How did she do it? A Q&A with Rita Hansen, Chief Executive Officer & Co-Founder of Onboard Dynamics
By Kathie Priebe and Cristina Almeida, Managing Directors of Golden SeedsOctober 3, 2019
It’s impossible to overlook Rita Hansen’s passion for changing the transportation and energy industries by using compressed natural gas as a transportation fuel. As the chief executive officer and co-founder of Onboard Dynamics, a company that is working to lower fuel costs and carbon emissions, she and her team are working to remove infrastructure barriers and get more natural gas-powered vehicles on the roads. Their technology can also be used to address critical issues for the natural gas industry, including pipeline maintenance and capture of stranded/flared gas and renewable natural gas.
Golden Seeds’ Kathie Priebe and Cristina Almeida sat down with Rita to discuss the company’s road to success and how they provide their customers with an affordable, easy-to-deploy alternative transportation fuel.
KP and CA: Tell us about the origins of your company.
RH: In 2012, Dr. Chris Hagen, one of my co-founders, had recently joined the engineering group at Oregon State University, when he received a seedling award from the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) within the Department of Energy (DOE). The award money was dedicated to addressing the obstacles and barriers associated with adopting natural gas as a transportation fuel.
To use natural gas as a transportation fuel, you have to achieve the same energy density as gasoline or diesel liquid fuel, and the way to do that is to compress the gas. Chris had the idea to integrate the compression function onboard the vehicle. ARPAE said this was great, but if it works, will it matter? They wanted to know what the commercialization plan would be, which is when I was introduced to Chris, and, along with Jeff Witwer, Ph.D, PE., the three of us worked together on our commercialization plan.
In October 2013, we incorporated and established Onboard Dynamics. In September 2014, we received a $3.6M follow-on award from Chris’ seedling award and that is what truly launched us.
KP and CA: What market need are you solving, and how is your approach different from the way others have addressed this need?
RH: We are solving the lack of refueling infrastructure that affects medium-to heavy-duty trucks, transit buses, school buses and waste haulers by using compressed and renewable natural gas (RNG). RNG is an ultra-clean and ultra low-carbon gas alternative. As a transportation fuel, it’s the cleanest alternative fuel available today, according to the California Air Resources Board.
Our GoFlo mobile compressor provides fleet operators with an easy, affordable solution for compressing low-pressure natural gas into usable fuel. It’s easy to install and deploy and, if you have access to natural gas, then our GoFlo unit provides a refueling solution. We don’t rely on electricity, which is another competitive advantage for us.
Most of our competitors are electric-driven compressors. But what do you do when the electric grid goes down? When that happens, it’s likely the natural gas grid has not gone down, which is a huge, unique value proposition for us.
KP and CA: What challenges have you encountered along the way? How have you overcome them?
RH: It is a challenge to find capital for a hardware energy. We are clean technology to an extent, but also a hardware, so we can’t always rely on the funds available for clean technology. Fortunately, we have managed to find the right partners by demonstrating our perseverance, tenacity and grit.
KP and CA: What’s coming up next for your company?
RH: We deployed our systems throughout the summer so we’re looking forward to the resulting media coverage from those deployments. We’re also looking forward to closing some big deals in the fourth quarter.
Additionally, we’re doing work with Natural Resources Canada. We received an award to help us with the commercialization of our technology in the Canadian marketplace. We’re really excited about this project.
KP and CA: What advice do you have for early-stage founders?
RH: “Team” and “company culture” are easy words to say but hard to define and implement. When you start with a small team, as is always the case, every new hire is a critically important addition. Hopefully every new person is a success, but if not, it’s important to recognize it and own that mistake. Otherwise, it can have a negative impact on everyone in the company. This will also play into your company culture. It takes a lot of courage but will pay off.
In regard to raising money, be sure to leverage your network. Also, don’t overlook the power of angel networks. We have pitched our company so many times throughout the last 18 months and truly understand how each angel group works, their process and timing.
KP and CA: Tell us about your experience with Golden Seeds. How has the Golden Seeds network been helpful to you?
RH: I was first introduced to Golden Seeds during the Angel Capital Association Summit in 2018 and since then, my experience with Golden Seeds has been remarkable. The network is awesome. They continue to open doors and have helped us raise over $1M of angel money, which is quite amazing.
For more wisdom like this from other amazing female leaders, follow Golden Seeds on Twitter.