Globe 100 Innovators | Energy and Manufacturing

The revolution on batteries

David Vieau of A123 Systems is top innovator in energy and manufacturing

David Vieau David Vieau (Illustration by Joel Kimmel for The Boston Globe)
May 22, 2011

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1. David Vieau, chief executive, A123 Systems Inc. Supplying lithium-ion batteries for a British company’s racing motorcycles is a flashy way to go green. And to Dave Vieau, chief executive of A123 Systems Inc. in Waltham, it’s a step into the future.

A123 makes the kind of batteries that will power a new generation of electric vehicles. “People can see the seeds of change as they take place now,’’ Vieau said, referring to the growing demand for electric-powered cars for the American market. “It’s hard to appreciate a revolution when it’s occurring, but that’s exactly what’s happening. And A123 is a player in that paradigm.’’

Globe 100 judges said Vieau, 61, played a crucial role in making A123 a leader in the lithium-ion battery market. Since he took the helm of the company in 2002, it has received nearly $700 million in private and government financing. Last year, it opened a factory in Michigan, where it can be near the center of the domestic auto industry. But the company also received a $5 million loan from the state of Massachusetts last year in return for a promise to add 250 jobs here by 2014.

A partnership with the British motorcycle company Mavizen is a great way to further promote electric batteries for the general public, and ride the trend toward electric cars even further, Vieau said: “It’s the trickle-down theory, where electric batteries will work their way into ordinary vehicles.’’

– John Dyer

2. Jim Gordon, president, Energy Management Inc., developer of Cape Wind In the decade since Jim Gordon proposed building the nation's first offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound, the 130-turbine project has helped focus Massachusetts — and the nation — on cleaner energy.

While some disagree with the location and cost of the project, slated to start construction this fall, there is little argument Gordon has helped cement Massachusetts's reputation as one of the nation's most progressively green states — even helping to lure related wind industries here. His proposal also forced the development of federal regulations for the nascent industry. Globe 100 judges cited Gordon for his dogged persistence in getting the project ready for construction "in spite of ferocious opposition of some of the most powerful interests in the country."

As Gordon begins to examine other offshore wind energy projects along the Eastern Seaboard, he said what kept him going was the "encouragement and support of the overwhelming majority of people in Massachusetts, and the leading environmental, labor, and health organizations who are concerned about the negative costs and impacts of nuclear and fossil fuel-generated electricity."

Gordon, who once built natural gas plants in New England, said, "Thirty-five years in the energy business has taught me that this is a complex, challenging, but rewarding industry. If you and your team believe passionately that your project can make a positive difference, then pursue it with all your heart."

– Beth Daley

3. Yet-Ming Chiang, Professor and entrepreneur, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Create new materials, and you enable both new technologies and new companies, said Yet-Ming Chiang, 53.

He has proven it. The MIT professor of materials science has already cofounded four Massachusetts companies based on his research.

"Technologies are often limited by the materials that make up devices and systems," Chiang said. "When you change the materials, you find innovation and opportunity."

In 1987, Chiang cofounded American Superconductor Corp. to make high-temperature, superconducting wire for energy and power applications. His research into nanoscale, phosphate cathode material became the basis for the technology behind battery company A123 Systems Inc. which is powering some of the most promising electric and hybrid cars. Another company he cofounded, SpringLeaf Therapeutics, is using advanced battery technology to improve wearable drug delivery. And last year, Chiang cofounded 24M Technologies, a spinoff of A123 focused on producing large battery systems for utilities.

Chiang admits he has "a recipe" that works in a tech hub like Massachusetts.

"I try to find partners at MIT who are experts in areas where I am not, and leading entrepreneurs to work with on the business side," he said. "Then we interact with the venture community, and hire the best young business and technical talents. I take maximum advantage of our ecosystem."

– D.C. Denison

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