we created several subsidiary start-ups that are market or application-focused, including another Singaporean-based company called Horizon Energy Systems (HES), which is focused on ultra-light aerospace and military applications technology.
SGE: What gives your products that competitive edge over competitors?
Taras: We have two different value propositions over incumbent technologies (batteries or combustion engines), depending on which fuel or energy storage technologies we apply to our fuel cells.
The first value proposition offers much lighter-weight energy than the best possible batteries, as such we’re able to offer up to three to four times more energy for the same weight – an immediate impact in any aerospace application where batteries are used today.
For the second value proposition, we offer energy stored at a much lower cost as compared to batteries, or in some cases, even diesel. This is relevant especially in larger off-grid remote locations where choices for power supply are limited.
Our competitors are typically limited to a single technology or market, which in turn limits their ability to grow, and increases their business risk substantially. Having investigated the sector as corporate venture investors in the past, we were able to take a completely global and differentiated approach to the space…so we ended up choosing a very unique and diversified development path.
SGE: Was it a strategic decision to start the company in Singapore?
Taras: I am not sure it was when we did that, but it turned out to be strategic. Looking back, Singapore is a safe-haven for western high-tech investors looking at Asian deals, has strict accounting practices, and good shareholder protection. Singapore is also positioned as a window to the world, when it comes to demonstration of new technologies. The Economic Development Board (EDB) invited us to establish our base in Singapore at an early stage – and so we did.
SGE: What major obstacles did you guys face and how were they overcome?
Taras: We faced countless obstacles in all areas – ranging from technology development, to people, as well as financing – so on and so forth. We had to learn quite a few things during our journey.
Our main obstacle was fundamental – the mainstream commercialization of fuel cells. In our domain, fuel cells are conventionally very expensive and also they need hydrogen to function, so then the question is where can clients get hydrogen? Since fuel cells consume more fuel (hydrogen) as power scaling go up, fuel becomes a major obstacle to making fuel cells a reality.
We minimized our problems by reducing the power scales to a bare minimum and start in a power-scale segment that can rely on packaged hydrogen, cartridge-based products or solutions where hydrogen can be produced by clients “on the spot”.
Furthermore, we were able to reduce fuel cell costs dramatically, which has been our most important differentiation factor from other competitors.
SGE: What are your company’s highlights so far?
Taras: We had a breakthrough in 2006, landing Time Magazine Best Invention for one of our first products — a miniature real-working hydrogen fuel cell car and refuelling station. We became famous for that product, and most people still associate us to it till this day.
We expanded internationally into China with three manufacturing locations and R&D, and into the US last year. We started an Aerospace/Defense division in Singapore and powered a couple of new record-setting electric flights for unmanned platforms in the US, together with a NASA-backed team – and in the German Aerospace Center (DLR).
We have since begun customization of fuel cells as long duration electric power solutions for UAVs in several countries, all of which originate from Singapore. We have also developed an incredible desktop hydrogen station for small hydrogen cartridges, which can be used to recharge cellphone or smartphone batteries. The new device was covered in MIT’s Technology Review, Eco-Solutions on CNN, and Popular Science, and many more.
SGE: Has achieving market leadership changed anything in the company?
Taras: Internally, we still function in small entrepreneurial teams. The achievement has attracted many eager entrepreneurs to join our quest. But instead of becoming competitors, we cooperate and exploit each others’ strengths. This is a new networked and cooperative business approach, which is accelerating growth for all involved.
SGE: How has your company’s achievements been recognised by Singapore and its government?
Taras: It’s difficult to keep up with Horizon’s progress, which is daily, and understand all the different products developed, or the markets we are in – and our global presence isn’t very visible here in Singapore. We were however recently recognized by EDB as being members of Singapore’s “creative class” of companies, which was very honouring to us.
We hope we can be an example of a “global champion” in Singapore and be an inspiration to everyone regardless of which industry they might be in. And we also want to make Singapore proud!
SGE: Having attained much success as market leaders, what’s next? New goals and benchmarks?
Taras: We have a vision to put a private zero carbon hydrogen supply solution possibly in every home. It would start with a connection to solar roofs, but in the future – we plan to remove the need for external power supply and use organic waste as a feedstock. Technology is evolving quickly, and there are signs that a potential integration of biotech such as the processing of organic waste to hydrogen, can provide free fuel that can be used to power all kinds of devices, including lawnmowers, cars, back-up generators and more. It’s a matter of time and evolution.
SGE: What advice can you give to those who wish to venture into green technology?
Taras: Focus on solving a problem that has economical and performance advantages over the status quo. This is not easy to do with what could typically be more expensive new technologies. “Greening” can be a marketing bonus, which could come and go depending on the direction of the wind. At the end of the day, the basics still apply.
Find out more about SGE’s research arm: SGE Insights, providing customized in-depth research reports to help you navigate the business of technology in Asia.
About The Author
Julian Abraham CHUA -
Julian Abraham Chua is an NYP graduate from School of Business Management (SBM). His passion for writing was ignited when he completed an overseas UK writing course and started contributing to the portal while he was still a student on the campus. He has since written for various magazines and publications including Straits Times, SG Entrepreneurs, Spin Asia, TimeOut Singapore, NTUC lifestyle, Campus magazine and SPCA newsletter. Besides writing, he cooks, plays soccer, cycles and plays keyboard in a metal band.Read other posts by Julian Abraham CHUA