Investigating an Energy Proposal: A Tech Scout's Account
Date: Wednesday, October 01, 2003 @ 07:49:13 GMT
Topic: Investors

Not all venture capitalists are members of secret societies, who fly around in black helicopters and try to hoodwink energy researchers.

The following is an excerpt from an article posted on the website The writer, Glen Fishbine, a partner in a scouting firm for new ventures, gives his account of investigating a revolutionary energy proposal. The article gives insights into what energy researchers can expect from the other side of the desk.

Fishbine writes:
---Sometimes even we get drawn into deals that no righteous mortal should ever endure. With our collective century of technology expertise, when someone walks up with a plan to revolutionize the energy production of the world for a mere half million investment, well, our 5 minute review can sometimes turn into months. One deal comes to mindů

My partner Bill, called me one day and said, "you've got to look at this! It's a company that seems to have found a low cost way to produce energy!" Visions of Pons & Fleishman danced through my head, the former kings of the cold fusion bubble, long since desiccated and barely a stain on the mantel of energy research. "Do they use a rare earth called Thallium?" I asked remembering the key component of the 1989 claim for cold fusion. "What's Thallium?" Bill asked. Sadly, I remembered that I'm the technology lead on the team, and it's my job to separate fact from fiction. "Send me the plan," I sighed.

In this day of the Internet, it took only thirty minutes before I found myself staring at an electronic copy of a business plan, some rather impressive resumes from a renowned national lab, and an mpeg video that knocked my socks off. There on the video was a clean-shaven guy in a suit, articulately guiding a tour of this machine -- one side hooked to a battery showing a current drain of 5 amps and on the other, a gallopita gallopita machine calmly showing a current output of 6 amps. Put in 5 amps, get out 6, sounds like energy production coming from what could be best described as a cauldron of plasma and bangs. I had recently had the unfortunate experience of plowing through a recent journal article discussing how a university professor had measured neutrons emanating from a small bath of bubbles using sound, cavitation, and an established freak of nature called sono-luminescence. Thus, I was primed to believe that cold fusion, in some form, wasn't a violation of the laws of nature. Granted the possibility, I could see how Bill was primed to offer this deal to Exxon for a paltry hundred million, visions of commission checks dancing like sugarplums. I picked up the phone and called the entrepreneur to see what he had.

An hour later, this is what I was sure of. The entrepreneur was technically competent, lacked the credentials to make this an easy feast for a king, didn't know why he had surplus energy coming out of his cauldron, yet was convinced he was on to something. He had also mentioned use of trace elements of Thallium in the mix, which had me wondering whether or not I was dealing with cold fusion. Sometimes, being the technical genius of a small firm simply means you know whom to call when you're stumped by something that's far a field from your academic training. Five minutes later, I was discussing this deal with a physicist at a different national lab. He listened to the story, and between his various guffaws and snorts, he said, "well, it's possible, but if it's real, they're probably generating a ton of neutrons, so you'd better get them to find out if there's any radiation coming from the device, and if there is, they'd better buy some lead underwear before they start glowing in the dark." Such are the inputs from the technology experts of due diligence.

Over the next few weeks, Bill worked with the company to prepare them for the royal audience, teaching protocol, manners, and coaching the financials, while I dug deep into the literature and experts, knowing that in the royal audience, someone would ask, "how does it work?" and the answer "no one knows," would present us with a royal eviction notice. At last, I came across a physicist who had a clue. He said, "There are two possibilities here. First, they have an efficient means of creating thermonuclear plasma, in which case it's worth billions of dollars. Second, their measuring system is whacked, in which case it's useless." Ah ha, the measuring system -- key to the device's capabilities is a meter saying 6 amps come out from 5 amps in. So off I went to the measurement community to see what manner of disasters could reside within the cold empirical world of current measurement devices. My new physicist in a long chain of physicists on this project made a simple observation, "the cauldron goes bang bang bang, right?" I nodded. "Well, that means they're generating a pulsed direct current, which means, rather than using a current meter, we need to see the current measurements every millisecond or so. It could be that the meter is measuring the peaks of the current, rather than the average."

Thus, back to the entrepreneur I went, circuit diagram in hand, and said, "replace your current meter on the output side with this circuit and let's see what you get." Two days later came the report, instead of 120% energy efficiency (billion dollar market), proper measurement showed 20% energy efficiency (we just wasted a month).

Bill canceled the audience with the kings, and I folded my physics hat back onto the bookshelf of the various hats that I wear. The entrepreneur naturally threatened us with all kinds of lawsuits for the inevitable competitive business that he knew we were forming to exploit his invention. I had a last call with him where I said, "if you ever find us coming to market with your device, I promise, we will offer no defense in the litigation."

Thus back I went to my task of knowing a little bit about everything, trying to keep one step ahead of the state of the art in all things, waiting for the phone to ring, which it always does, with Bill at the other end saying, "I've got this interesting deal in maritime leasing. What do we know about the R.O.I. of the Mediterranean cargo trade and the financing terms available for profitable shipping companies?"

"Not much," I said, "but we will."---

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