Monday September 17, 2012 0 comments
Research-and-development company Czero builds prototypes for projects big and small
By Phil Lindeman
FORT COLLINS -- If the Fort Collins-based company Czero, Inc. is a fantasy workshop for green technology, think of Chief Executive Officer Guy Babbitt as the head toymaker.
On any given day, Babbitt and his small team of engineers juggle upwards of a dozen projects, using a mix of computer modeling and live testing to help clients hone new, potentially high-risk products.
Unlike many research-and-design firms, the Czero engineers handle every aspect of the process in-house, building fully-functioning prototypes straight from anyone's wildest (and sustainable) dreams -- biofuel engines, wireless emissions monitors, insanely efficient solar cells - to name a few.
"We are constantly working with some exciting new technology," says Babbitt, an auto industry veteran. "Our ideal situation is to come in as early as possible and follow a project as far as someone would like to take it. We really believe that time upfront leads to the best, most robust product in the end."
Over the past five years, Czero has carved a comfortable niche in Northern Colorado's sustainable energy market.
Along with co-founder and vice president of engineering Chris Turner, Babbitt offers the local manufacturing community a needed service, contracting with everyone from small-time entrepreneurs to Colorado State University's Engines and Energy Conversion Lab.
About two-thirds of the company's contracts are automotive - including the Michigan-based heavyweight BorgWarner - and the rest are split between other green energy tech like batteries, solar cells and biofuels.
Despite a number of new contracts with high-profile government outfits such as the National Renewable Energy Lab, Babbitt has long sought out thirsty entrepreneurs with little more than a sketch on a napkin.
"We really like working with start-ups and getting in with them as soon as possible," Babbitt says. "We have what they don't with designers and engineers. We act like the quarterback, calling in exactly what these companies need to save money. It's coordination, production - the whole thing."
As research-and-design mavens, Babbitt and the Czero crew don't produce anything on a large scale, but they also don't shy away from constructing fully-functional models - say, a motor or even a testing lab.
Czero's focus is to perfect a product before major production takes place, saving the client time, money and resources - an oft-overlooked yet equally important bit of sustainability, Babbitt says.
"At the end of the day, the best and most economical solution is going to win," Babbitt says. "You can't go around shoving a square peg in a round hole. That just won't work in the long run."
From napkin to assembly line
Even when working for the Saturn Corporation early in his career, Babbitt had a penchant for sustainable energy. He tinkered with engines to reduce emissions and build better, more efficient machines - basically, finding the right peg for the right hole.
As a life-long environmentalist, an all-in-one service like Czero was a natural extension of what he was doing working for a corporation.
"We need to update how we look at energy," Babbitt says. "We haven't been careful with efficiency and environmental impact. Reduction is a huge focus, and that's regardless of your energy source."
This philosophy attracts new clients of every size. A recent addition to the Czero workload is Logimesh, a new member of Rocky Mountain Innosphere. Founded by mechanical engineer Bill Gillette, Logimesh is a wireless monitor for the gas-and-oil industries.
Gillette's breakthrough was to build a sensor that not only let flesh-and-blood responders know an oil well compressor is dead, but can also process data with an affordable, self-sustaining microchip to sense when one is about to blow.
Gillette claims preventing a downed compressor could potentially save hundreds of thousands of dollars. In essence, Logimesh is like a hi-tech fire alarm that could predict fires - to a certain extent.
Gillette learned of Czero through RMI and brought to Babbitt little more than a computer rendering, "sort of 'eye candy' to communicate the general concept of our invention," Gillette says.
Within a month or two, Czero turned the model into a working sensor, complete with more than 100 components. The project leader even found a company to supply electronics, one of the few things Czero doesn't often do in-house.
"We literally went from concept to physical models in a matter of a few weeks," says Gillette, who ran a similar design firm in New York for 10 years and was immediately impressed with Czero's rapid turnaround.
The Logimesh concept had all the pieces Babbitt looks for in a promising project, and Czero offered the services Gillette couldn't otherwise afford as a first-time entrepreneur.
It was the sort of collaboration that makes for a promotional case study.
Beyond local startups like Logimesh, Czero's past work with BorgWarner and the CSU Engines and Energy Conversion Lab has attracted plenty of attention. Babbitt claims revenue will double this year over last and the company's reputation is growing.
Yet high-risk projects, such as collaborating with the federal Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy to develop a natural gas vehicle that can be filled at home, are the "feather-in-the-cap" sort he hopes will boost Czero's reputation even more.
"Those are the type of problems we love working on," Babbitt says. "We don't like looking at projects that are nearly finished. We like to have something challenging come our way and make us say, 'Huh, how can we make this a reality?'"